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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Michael Wenthe: The Visitor

This is a guest post By Michael Wenthe. Michael was one of Fred's friends and also a professor at American University. He visited Fred in every hospital setting and hospice. His last visit was the day before Fred died. You can read Michael's own blog posts about Fred and "73 Cents" at

On the anniversary of Fred's Death I thought Michael's writing was the perfect way to commemorate this day.

Thank you, Michael.

June 16, 2010: in memory of Fred Holliday by Michael Wenthe

"Since I first read James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1994, I have joined other readers of that work in thinking of June 16 as Bloomsday, a celebration of the novel’s achievement in chronicling a day in the life of Leopold Bloom, fictional Dubliner, in 1904. Of course, Joyce had other reasons for choosing that particular date, for it was the actual day, not fiction, when he and his future companion and eventual bride-to-be Nora Barnacle “went out walking” for the first time. For an atheist author who refused his dying mother the consolation of pro forma Catholic piety, the choice of June 16, 1904, as the temporal setting of his magnum opus seems a remarkable bit of sentiment on Joyce’s part.

For all that June 16 is widely celebrated as a day for reading Joyce, others have a part in it, too. Just last year, fifteen years after I first read Ulysses, I learned that another novel of epic scope begins its main action on June 16—not a novel about Stephen Dedalus, but a novel by Stephen King: The Stand. I’m not aware of any groups that celebrate June 16 as Tripsday, but I’m convinced that King dated his own magnum opus with a winking eye at his Joycean predecessor, a direct allusion to the odds-on favorite for greatest English-language novel of the twentieth century.

I finally read The Stand last year on the recommendation of Fred Holliday, whose defense of Stephen King against the denigrations of high-culture snobs, won my admiration not just for King’s power as a writer but for Fred’s independence and judgment, his refusal to let the academy’s tastemakers and self-appointed guardians of culture distort his own sincere but by no means naïve love for the work of such popular artists as Stephen King in fiction, or Steven Spielberg on film, or Joss Whedon on TV. Fred wouldn’t have had to make excuses for so-called low or popular culture against high culture, anyway, because he knew enough of the highfalutin material to hold his own in discussions of “canonical” work. His dissertation, The Long View, may have focused on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but he nearly wrote on the seemingly more difficult and esoteric traditions of Chinese cinema, about which he could hold forth at length with the same knowledge and passion that he brought to conversations about Buffy or The Stand.

And it was in order to take a bigger part in those conversations that I took the time (during my Passover holiday, no less) to read King’s mammoth book, and why I kept borrowing Buffy DVDs from Fred and Regina so that I could enjoy more of Fred’s insights about these works that he loved and that engaged so much of his personality, his intelligence, his enthusiasm. (As it happens, there’s a love story hidden in the June 16 of The Stand just as there is in the June 16 of Bloomsday, for some of Fred and Regina’s first conversations after they met turned on their shared appreciation of King’s novel—evidence enough that it must be worth spending time with and talking about.)

As it also happens, I have my own June 16 to commemorate, though I’m too subdued by it to feel much like celebrating. June 16, 2009, was the last day I saw Fred, the day before he died. I had just come back from a family visit to Vermont, and I had a present for Fred that I’d picked up in the airport: the latest issue of Esquire with a brand-new story by Stephen King. I doubt he got a chance to read it, given how tired he seemed during our visit. But despite his weariness, Fred gave me a lot of his energy and attention, and we had a conversation that has remained with me vividly—perhaps because I think about it often. He asked about Rebecca and the progress of her pregnancy; our daughter-to-be, Shira—still known only as “Juniorina”—was due about five weeks hence (and one of my greatest regrets is that Fred never got to meet her, nor she him). He also asked me, for the first time, about my conversion to Judaism. I’m not sure when, exactly, I let it be known that I had in fact converted, and from Catholicism, no less—the native religion of the atheist James Joyce as well as the uncertain Fred Holliday. It’s hard not to speculate about Fred’s state of mind in asking about religious matters on what turned out to be the eve of his passing, but that’s another matter on which I must remain agnostic. I had nothing especially helpful to say on the question of certainty; precisely what appealed to me about Judaism, or at least the version that I practice, was its openness to theological questions and existential struggles as against the dogmatic certitude that characterized the Catholicism I’d been raised with. That’s what I told Fred, at least, though I wished I had more to offer.

