“How many sucker punches can we be expected to take? Here and abroad it has been a rotten year, one of the rottenest on record (within the last half-century, only 1968 is within hailing distance), a real Philip K. Dick acid-rain dystopian production….The year started off bad, then kept throwing beanballs as if testing how much bad news we could take before we cradled our heads and moaned, ‘No más.’ David Bowie’s death in early January, a grievous shock that thumped all the harder because his cancer had been such a tenderly guarded secret (Bowie seemed so ageless and diaphanous a presence as to appear immortal), was the first augury that all would not be well—the webbing was torn….Not a week later, Alan Rickman, the actor whose coaxing voice and wincing smile made him ideally moving in Sense and Sensibility, died, another sorrowful surprise. Glenn Frey, the guitarist, singer, and co-founder of the Eagles, permanently checked out of the Hotel California that same January. One by one the mighty went. Prince, the purple Peter Pan of ambisexual delight, dead at the unjust age of 57; Merle Haggard (no country singer could have been more aptly named); Beatles producer and studio Merlin George Martin; the magnificent Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion, civil-rights hero, and trickster demi-god for whom the acronym GOAT—Greatest of All Time—was an understatement; former First Lady Nancy Reagan; Garry Marshall, the producer, director, and actor (his big scene, as a casino manager, in Albert Brooks’s Lost in America is a stand-alone classic) who gave middlebrow entertainment a slap of extra mustard; a gallery of famed, beloved authors, including Harper Lee, Jim Harrison, Pat Conroy, and, a personal favorite, the discreet, deceptively cashmere-soft novelist Anita Brookner; and nearly all of these illustrious figures gone before the year was half done, the Grim Reaper working overtime.”—James Wolcott, “It’s Only September, and 2016 Is Already a Huge Garbage Fire,” Vanity Fair, October 2016
Since Wolcott wrote that, the toll of the Grim Reaper has only mounted, now taking into account Arnold Palmer, Janet Reno, Shimon Peres, Greg Lake, Edward Albee, Ron Glass, Tom Hayden, Leonard Cohen, Gwen Ifill, Robert Vaughn, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, John Glenn, Zsa Zsa Gabor—and, just this week, George Michael.
(The one conspicuous omission from the latter list is Fidel Castro. Point blank, I refuse to honor in any way, shape or form the life’s work of a dictator responsible for “surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation,” to quote a Human Rights Watch statement after his death.)
Somehow, all of this feels like more than the inevitable actuarial destiny of the celebrities contemporary with the lives of Baby Boomers or the older heroes they worshipped, such as Col. Glenn. It was almost as if all the deceased could not stand the prospect of seeing more of what Queen Elizabeth II once called (speaking of a particularly horrid run for her own children) an “annus horribilis.”
Wolcott's article took in a landscape extending from individual deaths to massive, unnecessary calamities. But he could only begin to discern the tawdry toll of national politics on our psyches this past year. He called this a time of the “garbage fire,” all symptomatic of a planet that, metaphorically and actually, is “exhausted and sick of having us around."