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Last Days of Summer: Book Review

January 8, 2011

Last Days of Summer
Steve Kluger
Harper Perennial 2002 358 Pages.

I had been keeping an eye out for Last Days of Summer because of how much I love My Most Excellent Year. It came in to the library for me, and was the fast, fun read I had hoped for. It looks like I’m on a kick for coming of age novels set in the summer. Maybe that will change before the piles of slush on the street melt.

I love a good baseball coming of age story. I love it more if it’s about vintage baseball. Give me anything nostalgic and romanticized about the Brooklyn Dodgers or anything with a baseball diamond set before I was born. I will read it and reread it.  Shoeless Joe. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson. And yet, I would rather reorganize my closet than watch actual baseball. Baseball fans are fun to read about, even though all the players’ names and ERAs and RBI’s are an alien language. Jocelyn, and several other friends laugh at me for this.

Joey Margolis is an awkward, unhappy kid. He’s the only kid in his neighborhood who’s Jewish, growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1940s. His father left him and his mother. The other neighborhood kids beat him up.  He loves baseball, but absolutely not the Dodgers, though he lives within sight of the stadium. The entire novel is told in letters. Joey writes heartfelt letters to his idol, New York Giants third baseman Charlie Banks. (Joey also writes letters to FDR, surprisingly canny about politics for a 14 year old, but that’s a side plot.) Joey is persistent and kind of a pest. At first, Charlie is mostly a jerk, but he writes back.

Both Joey and Charlie, the misfits at the center of this novel are kind of jerks. Joey is lonely and miserable and worshiping his hero. Charlie is grumpy about being pestered by a kid who won’t stop writing. Both sets of letters leave all the lumps and bumps in- misspelled words (from both of them) and a heftier helping of the F word than I was expecting. Both Joey and his idol have growing up to do. And they do it reluctantly and sarcastically.This is not a warm, cuddly coming of age story about heroes and wishes and growth.

“So don’t get the wrong idea and think we are friends. Or anything like it. The only reason I am writing to you is on account of it being 2:00 in the a.m. in Philly and they just traded my roommate Gridley Tarbell to the White Sox, a fate I would not wish on a dog.”

Let’s talk about expectations and warm, cuddly coming of age stories. Especially because I reread My Most Excellent Summer recently, this grumpy novel came as a shock. Joey and Charlie growling at each other on paper took some getting used to. I got to like the reluctance of their friendship, fueled by Joey’s wild persistent chutzpah, and Charlie’s frustrated and unvarnished honesty. The relationship that evolves between them doesn’t feel forced to be a feel-good character transformation for either of them. They’re still very much themselves. Which is what makes this strange misfit novel about strange misfit friendships work.

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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