The thing that surprised me the most about Anna Nicole Smith's death earlier this year was not the fact that she died, but rather, the furious mass of conversation that occurred in the wake of her passing. People who wouldn't have been anywhere near a television that was playing her famously awful reality show were suddenly engaged in the serious discussion of the where, when, why, and how of her death. I couldn't understand it, but I suppose I should have. Because as much as we like obsessing over death, talking about it, thinking about it, and writing about it, there's almost nothing about death we like fixating on more than the passing of the rich and famous. That should have made the whole thing obvious to me at the start. Somehow, it took me a while to sort through my own ambivalence on Smith's fatal drug overuse and remind myself that this was an institution as old as celebrity itself. We might spend half our free time stalking the daily lives of our personal favorites, but it's always their death, no matter trivial, that brings us together as a culture and proves better than almost anything else our obsession with details and specifics.
I should have understood this, but I didn't.
Author Michael Largo, however, is one of the people who do understand this. Better than most, he seems to have a very strong insight into our need to analyze and exhaust every possible facet of death. He's already written an encyclopedia on the countless ways a person can die, Final Exits, and he's been collecting information on the subject for well over a decade.
It makes sense that his next book, The Portable Obituary, would deal with the various means of passing for a myriad of rich and famous people, from movie stars to inventors to lottery winners who died under less than wealthy circumstances. His progression from death in general to death in the world of celebrity pretty much mirrors our own. Because as much as we may study and obsess over the death of a friend, obscure family member, or even that creepy neighbor who lived down the street, it's the legends and heroes of our time and other eras that control our death curiosity the most.
Largo understands this well, which is why I can't imagine his book failing to appeal to just about anybody.
Exhaustively researched, with information from literally hundreds of sources, The Portable Obituary does not seek to be the one and final authority on the specific deaths of such names as Marilyn Monroe, Daniel Boone, or Nikola Tesla. I think its purpose lies more in becoming an invaluable and definitive sourcebook of information and reference that brings a large majority of these deaths into one place. To that end, it succeeds on every possible level.
The book is set up in an A-Z format, much like the author's previous nonfiction book, Final Exits, with listings running the gamut from actors to writers to politicians to historical figures to even casual obscurities like the small number of brave fools who have gone over the edge of Niagara Falls in a barrel. It's all here, and it's all treated with a writing style that comes across as a wonderful blend of gallows humor that maintains respect (where warranted) for the subject itself and straightforward obituary writing. I have to admit that I'm sadly ignorant of Largo's three fiction works. But if they read anything like this, then I'm very obviously missing out. The writing is so casual, but scholarly, that it's almost like going to Wikipedia. Because what happens when you read one entry? You wind up clicking a link on that entry to get to another one, something you hadn't thought of before, and then that winds up taking you over to another thing you realize you'd like to know more about. And pretty soon, three hours have gone and the kitchen has long since burned down because you forgot to check the chicken you left on the stove. The Portable Obituary very much carries this same addictive quality. I've only had the book for two days myself, but I somehow managed to finish it in just a handful of hours. And that's not because it's an overly easy read or anything. It's just that it's that much fun to read one entry and let that take you into the next one, and the next one, and then the one after that. And so on.
The fact that Largo includes such a diverse cast, including a few entries that I'm pretty sure you're not going to be familiar with (The Wallenda Family, anyone?), makes it all the more compelling. It was a smart move to keep a varied list, and the book is made stronger by getting the broad scope that it's obviously looking for. Another good idea, though it occasionally makes looking for a specific name a little bothersome, was to have small sections under a particularly significant listing. For example, under the listing for Liberace, a small block was then dedicated to the other notable musicians who have died of AIDS over the years. And naturally, there's a paragraph immediately following John Wayne's death on the subject of the shocking number of people who died of cancer-related illnesses as a result of exposure to radioactive materials while filming Wayne's The Conqueror. Though I should mention again that some people might find this a little annoying in the way of trying to look up a name, it's still an extremely effective means of furthering the whole point of this book. There's a very good chance that you're going to be surprised at just how many multi-million dollar lottery winners wound up losing everything and committing suicide.
The other thing that sets this book apart from anything even close to this subject is its lack of sensationalism. Most books on this kind of thing are quick to write in a manner more befitting to The National Enquirer than anything with serious literary intentions. Synonyms for words like "Mysterious" and "Shocking" are used and abused, and the end result is something you've seen a thousand times before: a dime-a-dozen piece of crap that deals in shock value and precious little else. With The Portable Obituary, the emphasis is still on entertainment, but there's definitely an element of serious respect for the topic that Largo brings with his writing. He doesn't deal in very much speculation or gossip. Nearly everything Largo presents to us comes out of his own relentless research. Judging from the source credits on the last few pages, it's obvious that he did a lot more work to put something good together than almost anyone before him could ever lay claim to. It makes for a fairly original read, one that people familiar with magazines like People might not be used to. It's kind of rare that something like this can be serious and entertaining at the same time. But Largo has an obvious knack for balancing the two, and that quality is going to shine through to you on every page.
Usually, in a book like this, there's always room for improvement. As detailed as any book meant for reference, there's usually one or two things that are lacking, in need of work for a possible future edition. The amazing thing about The Portable Obituary is how little there is to complain about. Largo was obviously looking to get everything right or damn close to it the first time around, and in my opinion, he actually succeeded in just about every possible way. Of course, reading through it, you might go looking for a name and not find it. The omission of pro wrestlers was particularly surprising to me. But that's really a very minor criticism, if you can even call it that. A handful of missing names doesn't really do much to hurt the countless individuals that are included. It might make you raise an eyebrow here and there, when you go looking for a name and can't find it, but that shouldn't do much, if anything, to dilute your enjoyment of the book.
And other than that, there's really not a whole lot of criticism I can think of for this invaluable book. In the end, it comes down to interest in the subject. A book like The Portable Obituary just wouldn't work if the author didn't happen to be a little obsessed (and I mean that in the most positive way possible) with the material to begin with. Michael Largo's passion for death is as clear as the information in this book and in Final Exits as well. One way to look at it as to see the book as akin to having a friend tell you about something that's really been on his mind lately, something he thinks you're going to be interested in. Largo obviously knows the human fascination with death and more specifically, with death and celebrity, but he doesn't make a big deal about it. He's not peddling canned disbelief or blood and guts headlines. He knows we're already there with him, and that finding and enjoying his latest book is just a matter of time.
The Portable Obituary is a one-of-a-kind deal. A rare treat that you're not going to find anywhere else. Proving that whatever our feelings might be on our own personal last supper, it's strangely comforting to know that somewhere out there, Elizabeth Taylor is probably going to die in her sleep. Just like your grandmother.