Friday, September 06, 2013

`Be With Me, Words, a Little Longer'

Four years ago, soon after the death of John Updike, I visited our public library and noted the reader-battered state of his books on the shelves. An old friend and former newspaper colleague, Jim McGrath, wrote to say almost gleefully that I was still a newspaper man after all, reporting, as A.J. Liebling famously put it, with my feet. I hadn’t thought about it that way but Jim was right. Journalism, at least our fast-fading version of it, taught us to trust only our senses and take no one’s word for anything. Now Jim has died at age fifty-six of an apparent heart attack, on his beloved Cape Cod, and I won’t be getting any more tart, gossipy emails. Another former colleague at the Times-Union wrote to me: “You know how special and brilliant and demanding Jim was and the stories and reminiscences are just starting to flow. He was one of the last of the old-school newspapermen around here.” 

I always thought Jim bore an uncanny resemblance to Paul Verlaine, but beefier and less crazy. He cultivated a look of dime-store dishabille. His facial hair looked rented and barely pasted in place. He stammered, especially when arguing, which was often. He loved baseball and politics, and judged the latter a less interesting variation on the former. He once ordered me to read a biography of James Michael Curley, the one-time mayor of Boston. Jim had an inordinate admiration for people who read a lot of books. After his death, colleagues found in Jim's office copies of Timothy Crouse's The Boys on the Bus (1973) and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. His laugh was memorable, a full-bodied palsy accompanied by a subterranean Haw-haw!  I recognized Jim’s voice in one of his recent columns, the one devoted to the Whitey Bulger case. He refers to Boston as “a city still haunted by the Irish attraction for delusional sentiment.” Of Whitey’s disgraced brother Billy, Jim writes: “Enough, already, of Seneca. Enough of the self-serving and self-deluding classicist act.” In the same column Jim uses the word “noble” without smirking. 

Jim loved his work. He loved the immediacy of journalism, the daily opportunity it offered to turn the foolishness of men and women into artfully arranged words, though he was no aesthete and harbored no literary pretensions. His style was colorful, punchy, thoughtful and all business, even when he was joking. As John Updike was dying of cancer, he polished what would become the journal-like title poem in his posthumously published Endpoint and Other Poems (2009). In the section titled “Spirit of ’76,” Updike might have been ghost-writing a prayer for Jim: 

“Be with me, words, a little longer; you
have given me my quitclaim in the sun,
sealed shut my adolescent wounds, made light
of grownup troubles, turned to my advantage
what in most lives would be pure deficit,
and formed, of those I loved, more solid ghosts.”


Gary said...

That Updike quote has been a favorite of mine, too.

Michael Huber said...

Thanks, Patrick, for your words. I'll miss McGrath's presence in this newsroom. I don't believe he had a clue how respected and well-regarded he was. Mike Huber, Albany, NY