#59 – The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (1973). More meh than boo-yah! But there’s something to be learned from meh.

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

Sunday was a little sadder for me because it saw the passing of Stuart Scott. He was 49. For 21 years, Scott was one of ESPN’s and ABC Sports’ most recognizable and quotable personalities and one of the most popular sportscasters around the world. He bridged the world between sports and hip-hop. He reportedly coined the phrase “Boo-yah!” And I really liked him.

Granted, I didn’t actually know Stuart Scott. Never met him. Can’t call him a friend. Playing six degrees of separation, the closest connection I have is that my friend Mike met him once when he was working at Epic Records. I’ll let Mike tell the story because Mike tells stories like no other:

Had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Scott in Dave McPherson’s office at Epic. Five of us quoted him to himself. “Call him butter, cos he’s on a roll.” “Cool as the other side of the pillow.” Dropping two entire Pras lines from “Fugee-La” before a homer landed in the bleachers. And he sat there like it didn’t prolly happen to him ten times a day, with other groups of clowns like us, loving it. He just wanted to talk about music. He was as original as he was genuine. Huge loss for lovers of sports and the vernacular. RIP.

And so although I never met him, it is stories like these and the many others that have been shared this week that make me think I knew him. At least a little. At least enough to convince me that I liked him.

I’m old enough and savvy enough to know that sometimes the face people show the world– especially those in the public eye – doesn’t match who they really are. But Scott had been fighting a very hard and very public battle with cancer since he was first diagnosed in 2007. In this fight, he displayed determination, spirit and a positive attitude that inspired countless others. I don’t think you can fake that.

In July, Scott accepted the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPYs. During his speech, Scott shared his approach to fighting cancer. “I also realized something else recently,” he said. “I said, I’m not losing. I’m still here. I’m fighting. I’m not losing. But I’ve got to amend that. When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell.” If you haven’t seen it, take a moment.

The idea of living even in the face of adversity lies at the center of The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. The Optimist’s Daughter tells the story of Laurel McKelva, a middle-aged widower living in Chicago, called to New Orleans to support her father, Judge McKelva, during a minor surgery to correct a torn retina in his eye. Laurel has had some bad breaks. Her mother has passed away and her father is now married to the self-centered Fay who is not only her new stepmom, but also younger than Laurel. Moreover, Laurel’s husband, Phil, has also met an early demise when he was killed by a Kamikaze pilot in World War II leaving Laurel a widow.

So if that wasn’t bad enough, her father’s supposedly minor surgery goes awry and the Judge unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse and then dies. I know, brutal. Laurel is now alone in the world, having lost her mother, her husband, and now her father. It’s not easy becoming an orphan at any age and she must come to terms with the loss and the fact that no one will ever call her “daughter” again. Welty writes: “But the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought. Outliving is something we do to them. The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.”

But if that wasn’t hard enough, Laurel now has to hang out with Fay and return to the family home in Mississippi to bury the Judge. Just how awful is Fay? I’ll give you an example. When the Judge is diagnosed with his retina problem, she declares, I don’t see why this had to happen to me.” She’s awful enough that you want Laurel to channel her inner Stuart Scott and shout: “You ain’t got to go home, but you got to get the heck up outta here.”

This is pretty much the extent of the plot. Nothing much happens beyond this, but through conversation, and Laurel’s silent observations, the book focuses on the two themes of memory and death (which, given our last review, appears to be a theme with these Pulitzer winners). Without giving everything away (which honestly, isn’t a ton), Laurel goes back to her parents’ house and spends three days rummaging nostalgically through her parents’ things. When she discovers that Fay has ruined a breadboard carved by Laurel’s husband as a gift to her mother, Fay and Laurel have a bitter confrontation, until moments away from hurling the breadboard at Fay, Laurel realizes that it’s not about the breadboard. It’s not about a thing at all. Her aha! moment is when she realizes her memories need not be attached to things, but instead with can remain within her always. Laurel puts the breadboard down, and with it, puts down her attachment to the past. Laurel finally realizes that she doesn’t need to hold on to the past to be happy and heads back to Chicago and the rest of her life. She realizes she is free to live.

The Optimist’s Daughter is a well-written book so why does it live at #56 and not higher? Two things mainly. First, Fay. She does not have one redeeming quality, and that, almost by definition, makes her character unbelievable. There isn’t even an attempt to provide some sort of backstory as to why she’s so selfish. She just is. She’s like the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. Which totally works if you’re writing a, say, fairy tale. But we’re talking Pulitzer Prize winning fiction here. So when the Judge dies and the doctor says sadly, “I couldn’t save him,” and Fay’s response is “You picked my birthday to do it on!”, it just loses credibility. And even if you thought this behavior believable, why would the Judge, who by all accounts is a smart and well-respected person, be attracted to her? I get that she’s 30 years younger, but that isn’t enough by itself to sway me (unless she was really really hot and that description wasn’t in the book).

Second, and I alluded to this above, it is not a very exciting story. I like a good moment of introspection as much as the next guy, but I also like something to happen. When the biggest moment in a book is a near fight over the condition of a breadboard, I can only get so excited.

All that said, a book whose fundamental message is to live – regardless of how (un)thrilling the message is delivered – deserves some kudos. And what I can take from it, because really, it’s all about me, is that even though Stuart Scott won’t be there every night to recap sports for me, he is still there. Like the breadboard, gone is not forgotten. I will never forget what Stuart Scott stood for, what he fought for, what he represented, or what he meant. So before you go to sleep tonight, shout out a “Boo-yah!” and flip your pillow over to the cool side. And remember. Remember to live. And fight like hell.

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