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BOOKS & THE CULTURE The End Zone in Amarillo A.G. Mojtabai Among the Dying BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN SOON: TALES FROM HOSPICE. By A. G. Mojtabai. Zoland Books. 190 pages. $22.00. Dying in an Amarillo hospice, a proud agnostic insists on being lucid to the end. Mr. Straughn, which is what the volunteer who tells his story always calls him, even savors his imminent demise. He sees it as a precious opportunity to experiment in communicating across dimensions: “He wanted to record how it feels to die, what it meant to enter what he called the end zone, so that his wife and daughter, and we all of us would be better prepared for it. He had no tolerance for fantasy or ‘pious piffle.’ He expected us to stay tuned, to pay full attention.” Soon commands full attention from readers who can never be sufficiently prepared for termination. A. G. Mojtabai sets her collection of stories in a hospice very much like the one adjoining St. Anthony’s Hospital in Amarillo, where she spent several months as a volunteer and a literary spy. In the preface, Mojtabai explains that the short fictions in her eighth book originated in speculation about the lives she watched depart. The volume’s title story derives from her fascination with the image of a woman combing her mother’s hair. “Last Things” was inspired by the sight of a woman propped up in bed racing to write what Mojtabai supposes were valedictory letters. “Nola” is an inventive attempt to explain why an orchid was pinned to the pillow of another patient. Mustering what she calls “the courage to presume,” the author might seem merely presumptuous, a shameless plagiarist who plunders ailing acquaintances for the raw materials of her trade. But fiction is always an exercise in creative extrapolation. And, rejecting pious piffle, Mojtabai pays her expiring subjects the ultimate respect of observation and imagination. Like Mr. Straughn, she offers an experiment in an nouncing the final series of downs before the end zone. Death in Venice has of course a distinguished literary pedigree \(think not only of Thomas Mann’s novella, but also of where Robert Browning expired and Ezra Pound acclaimed as life. “Houston, Dallas, even Austin, were charted, on the map of the land of the living but Amarillo?” asks Michael, a gay man who quit West Texas for California yet returns home to die of AIDS. Cliff, who left his farmer father’s windswept land to run an advertising agency in Dallas, was taught by a twister at the age of eight “not to count on anything lasting, in this part of the inhabited world.” The Amarillo hospice in Soon is a very tem porary habitation. Sooner rather than later, each of Mojtabai’ s in-patients checks out. The author herself has lasted in the Texas Panhandle more than sixteen years, since arriving on a Greyhound bus from her native New York City. Piqued by reports about the Roman Catholic bishop’s opposition to the local Pantex plant, which assembles nuclear weapons, Mojtabai \(a Brooklyn Jew who acquired her Iranian surname article but stayed to create a book. Blessed Assurance: At Home with the Bomb in Amarillo empathy with the Christian fundamentalists for whom the Pantex operation is a confirmation of apocalyptic convictions. The prospect of nuclear devastation encourages A A. G. Mojtabai Chitra Mojtabai 34 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JANUARY 22, 1999