San Francisco Chronicle // Dying Words by K. Patrick Connor
My short review of this novel ran in the Chronicle on 11/12/12:
“Dying Words,” the charming third novel by K. Patrick Conner, takes us inside the fascinating and morbid world of the newspaper obituarist. Conner spent two decades as a reporter and editor at The Chronicle, including five years as the city editor, and he possesses a tremendous and nuanced understanding of the paper’s inner workings.
After a mild heart attack, Conner’s fictional reporter, Graydon Hubbell, assumes the responsibility of commemorating the lives of recently deceased San Franciscans.
He’s glad to be in the newsroom and considers the obituary “both a staple of daily journalism and an art form in its own right.” His job is made more challenging when at age 76 he gets diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia – blood cancer.
Instead of getting morose, Hubbell gets to work. Conner does a nice job of piling on the indignities while Hubbell tries to make some sense of his own long and proud career. He gets taken to task by the paper’s diversity committee and makes a terrible gaffe in an obit by confusing Horatio Alger and Alger Hiss.
To make matters worse, his front-page obituary of a leader of the Free Speech Movement turns out to be somewhat premature. On the other hand, he’s still quite the ladies’ man, and he starts to get cozy with his kooky Deadhead neighbor, Lydia, who gets many of the novel’s best lines.
The possibility of “high-dose chemotherapy” and the certainty of one’s own mortality are awful enough, but imagine the challenge of distilling the entire experience of your own life into a few succinct paragraphs. Would you change your behavior and live differently? It’s a terrific premise for a novel, and Conner’s gift for pathos makes “Dying Words” something like an obituary (also premature, we can hope) of the newspaper business itself.