We also talked about books and movies, as usual. In Vermont, I’d made a start on World War Z (“An oral history of the Zombie War”) after my brother-in-law finished reading it; I’d remembered that Fred had both read the novel and listened to the audiobook back when he was first being treated (if that’s the word) at Holy Cross Hospital. Now, incredulous that the only zombie movie I’d seen was Shaun of the Dead, Fred insisted that I borrow a film from his personal collection before I left: Zombi, Dario Argento’s European cut of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

Now, it took a while for me to watch Zombi. My priority had been Buffy the Vampire Slayer, since I loved comparing notes with Fred about the series—hearing his expert take on characters, events, narration, and framing—and I was still well behind where I wanted to be when we lost Fred. I’m especially sorry that I didn’t get to compare notes with him about Season Six of Buffy, which might well be my favorite of the series. That season offers a curious analogue to Zombi, however, which I did finally see some while after Fred’s funeral; for Season Six of Buffy begins with the resurrection of the recently-departed Buffy Summers. Buffy’s no zombie when she comes back; but like the reanimated beings of Zombi, she was better off between her lives, having apparently been in Heaven when her friends, at a loss without her, contrived to bring her back to earth with dark magics.

It’s a painful irony to me that the last movie Fred recommended to me was a chronicle of how the living need the dead to stay dead; and it’s another painful irony that my favorite season of Fred’s favorite television show offers the corollary lesson that the dead may need the living to preserve them as they are, not to seek their return—as the only way of honoring them as they were, in life, without risking unknown damage to the person who was loved and lost.

I write this wishing so very much that Fred were still with us; but if these movies and films teach us something important about existence, it’s that there’s a crucial difference between still with us and again with us. We can’t have Fred back again as he was, but he still is what he was when we seek him in our memories, where he is always to be found. In that sense, I feel like my memory of Fred, replaying the same scenes over and over, is like reviewing film of beloved stories whose meaning is inexhaustible even if the narrative is now at an end. For me, it’s not so much that Fred is “back on the show,” as Jeff Middents suggested last year, as that he’s never left.

On that note, I want to mention one more movie that Fred recommended to me before I close with another reflection on today’s date. During one of our conversations about his work, Fred spoke of his love for the Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s film To Live. Rebecca and I finally watched To Live some months after Fred’s funeral; the film was profoundly moving, not least as a testament to the need to persist in life despite loss. For the film is shattering in the privations and heartbreaks it deals out to its protagonists, who grow and develop in utterly unpredictable but ultimately convincing ways, not despite but because of their terrible losses and hardships. The film somehow concludes on a note of optimism without either ignoring or forgetting the worst of what had led to its hopeful ending. Against the supernatural horrors and unrealities of Zombi or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, To Live shows us what we face and what we have; and although I cannot thank him now for having recommended it, I remain grateful to Fred for affirming life through the medium that he loved, even after death.

A year ago today I saw Fred alive for the last time. Tomorrow, July 17, marks the first anniversary of his passing. In traditional Jewish practice, a candle is lit on the anniversary of a death, in commemoration of the life that was—not unlike the way that the Catholic Church celebrates saints’ days not on the birthdays of saints but on the days of their martyrdoms or deaths, when they awoke to a new life—albeit a different and mysterious life, one that still seems unknowable to me. But there is one conditional wish that I know I can render in the emphatic indicative mood. The traditional Jewish phrase to accompany the news of a death or the mention of a lost beloved is to say, for a man, zikhrono livrakhah—may his memory be for a blessing. I have remembered Fred every day of this year now past, in fondness and in longing; and I know with the certainty of experience that his memory is and has been a blessing, and it will remain so as long as I have the capacity to remember."