Frank Deford, 1938-2017

03weber-jumbo
Image from The New York Times.

Well, shit.

Frank Deford has died. He was 78. The cause of death hasn’t been revealed, but according to his wife, he’d been treated for pneumonia recently. I wonder if he’d been more ill than he’d let on; it was less than a month ago that he gave his last of 1,656 commentaries — 37 years’ worth — for NPR.

It’s a tremendous loss for anyone who cares about writing, particularly that form known as the long magazine article — the “bonus story,” as his longtime home Sports Illustrated called it — of depth and compassion.

I don’t know if I can describe him as an influence — though his erudite style couldn’t help but appeal to a much less polished writer like me — but he was certainly a guiding star.

I read my father’s subscription to SI as a child, but for years I seldom got deeper than Herman Weiskopf’s summary of the week in baseball. Sometime during my teenage years, that started changing, and I gained an appreciation for William Nack, Steve Wulf and — especially — Deford. I still remember his piece on Mississippi football coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan almost 35 years after it first appeared. It’s one of the great stories in journalism history, as far as I’m concerned.

It began:

Robert Victor Sullivan, whom you’ve surely never heard of, was the toughest coach of them all. He was so tough he had to have two tough nicknames, Bull and Cyclone, and his name was usually recorded this way: coach Bob “Bull” “Cyclone” Sullivan or coach Bob (Bull) (Cyclone) Sullivan.

How could you not read that?

Deford also was the editor of The National, the legendary national sports paper that lasted just a couple years in the early ’90s. It deserved better, but its failure wasn’t for lack of trying. Grantland — another writers’ site that died before its time — had a great oral history of it a few years ago.

He was as charming in person as he was on the page. I had the good fortune to interview him for “The Old Ball Game,” a book he wrote about John McGraw and Christy Mathewson. (Of course, when I received the review copy, how could I not book an interview? I’m no hard-bitten journalist, and I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to talk to one of my heroes.)

Anyway, he lived a long, purposeful life, and you could do worse to pick up one of his books — or, better, immerse yourself in SI’s Vault. You’ll find plenty of Deford in there. His “bonus stories” were truly treasures.

The story in the attic

I’ve been slowly — very slowly — making my way through the house and alternately getting rid of some stuff and packing other things in advance of my move. It’s been eerie and melancholy.

I filled five bags full of books to take to a trusted local shop, and I felt like I was pulling out fingernails. Last night I went through my CD racks to weed out discs that have been thoroughly burned or seldom listened to, and still I felt like I’d chipped away pieces of my soul.

I would not get along with Marie Kondo.

But what’s been more sobering, in some respects, was finding old documents I’d completely forgotten about. There was a time — a time before journalism became my full-time job — that I thought I’d be a fiction writer. I was never very prolific, but apparently I was more disciplined than I recalled. In memory, until taking a creative writing course during my fellowship year at Michigan, I hadn’t written a short story since college. (Side note: Amber Hunt, your photographs are always welcome sights on the KWF page.) But in reality, apparently I was doing more than that: Among the papers I found in the attic was a short story I’d written around 1993. Attached to it was a rejection letter from The New Yorker.

I have no memory of writing that story, or sending it off to The New Yorker.

Continue reading

Review: ‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty

The SelloutThe Sellout by Paul Beatty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been trying to figure out how to review “The Sellout.” I wanted more and I don’t think the book gave it to me. But is that the book? Or me?

There’s no doubt Paul Beatty is a brilliant writer: nimble, knowledgeable, quick-witted. I read the first dozen pages and was overwhelmed, almost gleeful. Could he keep up such an amazing burst of imagination for an entire novel?

Well, yes. And no.

Because satire – and “The Sellout” is, if nothing else, a satire – is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can mercilessly (and often angrily) mock conventional wisdom and powerful, if wrongheaded, ideas. Beatty does this often and well. Everything in his path gets skewered: Los Angeles and its many neighborhoods and suburbs (this book may have the best feel for L.A. as a full, unkempt city of any book I’ve ever read) “Little Rascals” shorts (and, by extension, the movies, their stereotypes and their portrayals of children); gangstas; black neighborhood gathering places; well-meaning liberals; black intellectuals; sister cities; and pretty much the whole idea of a post-racial America.

The upshot is that race – and all that comes with it – is always present in these fractured United States, no matter how much we all try to ignore it (or, well, not).

Continue reading

In memory of Bharati Mukherjee

1024x1024
Bharati Mukherjee and Clark Blaise. Image from Getty via the San Francisco Chronicle.

