When a writer wants to tell the truth, they write fiction but when they want to tell a good story, they write nonfiction. A good story can be made of many parts, equal in measure to the subject on whom it is based. John Gunther’s “Death Be Not Proud” is a great story based on a tragedy that I cannot even begin to imagine: the slow, deteriorating death of one’s child.
Gunther’s style of writing is straight-forward and he leaves little room for euphemism or obfuscation. Throughout the book there is the sense of the natural order turning on its head. It goes against the accepted norm of the world for a parent to outlive their child. The heartbreak and anguish of having to endure such an ordeal is plain in every sentence Gunther puts on the page. But there isn’t the feeling of catharsis at the end of the tale. Instead, the author leaves the reader with the sensation of wasted opportunity and quiet desolation.
The subject of dying in America, even the America of the late 1940s, is one that most find difficult to discuss. Gunther speaks candidly about his hopes for his son but also to paint a portrait of who his son was and who John Gunter Jr. might have become. Johnny Gunther’s trials show how someone should approach death, particularly with his constant admonition that there simply isn’t enough time. Beyond the bias one would expect from a father, Johnny Gunther is portrayed as a whip-smart young man, capable of corresponding with Einstein but still shy and good-natured around girls his age. There is a sense conveyed by Gunther Sr. that his son may have known that he had a hopeless case, that the end was all but inevitable, but the boy maintain a disposition and mental acuity that astounded medical professionals of his day.
We all know that death is inevitable. The question becomes how we face that eventuality. Some choose to wallow in misery, depriving their minds of joy in their final months or years. Others go out with gusto, choosing to embrace every last second that is made available to them. Johnny Gunther is the latter person and this is brilliantly, succinctly captured by his father’s words. There is the overwhelming undercurrent created by Gunther Sr. that while he suffered watching his son die, he was filled with joy over watching his son live that last year of his life. By the time his son died, John Gunther had been a war correspondent in the European theater during World War II, which meant the specter of Death hanging over everyone like an overbearing in-law was not uncommon to him. But rather than detach himself from the narrative, Gunther Sr. subsumes himself in the events and wrenches every last moment of elation, sorrow, anger, and acceptance one should feel.
Death, as a concept, is given far too much power in our culture. The fear of death propels people to commit increasingly drastic means of maintaining life. As someone who views this as the only life we’re guaranteed to have, the tragedy of Johnny Gunther is plain as an open field to me. That his father was able to capture his grief and anger and joy in written form is nothing short of brilliant. For anyone who reads nonfiction, this is simply a must-read. For those who need inspiration and realization over the fragility of life, this is a must-read. But quite simply, for those who enjoy a good story, this is a must-read.