Book Review: Last Days of Summer

Baseball is great and I have enjoyed a number of books about the sport. Back in December 2007 I finished Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports, but never reviewed it. Then there was Bernard Malamud's novel The Natural I read in 2008. In 2009, I started Red Smith on Baseball and finished it in December of 2009. I still have fines on my account from forgetting to renew that book. Obviously, I love reading about America's past time and do so each year.

This year I read Steve Kluger's novel Last Days of Summer. This was a novel that moved fast and was really easy to take a few quick notes on. The style is interesting. The entire book is a delightful mash of letters and short conversations, secret notes passed in a classroom, ephemera and newspaper clippings that cut off without warning. You don't mind the choppy style. There is lots of white space so you feel like you are just zipping through the pages. You don't care the articles cut off in the middle. You read on because it's that good.

This also happens to be one of the funniest books I've ever read. A couple outbursts of laughter and a few turned heads made me realize that reading this book in public was not a great idea. I loved all the grammar butchering, misspellings and foul language. I loved the veiled threats and the amazing bonds that all the characters developed through the written word. I loved boys being boys and hero worship. It was just such a hilarious look into the male perspective.

It's the 1940's. Joey Margolis is a 12-year-old Jewish kid from Brooklyn who writes to his baseball idol, Charlie Banks, the 19-year-old New York Giants third baseman. Joey's first letters are of woe and terminal disease - desperate attempts to get Banks to respond. Joey also writes to politicians, his best buddy at school, his family and a few others. Joey makes Last Days of Summer even more so like Catcher in the Rye than The Natural was. The kid is such a little sh*t, but I adore him. I think he might be one of my favorite characters in fiction.

Banks writes to Joey and to his girlfriend, Hazel, a well known socialite and entertainer of some sort. Eventually Joey starts writing back and forth the girlfriend as well, stirring the pot in a most hilarious fashion. Banks' advice entertained me every time and I have a few bits of that advice below.

Kluger's use of history is remarkable. The historical backdrop is World War II. Joey's thoughts on Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Roosevelt presidency are actually quite compelling and extra interesting coming from the perspective of a kid that's too smart for his own good. The book overall was incredibly entertaining, but it almost makes you forget what an incredibly tense time WWII was. In the end, it reminds you.

Some of my notes and favorites to go back to...

For example, at one point in the story Banks asks Joey asks him what the hell a Bar Mitzvah was, to which Joey replies:
Dear Charlie,
For some reason Jews think that you're old enough to be a man when you turn 13, even though you're still not allowed to drink Scotch or smoke cigars or play pool or pack a heater or kiss girls like Rachel (even on the side of her face). So what's the point? But they make a big shindy out of it.
p. 116 and 118 are two very funny letters.

p. 128 - "This is what happens when you jinx the dirt." - Charlie Banks

"God is my umpire."

On page 187, Charlie is helping Joey write a letter to a girl he likes at school. For the line "But if I say Hi to you in the hall, could you please at least say Hi back?" Charlie replies with the following advice:
"Keep it. This is another one that Hazel falls for. Especially if I stick my bottom lip out too. When they think we are going to cry they make us dinner and take their clothes off."
Here's some more of Charlie's advice on women:
Last thing. Never try to win a fight with them. They are always right. If they say that Babe Ruth played for the Cardinals, they are right too. Get use to saying "Smokes, I didn't know that." Otherwise, you will never get laid as long as you live.
Tell him Charlie. Teach the kid right. I loved this book and highly recommend it! It's like a perfectly written baseball fairytale.

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