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Hinkle: Fans like these would make Trump jealous

(by A. Barton Hinkle, Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 22, 2015, Link)
 

When you are a brilliant writer like I am — and what’s more, so irresistible to the opposite sex that you have to carry around a can of bear spray, like I do — you get your share of fan mail. It can be a bit overwhelming sometimes; often the U.S. Mule or its digital equivalent will bring as many as five or six pieces in a single year. You have to be careful not to let that sort of thing go to your head.

Fan mail follows a certain format, and mine is no exception. It usually begins by citing a particular work from my oeuvre that the reader found especially moving, and then proceeds to more general observations, which are often liberally sprinkled with superlatives.

Here is a recent example — from a Mr. Charles B., address unknown: “I just read your article. You are a complete idiot.”

You will get no argument on that point here, Mr. Charles B. of Address Unknown. In fact, the judgment seems all but unanimous.

Charles B. was responding to a recent column in which I suggested Donald Trump was the biggest threat to human civilization since Godzilla, but with less social grace. And Charles B. wasn’t alone. The Trumpenproletariat can be a little thin-skinned. Another fellow let it be known that he once thought I wasn’t half bad — until he read the Trump column. Now he thinks I should wear a burqa. Moreover, he vows never to read another word I write. That is a big blow to the ego for sure, but at least the old boy’s lips won’t get so tired.

Still, you learn not to take such pokes too hard. All they generally mean is that you wrote something the reader didn’t agree with. Santayana once remarked that when he read the news, he sometimes changed his opinion of the newspaper, but rarely his opinion of the issue being discussed. It’s a common trait. “You’re totally wrong, but my God what brilliant writing!” said nobody ever.

Last month the Postal Service delivered a letter from Jens Soering, who is currently serving two life sentences at Buckingham Correctional Center for the 1985 murders of his girlfriend’s parents. Soering has gained considerable fame and sympathy over the years, having published several books and not killed anybody else while in prison. The New Yorker recently ran a long article about his case, wondering if the verdict was “actually unjust.”

It was a very nice letter. “Over the years I have enjoyed your iconoclasm,” he wrote, which is a polite way of saying: “You write weird stuff and seem a little unbalanced.” True, he wasn’t merely sending along his compliments. He wanted to draw attention to the New Yorker article about him, and a website about his case, and some other information that also bore upon it, and . . . well, you get the idea.

Not long after Soering’s letter, an email arrived concerning one “WILLIAMS, MARSHALL DEWAYNE”: “This is a system-generated message informing you that the above-named person is a federal prisoner who seeks to add you to his/her contact list for exchanging electronic messages. . . . You can ACCEPT this prisoner’s request or BLOCK this individual or all federal prisoners from contacting you via electronic messaging. . . .”

Curiosity piqued! A quick search on The Google found the following: “In 1984, a jury convicted Williams of planting a pipe-bomb in a newspaper vending machine, which exploded and killed his stepfather.”

He was sentenced to 109 years behind the rails, and filed various petitions seeking a shorter sentence, including one that was assigned to Judge J. Daniel Breen in Tennessee.

Breen said no. Several weeks later, “Judge Breen’s chambers received an envelope from Williams containing a white substance. The letter stated that the reader had just been exposed to one gram of anthrax, and the building should be cleared immediately. Curiously, the letter also stated, ‘Do Not Panic, Stay Calm!’ The letter was signed by Williams and contained links to websites attempting to garner support for his release. Judge Breen’s law clerk discovered this letter and, understandably, did not stay calm.”

Fortunately the stuff turned out to be sugar, not anthrax. Still, it gives a fellow pause about making Williams a — pardon the term — pen pal. It would be one thing if he were merely a killer. But to blow up a newspaper box? That’s just barbaric.

The life of a columnist is not all rainbows and unicorns. As the years pass, realization gradually dawns that one’s collected works might not win the Nobel Prize for literature after all — and that stings a bit. Still, there is much consolation to be had in knowing you remain a favorite among America’s convicted murderers. That is something few others can say, and nobody else can ever take away.

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