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Good Prose From the Past

An introduction to the wild literary ride of Clifford J. Doerksen.

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I first met Cliff Doerksen in January 2003, when he came to the Reader as an assistant editor and took up residence in the office next to mine. Before too long I realized what wicked laughs were to be had inside that office, with the door firmly sealed and no one on the premises safe from his razor-sharp judgments (except me, I think). Later on, after Cliff had quit the paper and begun writing freelance capsule reviews for the movie section, I got a chance to edit him and realized what a splendid talent he was. Readers already know his work was brilliant, insightful, and gut-laugh funny, but they may not understand, as an editor would, his formidable control of his craft. His sentences were so elegantly structured that he could swan dive off them into the most arcane vocabulary or the funkiest, most vivid turns of phrase. Reading Cliff—who died on Friday at age 47—I never knew exactly where he was going to take me; every paragraph was like a college road trip, bound for adventure and possibly big trouble.

Cliff made his first appearance in the Reader as a letter writer, responding to a March 2001 story about the traffic woes of bicycle messengers. Reading his letter now, it reminds me of those old westerns in which a mysterious gunslinger wanders into the local saloon and instantly makes a fearsome reputation for himself: "The funny thing about this article is that prior to reading it, I was inclined to partially exonerate scary bike messengers as individuals, apportioning at least some of the blame for their behavior to the rules of the rat race," he wrote. "Now, however, I have learned that their aggressive riding practices are less a matter of economics, more the reflection of a grotesque subculture of narcissism and self-delusion."

With chops like that Cliff was soon writing for the Reader instead of commenting on it, and his earliest long pieces drew on his scholarly research into early American radio (which would also inform his 2005 book American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age). Published in May 2002, "When Zion Ruled the Waves" told the strange but true story of WCBD, a Christian radio station in Zion, Illinois, whose 5,000-watt transmitter and relative freedom from censorship, in the years predating the Federal Radio Commission, empowered it to win a nationwide following with "homegrown programming that combined faith healing, classical music, sentimental Victorian parlor ballads, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preaching, and zealous advocacy of the notion that the earth is flat." Five months later, "Same Old Song and Dance" responded to the recent fracas over radio payola with a detailed history of the practice that stretched back to the days of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. Payola, Cliff pointed out, "was old when ragtime was new, and it still will be going strong long after rock 'n' roll has died."

Though Cliff loved music—his withering 2003 takedown of Lou Reed as literary icon will still singe your eyebrows, and he devoted not just one but four pieces to singer-songwriter Jackie Leven—what he really loved was murder. Readers of his historical blog Bad News From the Past can attest to his endless hunger for news stories of shootings, stabbings, poisonings, and God knows what else. His June 2004 feature "True Crime?" dismantled the credibility of one Dr. Helen Morrison, whose book My Life Among the Serial Killers Cliff found dubious in many respects, and earlier this year his piece "When the Perp Is a Prof" examined the cockamamie and politically motivated theories zinging around the media and blogosphere after the shooting rampage of Alabama biology professor Amy Bishop.

But for all his literary bloodlust, Cliff will be remembered by those who knew him personally as an adoring and delighted father. One of the bigger surprises of his publishing tenure at the Reader was a brief series of offbeat parenting pieces ("Remote Fatherhood," "How to Be an iPod Dad," "Further on How to Be a Remote Father") that described his struggle to keep six-year-old Gladys, the apple of his eye, focused on movies and music that wouldn't drive him around the bend. Why suffer through an endless loop of Scooby Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, he reasoned, when the child is just as captivated by 2001: A Space Odyssey? "Before I take this any further," Cliff hastened to add, "I want to make clear that I'm not indulging myself in any Neal Pollack-style Alternadad bullshit here, nor crowing about how unbelievably brilliant my progeny is (although she is, of course, unbelievably brilliant). I'm talking about issues of stark survival, from a viewpoint of narrowest self-interest." Thank you, Mister Rogers.

I worked most closely with Cliff on his movie writing, though I didn't edit many of his long reviews because they typically ran when I was on vacation and the review space opened up for freelancers. When I read his pieces in the paper, I was always glad to see such sharp work in the section and eager to get back to the office before someone decided to give him my job. He was known for his gleeful evisceration of multiplex trash—Alien vs. Predator, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Babylon A.D.—but he also seized on lesser-known movies to write with sensitivity and bracing insight about such topics as childhood bullying (Mean Creek), autism (Adam), and thalidomide children (NoBody's Perfect). His last long review, about the 1947 noir classic Nightmare Alley, was a critical tour de force that reached back to the movie's source material, a long-forgotten pulp novel by William Lindsey Gresham, and pondered the sick allure of the carnival geek as a repository for all our awful, inarticulate fears.

And then there was the pie. My wife and I were lucky enough to be dinner guests of Cliff and his wife, Elspeth, about a year ago, and no sooner had we arrived than Cliff asked with barely concealed excitement if I wanted to sample his mince pie. Not the stuff they sell at Jewel, he promised, but the real item, prepared as it was during the 19th century and reputed to cause indigestion, nightmares, and even death. Not to be deterred, I scarfed up two pieces, which were delicious, and Cliff was well pleased. Soon afterward, in December 2009, he published his Reader cover story "The Real American Pie," a cultural history of the dish that showed him at his very best, digging into the far reaches of Americana to bring back a new and decidedly more warped sense of who we are. Though it was his first piece of food writing, it won a James Beard Award for best newspaper feature and began to garner him some of the recognition he'd so long deserved. I never had the heart to tell Cliff that, the day after eating his pie, I suffered a vicious case of diarrhea. Besides, it might have been the mussels.

Cliff Doerksen wrote so many fascinating things for the Reader that I can hardly inventory them all here, but my hands-down favorite was always Bad News From the Past, the eccentric blog of bizarre newspaper items he'd collected over the years from his scholarly reading of brittle microfilm and moldering periodical volumes. If you're not familiar with it, check it out and prepare to laugh your ass off. Cliff's commentary on these freakish stories was consistently hilarious, but it also exposed the fellow I was lucky enough to know, a man of real sadness and compassion who'd developed a connoisseur's taste for the grim slapstick of human existence. A cultural historian by training, he had a passion for the past, its unsolvable mysteries and its familiar, but ultimately unknowable, people. I am sorry beyond words to find that he's now joined them.

Remembrances of Cliff Doerksen from Reader media critic Michael Miner, Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips, and Time Out Chicago movie critic Hank Sartin.

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