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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Book Review: The Boys Of Summer

The Boys of Summer
By Roger Kahn
© 1971, 1972, 1998 by Roger Kahn
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.
— Ernest Hemingway, The Green Hills of Africa
I was reminded of the quote above after getting halfway through Roger Kahn's much-heralded The Boys of Summer. Some of the contemporaneous reviews had the same opinion, including that of the less poetically-minded Dick Young, who called it "a great book, or anyway, half a great book." It's true: the second half can be rough sledding, and the fact that I started this one in January and didn't finish until just today is some indication.

Kahn spends his first half dealing mainly with his own experiences as a boy following the nearby Brooklyn Dodgers, and then as a young sportswriter working for the doomed New York Herald Tribune (later the International Herald Tribune after its U.S. publication ceased in 1967). Boys here sparkles with wit and a keen insight, honed at a publication whose "pervasive sense ... was not sports, but literacy." As proof of this latter, you will not find a smarter or more fleetingly erotic moment in this genre than his 13-year-old encounter with his family's live-in servent, Elisabeth, and how, eventually, baseball got him out of trouble when his parents found out about it.

Which brings me to the second half, consisting principally of post-retirement player interviews. These reminiscences can be at times dull, but the first half more than makes up for them. Even then, several are still worth the wait, as with Jackie Robinson, whose son, Jack, Jr., was then embroiled in a drug bust (and would die before publication of the book), or Duke Snider's retirement in Fallbrook, CA and Kahn's limning of the denizens thereof. Like most who followed the Dodgers in Brooklyn, Kahn has no kind words for Walter O'Malley (who "stiffed" Buzzie Bavasi). And even the dull bits have their graces, as for example his concluding paragraph about the wheelchair-bound Roy Campanella:

He pushed the lever and the wheelchair started off bearing the broken body and leaving me, and perhaps Roxie Campanella as well, to marvel at the vaulting human spirit, imprisoned yet free, in the noble wreckage of the athlete, in the dazzling palace of the man.
I would be shocked if this didn't make it into Jon's upcoming book.

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