OBITS AND PIECES: WAY TO GO, ART

An ancient Chinese curse allows the cursor to wish upon the cursee: May you live in interesting times. We of the 21st century are certainly living through an interesting event or two, but as we look at the history of our species, there was scarcely a moment when the times were not interesting.

The century most recently past was loaded with civil and uncivil strife, gigantic scientific strides, and the advent of Wal-Mart and large chain bookstores (all New York Times bestsellers thirty percent off). The 20th century, with the possible exception of the Eisenhower White House years, was an historian’s dream come true, and even those Ike days of whine and no, sirs saw the calling out of the National Guard in Little Rock.

It was the 18th century that had as a significant feature the notion of the Good Death, that precipitous leap into the terra incognita to be found after the individual life ends. A good deal of thought, time and effort were given over to crafting a fittingly modest final statement and dignified exit strategy. Compendia of last words were published, attracting eager readers in much the same way earlier works were published that set forth exemplary models of thank you letters, letters to the editors of various publications, letters to one’s parents in which one respectfully asked for more money, letters bashful young swains could copy when proposing marriage.

The Good Death was properly seen as the culmination of The Well-Lived Life, and this gave way to the modern avatar of Grace Under Pressure, which has traditionally been seen as the way to go. We all of us hope for a good exit, whether from boring parties, bad movies or life itself.

There is, still among us as I write these lines, a sterling example of Grace Under Pressure, the Good Death in Progress. To keep track of this amazing and soul-satisfying event, one has merely to attend one’s computer and log on to www. washingtonpost.com. From there, it is an easy click of the mouse to the section featuring the Post’s columnists. Then, click on Art Buchwald and track the magic.

Some weeks back, the sad news came that this cigar-smoking pixie with the owlish face and thick, horn-rimmed glasses, faced the amputation of a leg. As if to trump that tragic loss, Buchwald was told the next chapter was dialysis, and all that procedure involves.

Buchwald – who in appearance and tone has always reminded me of the classic comic strip “Barnaby,” in which the principal character, Barnaby, was attended by a cherubic fairy godfather, Mr. O’Malley – gave a magic wave of his cigar and said no. No dialysis.

You know what that means? The doctors asked.

Yes, one of America’s comedic treasures answered.

One of the things saying no to dialysis meant was checking in to a hospice, from which vantage point Buchwald has continued to write a sprightly series of columns discussing his condition and his prospects, and making us laugh in the face of his death.

The prognosis was for about two good weeks and then a sudden, painless lapse into decline. That was some 10 weeks ago and Buchwald continues to entertain guests, regale his friends and family, and take on the political foibles of his countrymen as he has been doing during the course of 30 books and a column that is syndicated in some 300 papers.

This is not Buchwald’s first brush with death, perhaps even more informing his decision to forego dialysis and to exit laughing. In 2002, at age 74, he suffered a stroke which kept him incapacitated for months. But with typical élan and determination, he fought back and largely recovered.

He is having a grand time writing about his experiences. One of his more recent columns was a review of is favorite death scenes from movies. In it, he showed a marked preference for the old Warner Brothers gangster film finales, but saved high praise for the remarkable ending of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Other of his recent columns show a rare opportunity to get to know a man who is enjoying life and himself right up to the end. “If you have to go,” he said in a TV interview, “the way you go is a big deal.” His way includes a menu of McDonald’s and the casseroles brought to him by his legion of friends. Like the mischievous Mr. O’Malley whom he in so many ways resembles, Art Buchwald is increasingly appreciative of the occasional Cuban cigar.

Given the topical nature of many of his columns, his books are more likely to have a hold on the national psyche and with so many of them to chose from, his publishers are probably even now preparing reprints and anthologies.

Art Buchwald reminds us through his work of the significant difference between the humorist and the comic. Each is of inestimable value, but while the latter is more physical and grounded in anger, the former is at heart a moralist, tuned to the foibles and pretensions of those who put on airs. The humorist is attracted to those who consider themselves the elect, whether they are politicians or clergy. While the comic goes for the pratfall and the one-liner, the humorist goes for the intensity and richness of character that inheres in drama.

While it is still possible, catch Art Buchwald as he faces down death, turning our common inevitability into one of the more remarkable win-win situations of our time.

Art Buchwald will be shelved with the likes of Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Fred Allen, Peter DeVries. Indeed some of these names have begun a lapse into the shadowy realms of antiquity and the remarkable reality that humor has a transient nature, in many cases barely longer than the shelf life of yogurt. I am always reminded of this evanescent nature of humor by the discovery of books by the worthies listed at the beginning of this paragraph being sold for pocket change in garage sales and from remainder tables at book stores. They, who have made us laugh so limitlessly at ourselves and toppled icons with greater dexterity than our toppling of the stature of Saddam Hussein, have a special place in the culture of those of us who read. They have left us with a great tradition.

In time where grief looms offshore like a Santa Barbara marine layer, it is fanciful to indulge in the self pity of believing that the great humorists are gone and that their likes will not be seen again.

But the University of Chicago Press already has ambitious plans for reissuing the novels of Peter DeVries, and very much alive in our midst are the two Chrises, Buckley and Moore.

Art Buchwald’s last book is “Beating around the Bush;” Chris Buckley’s latest is “Washington Schlepped Here;” Chris Moore’s latest is “A Dirty Job.” Go read and enjoy. And while you still can, check out the class act that is Art Buchwald.