When I was in ninth grade, my family spent spring break in La Jolla. We rented a condo near the beach and spent every day lazing about, walking to the ocean, sightseeing, and shopping. One of the few places I remember visiting was a great bookstore. I like to think it was Warwick's, which is a fantastic shop that has been around even longer than I have, but I'm not sure. All I do know is that it was never difficult to talk my parents into stopping into a bookstore, no matter where we were, and I recall spending quite a long time browsing around this pleasantly-lit, well-stocked bookstore on a spring afternoon back in -- gulp -- 1981.
I spotted a book on the new release display with an eye-catching title: Maybe He's Dead and Other Hilarious Results of New York Magazine Competitions. Being a naive teenager, I conflated New York with The New Yorker and thought, "That sounds smart." I started reading and soon was laughing out loud -- this thing was both funny and smart. Dad was kind of a pushover when it came to buying books: as long as it was a paperback, it was almost guaranteed he'd buy it. So it's no surprise I walked out of that shop with Maybe He's Dead and spent the rest of the afternoon (and many pleasant hours in the following years) reading and rereading it.
I haven't looked at the print version of New York in years so I don't know if they still run their weekly reader competition. I can't find it on the magazine's website, so maybe they have discontinued it. At any rate, in every issue, it used to be that readers were invited to submit entries that followed a particular set of guidelines. For instance, one week it might be to submit an essay about "My First Day at School" written in the style of a well-known writer or celebrity. Another week, for the first two lines of a book -- the first "flavorful," the second completely deflating. Or indispensable lines from any genre of movie. You get the idea. The title of the book comes from the "What I Should Have Said/What I Said" contest:
WHAT I SHOULD HAVE SAID: "Look, there's a lot of traffic, and he's probably been stuck in a meeting all day and didn't get your message, or he'd have called. I'm sure there's nothing to worry about."
WHAT I SAID: "Maybe he's dead."
I read Maybe He's Dead over and over. It's a delightful book to dip into, reading a few pages here, skipping to another contest near the back of the book. My brother also became a big fan. We loved to read bits of it out loud to each other and crack the other one up. When I was a freshman in college, I had very little money to buy Christmas gifts, but I found I could afford to give my brother something when I discovered an enormous trove of New York back issues in my college library: I sat in a study carrel for hours, copying out in longhand onto notebook paper contest results from issues published after Maybe He's Dead came out, then took my crappy notes back to my dorm room and typed them up. I put them in a red paper binder and gave John the world's only copy of Maybe He's Alive and Well and Living in Argentina and Sending in Entries Under an Assumed Name (itself a response to a contest calling for sequels to well-known works) for Christmas that year. He still has it. Actually, I have it -- I asked to borrow it a few years ago and still haven't returned it. The entries in my cobbled-together booklet are every bit as funny as those in the original book, or at least they seemed so at the time I was transcribing them; I tried to mask my chronic giggles as coughs, and I'm sure I irritated plenty of my fellow library patrons.
Sean has read both the original and the "sequel" and has become a fan, too. Occasionally we'll toss quotes at one another. Here's a favorite:
Listed simply as a farm,
The place possessed a certain charm.
A bucket hung down in the well;
How far it hung I cannot tell.
A rustic path there was that led
To barns, a silo, and a shed.
One barn, perhaps, contained some hay,
Another cows. I drove away.
(That's from the "flat verse" competition, in which readers were asked to submit poems which "may rhyme as well as scan, but should be uncontroversial and devoid of any trace of emotion.")
In 1985, when I started working at a certain independent bookstore, one of the services we offered our customers was out of print searches. Maybe He's Dead was already out of print by then, and over the years I wrote up a number of OP searches for it; once a woman told me she wanted to find 7 copies to give to friends. That's the thing with this book -- its fans are passionate. If you click the above link on the title it will take you to the Amazon page for the book, which lists a number of used copies that are available. They are all spendy. People seem willing to part with this book only for a price.
Here's my favorite anecdote involving Maybe He's Dead:
Five or six years ago I was reading one of Nicholas Basbanes' books about book collecting (I can't remember which one -- probably Patience & Fortitude) on my lunch break. I was reading a chapter on Serendipity Books in San Francisco, a delightful-sounding shop with an arcane method of arranging books on the shelves -- the idea is that readers will discover books they didn't even know they wanted via serendipity. It was so pleasant reading about this used book shop that I closed my book and decided to pay a visit to the used book shop across the street. As I was idly scanning the shelves in the trade paperback and hardback fiction section, what should I come across but a copy of Maybe He's Dead! It should have been in the humor section, but serendipity (and five bucks, I think it was) brought us together. I gave that copy to my friend Curtis.