Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Favorite Reads in May and June

Beast of Burden, Ray Banks. Banks is one of the writers that forces me to look for ways to be sure they don’t fall through the cracks of a busy life. I’ve never been disappointed in anything he’s written. In fact, I’m always pleasantly surprised, even though my expectations are routinely high. Beast of Burden is the fourth and last of the Cal Innis PI books. Not that Cal is really a PI. He tries to be. Sometimes. Thing is, Cal is too tied to his history to break away and do much for himself. It’s going to undo him someday, though not likely for the right reason. That’s cryptic, even for me, but this one has a twist in the end I don’t even want to make you look forward to, let alone spoil. Banks is the George Higgins of the UK, writing dialog that carries his story in ways no one else would think of. It may take a while for an American to fall into the flow of the slang, but once you do few writers can wrap you up in their world better than Banks.

Playing Through the Whistle. S. L. Price. A non-fiction account of the rise and fall of Aliquippa, PA, as seen through the prism of its high school sports teams, especially football. Even in its heyday Aliquippa never had 40,000 residents; now the population is less than half that. Still the town cranks out top rate NFL players that run from Mike Ditka through Tony Dorsett to Darrell Revis and beyond. The original Jones & Laughlin mills ran for seven-and-a-half miles along the Ohio River west of Pittsburgh. (Think about that for a minute: seven and a half miles. A straight line west to east across Manhattan Island through Central Park is less than two.) The mills are gone for all intents and purpose, but the town lives on. Price is not a native but has the perfect combination of perspective and love for the community to tell this story as few can. Penns River is not Aliquippa—things are actually better in Penns River—but it could have been had I been born 40 miles farther west. Playing Through the Whistle deserves every accolade it’s earned.

Nobody’s Fool. Richard Russo. Been a while since I read any Russo, so I returned to where I started. Most people are aware of the story because of the movie where Paul Newman plays the hapless Sully, who couldn’t catch a break if it floated down to him tied to a parachute, and doesn’t really want to. Towns like North Bath and Aliquippa and Penns River are full of Sullys, outlaws in their own ways without being criminal and whose ration of don’t give a shit has reached self-defeating levels. Russo shows Sully as an asshole who doesn’t mean anything by it, not knowing when to stop teasing his friend Rub and stealing the same snow blower multiple times. It’s a leisurely stroll through several weeks of life in a dying town that’s still lively enough to remain entertaining throughout.

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