Usually one must at least read the headline of Bob Greene's column to experience that pang of horrified revulsion--the dreaded Bob Shock, simultaneously fresh and oh so familiar.
But last week all I had to do was pick up the Tempo section--still folded, the bottom part of Bob's column visible and upside down--and glance at it. A jolt of panic flashed down my spine. I flung the paper away with a cry of alarm. "Don't read it," I thought. "Whatever you do, don't read it. Walk away."
But curiosity got the better of me. I crept over to where the paper lay and picked it up, gingerly, as if it might explode.
There, in Bob's column, which turned out to be "Famous last words: Closing thoughts worth repeating" (May 29), was a photograph--the little mid-column picture that typically shows a sobbing Child Once Known as Richard or a grim-faced, hang-'em-high Judge Heiple.
Not this time. The photo was no quivering victim or cackling fiend. It was James Thurber, the beloved humor icon whose witty, finely honed, and memorable prose is the antipode of Bob's muddily conceived, carelessly executed, and immediately forgotten glop. Just seeing the two juxtaposed was disturbing, like that art film shot of a razor blade going through an eyeball. The two together, Bob and Thurber, seemed almost a violation of physical law, a twist in the fabric of reality unimaginable under even the wildest theories of quantum mechanics. We're lucky the universe didn't fold in on itself and wink out of existence.
Awful possibilities raced across my mind. Would Bob confess that he was a Thurber fan, forever corrupting the master by association? Would Bob plant his terrible kisses on the hem of Thurber's cuffed pants?
Impossible. Bob couldn't value great writing in private and still parade his shoddy banalities in public.
Maybe, then, Bob would flop out his revolting pity and extend it toward Thurber, perhaps in a general column celebrating blindness. That would be more his style...
To drive away such thoughts, I read the thing. Whew. Relief. Just another in Bob's streak of reprinting other people's work. Last month, readers will recall, Bob filled a column with excerpts from a collection of opening lines from famous novels--and personally added the opening line of his painfully embarrassing revenge on Bexley, Ohio, Be True to Your School: A Diary of 1964. This time Bob filled the column with excerpts from a collection of last lines, from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and yes, Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."
I fully expected Bob to sneak in the last line of Be True to Your School or, worse, last year's All Summer Long. But Bob held back--rare restraint on his part.
Here's an idea, Bob: Why not just start reprinting parts of the phone book? It wouldn't be that much of a leap for you. "Chicago is a city filled with people, proudly carrying the surnames of their forefathers. But in our scary modern electronic world, crisscrossed with wires and electronic signals and instantaneous communication, each of those names has a number. A telephone number..."
That's your realm, Bob. Stick to it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jeff Heller.