WASHINGTON — July 10 on my calendar reads: “Doug Day — Five Years.”
That is, five years ago, my friend Doug Marlette — Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, novelist, playwright, raconteur and cultural omnivore — died in a car accident on a rainy road between Memphis, Tenn., and Oxford, Miss.
This is not to be maudlin, I feel compelled to say, which is also a way of apologizing for indulging a personal loss. But it is summer and this is what columnists do when they figure the Earth will continue to turn on its axis if one commentator fails to acknowledge that a given politician has revealed himself to be flawed in some way.
It is, moreover, a worthy topic because Marlette's premature exit at 57 was a loss to a world never more desperately in need of sane voices and humorous reminders of our human-ness, as he would put it. His gimlet eye on all things sublime and absurd has not been replaced and may never be. The world produces a few geniuses now and then who are simply sui generis, and Marlette was surely one.
I know I speak for dozens of close friends and family members — and even a good number of enemies — when I say that Marlette was that rare creature who could size up a person, place, event or trend with a glance that was simultaneously mirthful and homicidal. He was an intellectual assassin with a preternatural knack for zeroing in on hypocrites and phonies, and woe unto those under his gaze. Your most deeply guarded secret was transparent to him.
I have written about Marlette periodically as topics have permitted because this is what friends do: remember. It is also a pleasant duty to remind others not only of his gifts but of his contributions to the national conversation. We weep that Marlette missed Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, two characters he would have relished revealing. He missed Palin entirely, but he did catch a glimpse of Obama and was deeply skeptical of his presidential candidacy.
Because I had been in Boston for Obama's convention speech in 2004, I was convinced that he was a future president and said so. Marlette just chuckled and said, “Yeah, well, we'll see.” For someone addicted to deadlines at an early age, Marlette was proudly at ease with ambiguity and patient in the way of old souls. He knew that the gods exact justice from those who try to steal their fire. He was usually prescient.