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Authors: Steve Kluger

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Last Days of Summer

BOOK: Last Days of Summer
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Last Days of Summer
Steve Kluger

For my father—
who never had a hero when he needed one

Even after ten years,
Last Days of Summer
remains The Book That Almost Wasn't. From 1990 through 1996, when it was only a third of a novel and an additional sixty-page outline, it engendered the kind of apathy that would have compelled anybody with common sense to junk it on the spot: “Men's fiction doesn't sell.” “Boys' fiction doesn't sell.” “Coming-of-age doesn't sell.” “World War II doesn't sell.” “Baseball doesn't sell.” My former agent, usually a champion of my work, found the characters unlikable and the narrative style thoroughly unacceptable. “I'm glad you finally got it out of your system,” she commented, after I'd actually finished it. “Now put it away and write a new book.” Instead, I lucked into a new agent, and
Last Days of Summer
found a home.

Once the novel had made an unexpected jump to a Young Adult audience and had become a staple in high schools, I found myself touring the country and speaking to various junior and senior English classes. (“Our teacher told us to bring in things about World War II that you talk about in the book. So somebody brought in an Ethel Merman CD and we had to listen to it. Dude. What was up with
??”) The first thing they always want to know is why I chose such an unorthodox way of telling the story—and in explaining my M.O. to them, I suddenly realized I'd finally found my peer group. Who else but a seventeen-year-old would have understood why my childhood passion for reading was extinguished by the titles that were thrown at me in ninth grade?
Great Expectations
? Yeah, right. No way am I going to get near anything that long that doesn't have the Hardy Boys in it.
The Red Badge of Courage
? Dude! You're a coward! Deal with it and go home!
? Clearly written on one of the Bard's bad hair days. In real life it would have gone like this: “Hey, Des. You cheatin' on me?” “No, Othello.” Boom. End of play. On page 6.

It was only while I was stumbling through Hackley School's library, desperate to find anything that even remotely looked like it had been written in English, that I discovered Bel Kaufman's
Up the Down Staircase
—and realized there were actually ways to tell stories for grown-ups that didn't require an IQ of 900 or a degree in psychology to figure out how a garden-variety nitwit got to be the Moor of Venice. Kaufman's style, and her obvious delight in using a broad panoply of narrative voices to tell her tale, is what single-handedly got me reading again—but this time on my terms. And her influence remained evident fifteen years later when I began writing novels of my own.

The other thing kids pick up on that adults generally don't is that
Last Days of Summer
couldn't possibly be entirely fictive. (“There's too much stuff in there for that. How much of it really happened?”) And in answering their questions without holding back, I began to appreciate for the first time why I'd been so determined to stand by this particular novel no matter what it took.

Joey's predicament is actually based on my father's life when he was the same age, in the same era. Practically abandoned by my malevolent grandfather David when he sued for divorce in order to marry a socialite named Bertha, my father and uncle were raised almost single-handedly by my grandmother Ida and her best friend Carrie. Though my Uncle Dick was able to find other paternal surrogates and go on to become a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, my father wasn't so lucky: He spent his entire life attempting to please my grandfather (which was always a pointless waste of time). Though a natural-born engineer/architect, he ignored his own leanings and instead enrolled at the Wharton School of Business at the U of Penn, at the insistence of my grandfather, who expected him to help run his textile manufacturing firm. My father graduated third in his class (“Why only third?” was my grandfather's retort) the day after my grandfather had sold the business and retired. His only comment on my father's degree: “That and ten cents'll get you on the subway.”

As a result, my father led a desperately unhappy life, surviving two marriages and countless failed businesses. Rather than going his own way—as my generation learned to do—he continued to pursue any crumbs of approval he might receive from his dad. So when my grandfather died in 1989 (all but cutting my father out of the will), my father disintegrated, both physically and mentally, having lost the only battle he'd ever been interested in fighting, and having sacrificed his own life in the process. He died six years later, terminally ill and incoherent.

My brothers and I always managed a semblance of a relationship with him, but it tended to be somewhat strained and awkward. So
Last Days of Summer
was envisioned as a means of imagining the brainy and fearless kid he'd started out to be, and what his life could have been if he'd had someone to champion him when he was young. Happily, I'd completed a rough draft of the book's first forty pages a few years before my father died and had sent it to him; about two days later, he called me on the phone, weeping with laughter. (Note: My brothers and I all inherited the screwball sense of humor from our mother and the wicked one from our father; the business about Joey making up fatal diseases for himself and then killing off various members of Charlie's family just to get his address from the Bureau of Vital Statistics was right up my father's alley.) When I pointed out that “Joey's supposed to be you when you were a kid,” he immediately countered with, “No, pal. Joey is you when
were a kid.” He evidently hadn't forgotten my numerous adolescent stunts, such as crashing the Tony Awards when I was fifteen by telling the stage doorman at the Shubert Theatre that I was Carol Channing's son and that “my mom forgot to leave my ticket at the box office.” (I was counting on the fact that he wasn't allowed to leave his post and that he'd have no choice but to point me in the direction of Mom's dressing room. I was right on both hunches—which is how I wound up watching the 1968 Tonys from the stage-right wing with Angela Lansbury and Peter Ustinov.) So it was my father who made me understand for the first time that Joey Margolis was actually a perfectly balanced amalgam of Alan C. Kluger and his eldest son.
Why hadn't I realized that while I was writing the book?
He insisted on knowing how I intended the rest of the story to read, so we discussed it at length and he made a few suggestions that I actually incorporated into the novel. It was one of the last lucid conversations we had—and I couldn't have dreamed up a better one.