My memories of Bharati Mukherjee are misty and faint, mixed with the everyday trappings of a creative writing class. A classroom at Emory, perhaps in the Humanities Building, the fall of 1983. The ditto paper on which we typed our short stories and the smell of ink from the mimeograph machine on which we copied them for the rest of the class. A semicircle of students offering criticisms. Sunlight through the windows. Private jokes.

And this beautiful, sometimes imperious, woman who spoke in elegant, sonorous sentences, making suggestions, soliciting critiques, and always reminding us to make sure we made copies of our stories for everybody. There was a box on the floor outside her office where we’d leave them.

Professor Mukherjee — Bharati — died Saturday. The news started making the rounds yesterday, and I saw some of the obituaries today.

Continue reading

The witty, wise Carrie Fisher

54th New York Film Festival Screening of HBO's Documentary 'Bright Lights', USA - 10 Oct 2016
Image from TVLine.

(Update, 2:13 p.m.: Good for you, Brian Lowry.)

Carrie Fisher has died. She passed away today after reportedly suffering a massive heart attack Friday. She was 60.

The obituaries will focus on her portrayal of Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” films. That’s as it should be: the movie series reshaped ideas of box office success and even spawned a religion. In an interview with WebMD, Fisher herself acknowledged the inability to get out from Leia’s shadow:

Have I gotten past it? I wasn’t aware that I had! I am Princess Leia, no matter what. If I were trying to get a good table, I wouldn’t say I wrote Postcards [From the Edge, her best-selling first novel]. Or, if I’m trying to get someone to take my check and I don’t have ID, I wouldn’t say: “Have you seen Harry Met Sally?” Princess Leia will be on my tombstone.

But I hope the appreciations don’t skimp on Carrie Fisher, writer and wit. Not only was she a highly thought-of script doctor, said to have punched up “Sister Act” and “The Wedding Singer,” she was incredibly quick with a line. Even when it came to talking about script doctoring: because studios could steal her ideas before hiring her, she thought of the trade as “life-wasting events.”

Continue reading

The Margaret Atwood instruction manual

atwood
Margaret Atwood. Image from ElectricLiterature.com

I’ve seen a lot of comments from friends that we’re entering the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel about a future America that’s been turned into a theocracy. Here, let’s see how Wikipedia describes the setting:

Beginning with a staged terrorist attack (blamed on Islamic extremists) that kills the President and most of Congress, a movement calling itself the “Sons of Jacob” launches a revolution and suspends the United States Constitution under the pretext of restoring order. They are quickly able to take away all of women’s rights, largely attributed to financial records being stored electronically and labelled by gender.

Hmmm. It can’t happen here, can it? Watch out for those false flags, Alex Jones!

Continue reading

Sunday read: An elitist takes aim

henry-louis-mencken
Image from Great Minds on Race.

In recent weeks, the chattering classes have been trying to come to grips with Donald Trump’s election win. Who are these people who voted for him? How could anyone who can walk and chew gum at the same time even consider casting a ballot for “Cheeto Jesus”?

But this is a story that’s as old as America. It’s a story of classes — the educated versus the uneducated, elite versus common man, cosmopolitan versus country bumpkin. In general, the former has laid into the latter.

In a famous essay by H.L. Mencken, the latter was the South.

Continue reading

Sunday read: Ladies and gentlemen, the Great Zucchini!

2011-12-07-geneweingarten-01-optimal
This is Gene Weingarten; image from Washingtonian magazine. For a picture of the Great Zucchini, click here.
On any list of great magazine stories, you’ll find a few featuring the byline of Gene Weingarten.

He’s the guy who wrote the piece about violinist Joshua Bell playing for commuters at a Washington Metro stop. He’s the guy who explained why people sometimes leave their children in hot cars. He’s the guy who hired Dave Barry and helped make the Miami Herald Sunday magazine, Tropic, into the home of Pulitzer Prize winners. (That was back when major metropolitan newspapers had Sunday magazines.)

For some reason I was thinking about one of Weingarten’s most famous pieces. It’s about a children’s entertainer, the Great Zucchini. Back in 2006, when Weingarten published the story, the Great Zucchini was considered perhaps D.C.’s best preschool children’s party entertainer, a man who made $100,000 a year and only worked weekends — yet the rest of his life was incredibly disorganized, even sad. I won’t say why — you’ll have to dig into today’s Sunday read for that.

The Great Zucchini now has a website. He may be better organized than he used to be (though at least one 2014 reviewer thought he sucked at his job). Gene Weingarten, however, is still very much Gene Weingarten, even if these days he mainly does a humor column.

Long may he write.

You can read “The Peekaboo Paradox” here.