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Tucson Weekly Death Be Not Proud

Go ahead...A little schadenfreude won't kill ya!

By Christopher Weir

OCTOBER 19, 1998: 

Raw Deal: Horrible And Ironic Stories Of Forgotten Americans, by Ken Smith (Blast Books). Paper, $12.95.

SO, SAY A guy gets a long-awaited promotion on his birthday, and on his way home to tell his new bride the great news, he trips over a curb and gets run down by a Volvo.

Well, we should all be so lucky.

Such is the curiously abject and subversively entertaining message delivered by Raw Deal, Ken Smith's compendium of the most twisted fates in American history. These stories are not merely ironic. They're tragic, epic and absurd. Okay, so what's the point? For starters, Smith writes, "Perhaps you'll recognize a similar raw deal lurking in your future. Then you can sidestep it before you become fodder for a future edition of this book."

But Raw Deal proves much more than an exercise in retroactive rubbernecking. It is, in fact, an inverted morality play about innocence corrupted by exploitation; about good intentions gone impossibly awry; and unselfish souls crushed by a selfishly random universe. As the book's jacket screams: "Some things are just not right!"

Amid the 22 profiles herein, we learn about William Sidis, an intellectual giant driven into unproductive solitude by jealous sniping and emotionally disturbed parents; Edwin Armstrong, the inventor of FM-radio whose only escape from commercial and political sabotage was through the 13th floor window of his Manhattan apartment; and Thomas Wiggins, a blind slave child and mind-boggling musical prodigy whose talents were hijacked by greed and crushed by prejudice.

To his ample credit, Smith has mastered the long-forgotten art of letting irony speak for itself. There's no winking, no smirking between the lines. Each tale is told honestly and succinctly, often with an undercurrent of moral outrage and just a twist of dry humor. Of Charles Goodyear, the "prophet of rubber," Smith writes, "Goodyear thought of himself as a good Christian, but his faith was in rubber. He was always personally frugal and abstemious, but he was an incurable spendthrift when promoting his cherished inert substance...Goodyear literally lived in a rubber universe. His business cards were made of rubber. He wore rubber vests, hats and ties. His office door had a rubber nameplate, his official portrait was painted on rubber, his autobiography was printed on rubber tissue and bound between hard rubber covers, carved with scenes depicting a rubber harvest."

After giving the world the gift of vulcanized rubber--the basis for everything from tires to pacifiers to condoms to pencil erasers--Goodyear was tormented by corporate predators and ultimately died a poor, broken man.

Remember, some things are just not right.

Sadly, some of these deals are so raw that not even death can consummate them. For example, while exploring caves in Kentucky in 1925, Floyd Collins accidentally dislodged a rock that wedged against his ankle in a tight passageway. His plight inspired immense media coverage, as well as a broad rescue effort that quickly degenerated into a circus of squabbles and idiocy. Eight months after his death, Collins was recovered from his crude crypt and given a more proper burial. Two years later, he was unearthed and embalmed, dressed in a suit and displayed as a tourist attraction. Then he was stolen. He was found the next day...minus his left leg, which had mysteriously disappeared.

All it got him was a more secure display casket.

Strangely enough, the stories in Raw Deal are more incredible than sensational, more instructive than depressing. Of course, we've all heard the platitudinous plaints of artists, writers and inventors who declare themselves ahead of their time and curse the intellectual brutality of their era from the comforts of their studios and workshops. Well, it beats being placed on exhibit in the New York Zoological Park's Monkey House, now doesn't it? And it sure as hell can't be any worse than a cat feasting on your eyeballs after the world fails to comprehend your turn-of-the-century feats in wireless communication.

If there's any inference to be distilled from Raw Deal, it's this: Go along now, grab your decaffeinated, low-fat latte, and count your blessings.

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