When my father died in 1995, I spent much of the next fifteen months thinking about the life he might have had. So in September of '96, I went back to work on the book for no other reason than to dedicate it to him. If it sold, terrific. If it didn't, so what?

But it did.

Thanks, Dad.

April 2008, Santa Monica, California


November 26, 1936

Dear Joseph:

Please allow me to express my deepest gratitude for the dollar you contributed to my campaign. Although I have indeed considered lowering the voting age as you suggest, I am afraid I would have to draw the line at eighteen. Nine is out of the question. I wish it weren't. In any event, I am touched by your support.

Mrs. Roosevelt joins me in thanking you for your kind words. I hope that the next four years will justify your continued faith in us.

Yours very truly,

Franklin D. Roosevelt

It's funny how the years have changed everything about Brooklyn geography. Time was when uptown meant Nathan's—if you were in the mood for an orange pop, a neurotic hot dog, and some front-line scuttlebutt from a lonesome GI—or the old Paramount, where Veronica Lake once sold war bonds and kisses, and nearly financed the entire Normandy invasion herself. The business district was really the Citizen-News building, where if you hung around long enough and practiced your eavesdropping you might learn that Bataan wasn't just the name of a movie; and downtown, of
course, was Flatbush, where on the Fourth of July the 433rd Infantry marched from Grand Army Plaza to Anzio with only an Irving Berlin cadence pointing them in the right direction.

Slugger Banks Whips Iowa City 5–0

, I
., May 14—Nineteen-year-old rookie sensation Charlie Banks propelled the Springfield Bluejackets to an easy win over Iowa City here, with a solo haymaker in the second inning and a slammer at the bottom of the eighth. The volatile third baseman has become something of a local legend since early April, when he failed to make the squad cut during tryouts but was issued a uniform regardless after refusing to get off the team bus.

Brooklyn is where I grew up. It's where I learned what a storm trooper was, what an egg cream was, what “flak attack” meant, and what rubbers were used for outside of keeping your feet dry. It's where I discovered the true market value of a steelie versus an aggie and the queasy sounds your stomach made whenever you saw a hundred thousand hobnail boots goose-stepping through the Pathé News. It's where any kid could tell you that “Captain Colin Kelly shot a tiger in the belly, then he sent the ship
to the bottom of the sea” but not know the capital of Michigan. It's where the nearest you were likely to get to heaven was smelling the popcorn at Luna Park, or seeing a real-life Dauntless dive-bomber—blue with white trim—taking off from the Navy Yard, or falling asleep with your blackout curtains
drawn tight while Glenn Miller played “Moonlight Serenade” over the radio, live from the still waters of the Glen Island Casino (“mecca of music for moderns”). Brooklyn is also where I learned that I was a kike, that my second-to-best-friend was a Nip, and that my father was never coming back home.

“Nana Bert, is my Dad there?”

“He's busy, dear. We're going to Monte Carlo, but with all those Germans, you can't get a reservation. Call him after the eighteenth.”

Banks Downed by Food Poisoning;
Goes 5-For-6

, M
., June 24—The Racine Rocket lost his bid for 38 consecutive hits this afternoon when an attack of food poisoning brought about by a tin of tainted anchovies caused him to ground into a double play against Joplin in the eleventh inning after having hit safely in his first five at-bats.

“I thought they were sardines,” mumbled a sheepish Banks as he was carried off the field with a fever of 104. Asked where he had learned such stamina, the nineteen-year-old third-sacker retorted, “In the 3 C's [Civilian Conservation Corps]. Unless you were dead, you kept going.”

After the divorce, my mother moved us from a largely Hasidic community in Williamsburg to an old brownstone at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Montgomery Street, where the mailboxes in the vestibule presaged the special fabric out of which my adolescence was to be woven. “Corelli. Verrastro. Fiore. Bierman. Di Cicco.
Fusaro. Delvecchi. Margolis.” This told me all I needed to know. Of course, as the newly appointed resident Jew, I couldn't be entirely certain what recreational activities the neighborhood was willing to offer, but I had a pretty decent hunch that bleeding was among them. Not that my mom or my Aunt Carrie did much to promote my cause: they openly lit Shabos candles on San Gennaro Day, walked to
through the Our Lady of Pompeii street festival, and helped feed the Italian-American War Widows with a tray of stuffed derma and potato knishes. The day we unpacked, I figured conservatively that I had a week left to live; one look at Lenny Bierman and I pared the estimate by half. But I was determined to fit in.

“Get it, Margolis? Sheenies walk on
side of the street.”


