My long-running conversation with Doug Marlette ended abruptly the morning of July 10 when the truck in which he was a passenger hydroplaned off a Mississippi highway into a tree.
More shocking than the news of his death was the idea that Doug could die. I never really believed he was mortal.
No mere man could do all that Doug did – apparently without ever sleeping. He was otherwise transcendent, untethered to time or place, a cosmic vagabond in search of truth, omnivorous in his appetite for knowledge, insatiable in his quest for understanding.
Doug’s worldly accomplishments are familiar to most by now: political cartoonist, writer of a comic strip and a musical called “Kudzu,” author of two acclaimed novels – “The Bridge” and “Magic Time” – and a third in gestation. He was a man driven to create.
Staying so consumed with projects “keeps me off the streets,” he was fond of saying. Out of prison is what he meant.
And, indeed, he tended an inner rage that was born in part of his own demons, but was also partly the existential rage we all share toward death’s insult. Doug was interested primarily in the human fight against the dying light and the weapons people employ in their own contest with the deep, dark under.
He believed, as Thomas Wolfe put it, that “loneliness is and always has been the central and inevitable experience of every man.” He fought that loneliness through an unrelenting flood of creativity and a collection of fortunate friends with whom he talked. And talked. And talked. Doug was as loquacious as he was productive, and not a word or brushstroke was wasted.
Deeply, even painfully, empathetic, he saw (and felt) everyone’s struggle and granted compassion even toward the undeserving. But he struggled, too.
He was both hurt and baffled a few years ago when other writers in his hometown of Hillsborough, N.C., tried to sabotage his largely autobiographical first novel, “The Bridge” – even getting it banned from the University of North Carolina bookstore – because they deemed some of his fictional characters too similar to themselves.
The narcissism that compelled that response was a disease upon the culture and our time, as Doug saw it.
During that painful period, he identified deeply with Wolfe, whose book “Look Homeward Angel” was banned in Wolfe’s hometown of Asheville, N.C. Like Wolfe, Doug knew the sorrow of exile.
Despite all that, Doug continued to put his generous spirit on the line every day, all his senses exposed, his heart equally alert to love and treachery.
He was human after all.
Doug cared deeply about his friends and especially his family. He was devoted to his wife, Melinda, and their grown son, Jackson – his beautiful boy. No father was ever more proud or available to a son.
The public knew Doug primarily as cartoon boy. Funny Doug could make you laugh. Gimlet-eyed Doug could make you cringe. But the private Doug was a deep diver, a thinker of exquisite dimension who was most concerned with the profound tragedy of human existence. “How do any of us get through it?” he often wondered aloud.
He felt it was the artist’s assignment to find out – “to snare the spirits of mankind in nets of magic,” as Wolfe put it.
A champion of freedom, Doug was fascinated by the sweep of history and the great human movements that define civilization. He was riveted by the motivations that compel people either to cowardice or courage and explored those themes in his novels.
The courage Doug bore witness to through his characters also found lodging in his brave heart. He was fearless against authority and hypocrisy. He stood fast when fundamentalists of all stripes issued death threats because of his cartoons. He was undaunted in defending the First Amendment, which he recognized as the foundation for all other freedoms.
I’ve never known anyone who wanted to live more than Doug did. He resented death and despised the terrorist culture of death now bearing down on the West. He was a warrior, but also a sweetheart, who always urged his friends to buckle their seat belts and keep both hands on the wheel.
“People don’t know anything anymore,” he would say. “We have to stay alive so that we can keep getting the word out. Just get it out there.”
“Out there” was the great big world, so in need of Doug’s rare gifts, but ultimately inadequate to contain his immense spirit.
May his legacy spread like kudzu.
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