Time to break my favorite rules for writing fiction: never complain, never explain.
This is the exception to those rules. Nearly twenty years ago I wrote a series of short stories about 9/11, and one in particular was particularly close to the bone. Called LIVES OF THE SAINTS, the story was an unsubtle parody of The New York Times mini-bios of those who died in the 9/11 attacks. Each vignette started out as a typically fawning recitation of a person’s life until a twist sent every one of them crashing down into the bizarre, even macabre, realm of the real world.
The lesson of Liberty Valance: legend trumps truth every time.
Even though it’s been twenty years, I’m not sure it’s been long enough for this story to sit in the cloud untouched. But I do know the publication today of the names of 1,000 Covid-19 victims on the front page of The New York Times convinced me it was time for LIVES OF THE SAINTS.
In the story I was trying to say that life mattered—and not in the beloved “he was a saint” or “she was a genius” prose that seems to be called for in moments like this. I wanted to say everyone has tragic flaws whether they are caught in a massive tragedy or not—and that we do the deceased no favors in transforming their lives into minor miracles that seem fictional if not downright deceptive.
I might be wrong about that—maybe death delivers a better life than the one lived—but I am also mindful of the lesson from the great Western THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. In the face of 100,000 deaths by coronavirus, if forced to choose between the truth and the legend, maybe we should take the legend every time.