How to turn an obituary into an ironic comic masterpiece.
For the last half of the 1990s, readers of the New York Times could be excused if they searched out Thomas’s work before they bothered with the front-page lead. Known as “McGs.”—after the veteran reporter’s middle name—these little beauties celebrated the unsung, the queer, the unpretentious, the low-rent. His 1995 obituary of Kitty Litter king Edward Lowe first brought the 56-year-old Thomas to public attention, and until his death from cancer in 2000 he paraded an endless sideshow of worthies before his readership. Drollery was his forte, taking someone’s career high note, often incongruous or absurd to begin with, and garnishing it with plenty of wit. Take this fine example of the poetry of compression: “Anton Rosenberg, a storied sometime artist and occasional musician who embodied the Greenwich Village hipster ideal of 1950’s cool to such a laid-back degree and with such determined detachment that he never amounted to much of anything, died on Feb. 14.” Thomas had a knack for extolling and leveling in a breath; he tagged defunct duckpins queen Toots Barger as “a perennial world champion in a decidedly regional sport.” And he could massage a piece of farce with deadpan certainty: “You take a fellow who looks like a goat, travels around with goats, eats with goats, lies down among goats and smells like a goat,” he wrote in 1998, “and it won’t be long before people will be calling him the Goat Man.” The cornerstone of his interests could be summed up in a line from his obituary of Angelo Zuccotti, who wielded the velvet rope at El Morocco: “He may have been a working stiff . . . but he also saw his work as an art.”
Dispatches from the dark side made funny. (photos)