Banks Clips Association's Top Tomato

, I
., December 18—On a ballot that surprised absolutely no one, the Midwestern Association today unanimously voted Charles Banks the 1937 Henry Chadwick Award, marking only the second time in the league's 61-year history that the honor has gone to a rookie. (Turkey Mike Donlin, in 1898, was the first.) Twenty-year-old Banks was notified via telegraph at his home in Racine, Wisconsin, and purportedly wired back, “Who in Hell is Henry Chadwick?” Springfield Bluejackets officials have turned down several lucrative offers for purchase of the rookie's contract, including a bid from the Brooklyn Dodgers which purportedly involved the

By the time I turned twelve, the Dodgers made me vomit. There was a popular misconception floating about the borough that they were lovable losers; for my money, one might just as easily have dispensed with the adjective altogether and developed a much clearer rotogravure of the truth. They had neither brains nor breeding—forgivable shortcomings in and of themselves if perhaps they had owned even one shred of talent. But they didn't have that either. What they had was a hartebeest at first named Dolph Camilli, a hop-o'-my-thumb at short they christened Pee Wee and thought it cunning, and something at third base called Cookie Lavagetto. Nobody had the balls to ask why. Then there was Craig Nakamura's idol, Leo Durocher, who plainly belonged behind bars—at a precinct house or an animal sanctuary, the need to distinguish was purely moot and predicated solely upon space availability. All things considered—and given the way my luck was running—about the last thing I needed was a bedroom window that overlooked Ebbets Field. And the only hurdy-gurdy in Flatbush.

Leave us go root for the Dodgers, Rodgers

They're playing ball under lights

Leave us cut out all the juke jernts, Rodgers

Them Dodgers is my gallant knights

Of course, it never would have occurred to me that my father's lifelong passion for the damned team might have had something to do with my utter loathing for them; this, after all, was 1940, and we hadn't heard about pop psychology in those days. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn't going to be finding any heroes in Brooklyn. So I looked where I could—but the results were kind of disappointing.


February 14, 1940

Dear Joseph:

President Roosevelt has asked me to respond to your most recent letter, and to assure you that he, too, is keeping an eye on Denmark. No doubt you will understand that it is far too premature to consider arming the Royal Air Force as you suggest, although your reminders relative to the
are sobering indeed. In any event, I am sure the President will pass your recommendations on to Neville Chamberlain at his earliest convenience.


Stephen T. Early

Press Secretary

April 9, 1940. I have decided to turn to a life of crime. My dad was supposed to take me to Coney Island but he never called back, my left eye is black-and-blue again, the Japanese say they're only borrowing Nanking temporarily but nobody believes them, and Hitler is beginning to scare the holy heck out of me.

I am lurking behind a post in the Metropolitan Avenue subway station on the Canarsie Line, casing my first heist: the cherry swizzle jar at the newsstand run by this crusty old blind guy with a tin cup and a half-dead beagle. Sentiment would compel me to admit in retrospect that he was really a kindly old curmudgeon—were it not for the fact that in truth he was the meanest bastard who ever lived. “Dirty mocky” was not without the
realm of his considerable prosaism; “Have a nice day” clearly was. Therefore, I have little compunction about moving in on the kiosk and making a big deal out of buying
The Brooklyn Eagle
—strictly as a diversionary tactic to throw the old fart off the scent—while my left arm snakes its way toward the swizzle shelf.


“Two cents. Get outta here.” Hot damn! This is gunna work! As I covertly wrap my fingers around the sacred licorice, a train hurtles through the station and, seeing no real advantage to stopping, continues on its way to Montrose, Morgan, DeKalb, and Hell. Eventually the platform is once again shrouded in ersatz silence. Broken shortly.

“And get your fuckin' hand outta the jar.”

Needless to say, I've never gone near a cherry swizzle since.

But the newspaper was another story.

Giants Sign Temperamental Third Sacker


Special Wireless from The Polo Grounds

, Tues., April 9—The New York Giants today announced that they have purchased the contract of third baseman Charlie Banks from the Springfield Bluejackets (Midwestern Assoc.), putting an end to a bidding war that, by late last night, included the Chicago Cubs, the Washington Senators, the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Boston Bees.

Banks, 22 and a native of Wisconsin, has been a favorite topic in sporting pages across the country ever since his arrival in Springfield three years ago, both for his sustained batting average of .369 and for a notorious freedom with his fists “whenever anybody gives me lip or such other good reasons.” Although he has monogrammed virtually every minor league batting title with the initials “C.B.” and has most recently been awarded the A. G. Spaulding Cup, perhaps the greatest testament to his abilities came late last summer from no less a personage than former New York governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who called the right-hander “America's Secret Arsenal.” When informed of the President's comments, rookie Banks replied, “The President of what?”

More realistically touting the busher as “the new Roger Bresnahan,” Giants manager Bill Terry speculates that Banks will be worked into the lineup during tomorrow's opener at the Polo Grounds, eventually splitting third base with current sacker Mel Ott who, on hearing the news, reportedly groaned, “I can't wait.”

In a related story, the Brooklyn Dodgers denied that they had expressed any interest in acquiring the rookie first, despite earlier reports that indicated they were determined to keep the Giants from getting their

BOOK: Last Days of Summer
7.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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