Title: Last Days of Summer
Author: Steve Kluger
Cover Artist: N/A
Genre: Historical Fiction, 1940s
Length: 353 print pages
Rating: 5+ stars out of 5, DIK
Review Summary: Heartwarming, moving, poignant and beyond wonderful story of a boy and his reluctant hero, baseball star Charlie Banks.
Last Days of Summer is the story of Joey Margolis, neighborhood punching bag, growing up goofy and mostly fatherless in Brooklyn in the early 1940s. A boy looking for a hero, Joey decides to latch on to Charlie Banks, the all-star third baseman for the New York Giants. But Joey’s chosen champion doesn’t exactly welcome the extreme attention of a persistent young fan with an overactive imagination. Then again, this strange, needy kid might be exactly what Banks needs.
This is not a male/male romance book but it is a story about the love between a boy and his hero, and since the writer is gay I thought it was okay to bend the rules and review it on the site. When I reviewed another book by Steve Kluger 2 years ago, Almost like Being in Love, I thought at the time that it was his best work. Now I’m not so sure, having just finished Last Days of Summer. Joey Margolis, a 9 year old fatherless, smart mouthed Jewish kid from Brooklyn snuck his way into my heart from the first pages of this book and never looked back, so it’s a toss up which story I’ll re-read when next I’m in the mood for a comfort read.
Told epistolary style like most of Kluger’s books through letters (there was no email in those days), newspaper articles, interviews, telegrams, box scores, etc., this book has an immediacy which moved the plot forward at a fast pace. Joey’s first letter was from President Franklin D. Roosevelt which sets the stage and proves that books about kids can be entertaining, falling down funny, warm, unforgettable and a great read. During the story he advises FDR about the war and predicts Pearl Harbor which requires the suspension of disbelief, so you have to go with the flow, but the exchange of correspondence and Joey’s personality are so incredibly funny and vibrant that you will be highly entertained. I loved the sense of humour of FDR’s Press Secretary – a trait that’s not usually within the job description of someone in his position – one of Joey’s frequent correspondents .
Joey’s father had abandoned him and his mother when he remarried and he realized that he needed someone big to scare off the bullies who were beating him up pretty badly every day at school. He decided to bestow that honour on a reluctant Charlie Banks, the new rookie third baseman for the N.Y. Giants. He wrote the third baseman and through lies about having several incurable diseases, threats, and blackmail he hoped to persuade Charlie to publicly state on radio that they were friends so that the bullies would leave him alone. In the meantime he managed to get into all kinds of trouble and once he was sent to juvenile detention for a “minor” infraction (peeing in the reservoir), but no torture would make him reveal the names of the bullies who were terrorizing him as he was afraid of meeting an untimely death. Joey’s go-to best buddy Craig Nakamura, AKA the Green Hornet, barely succeeded in keeping his friend from ending up in prison or witness protection.
After Charlie gave in to the runaway train that was Joey and acquiesced to the inevitable he and Joey became buddies, a relationship that would last a lifetime. One of the most poignant episodes in the book was Mrs. Roosevelt’s annual essay contest inviting students from 200 high schools to write about “If My Father Were President.” Since Joey’s father had basically ignored him for most of his life Charlie Banks, just a decade older than Joey, became his “father” and his essay was so moving it brought me to tears. Charlie’s and Joey’s lives were so intertwined they were hardly ever apart except when Charlie was on the road playing baseball or later on when he enlisted, and here again the letters between them showed Kluger’s sense of the ridiculous as Charlie entrusted his campaign to win the heart of his lady love to Joey, who proved once again that he was up to any job.
There are many “moments” in this book and I found it hard to choose a favourite, but Joey’s prep for his Bar Mitzvah provided some of the most unforgettable. With no father to stand up with him Joey needed a man to help him through the Jewish ritual of becoming a man at thirteen. Who else would he hijack into the role but Charlie, whose efforts to learn Hebrew were hilarious. The exchange of letters between Rabbi Lieberman, Charlie and Joey’s mom were a stand-up comedian’s dream. Here’s an example of a paragraph from a letter the Rabbi wrote to Joey’s mom after one session with him and Charlie:
“It might be a wise idea were someone to suggest to Mr. Banks that there is a significant difference between the Torah and the Daily News. One of them is open to conjecture and the other is not. Furthermore, the story of the great flood provides the moral foundation upon which the entire human race has been built. Whether or not Noah had “a couple of loose spark plugs under the hood” is both anachronistic and moot. …….. Then too we must consider whether Mr. Banks is even remotely capable of grasping the nuances of the Hebrew tongue; when he attempted to pronounce “Noach” he nearly drowned Cantor Rosenfeld. This does not bode well for October. Similarly, it is Joseph’s opinion that he open his Bar Mitzvah speech “with a few laughs to loosen them up” more specifically that worn-out routine chronicling Moses’ descent from the mountain with the Ten Commandments concluding with the epigram “Adultery’s still in” ….. Given the manner in which the two of them recited the line in unison I gather that Mr. Banks and your son are a well-suited match. So too, are Laurel and Hardy.”
The Rabbi was not one for pulling his punches.
For Joey the best time of his life was his birthday present from Charlie, the job of temporary replacement as the bat boy for the New York Giants that summer when the regular holder of the job was fired for getting his 16 year old girlfriend pregnant (bad for the image of the team) :). You’re on your own here since there’s no way I could do justice to Joey’s antics, schemes and machinations to wrest everything he could from his new assignment, despite Charlie’s insistence that he study for his Bar Mitzvah during his free time.
What impresses me about this author is his deep affection for his characters which is evident throughout this book. Brilliantly crafted, Joey and Charlie are wonderful whether or not they are together, and you will split your sides laughing or shed tears. The secondary characters are fully three dimensional with back stories and ongoing lives and you will experience their emotions as the world changes around them. Joey’s Aunt Carrie was most impressive and courageous as she took on all comers and I also have to take my hat off to Charlie’s teammates, many of whom had roles in the story, especially Stuke. Rabbi Lieberman was one of my favourites as he showed great tolerance and went out of his way to make a 13 year old on the brink of manhood feel part of his religious community by accepting his choice of a Gentile as the adult male who would stand beside Joey as he crossed the threshold. There were many other secondary characters such as Hazel, Charlie’s girlfriend and later his wife, a wonderful woman who took on the protective role with Joey whenever Charlie was unavailable. There are just too many others to mention otherwise this review would be too long to post.
Last Days of Summer is not just a funny story but one that’s moving and unforgettable, and the characters will stay with you long after you finish reading. Kluger’s narrative style is unique and his writing is as crisp and fresh today 13 years after this book was written, and I was incredibly engaged by the story as the 40’s came alive on the pages. The world building was authentic and I could feel the war all around me; the famous characters of the time were front and center as bombs rained down on the soldiers on the front lines. There is much to engage you in this remarkable story and you will be remembering your own special passages that made the characters endearing long after you finish the book. The ending was appropriate for the time and inspiring.
This is not only one of the funniest, most compelling stories I have read in a long time but also really memorable and remarkable. You wouldn’t want to miss it. I know reviewers use these words a lot about books, but this time I think it’s well deserved.