Last Days of Summer tells the story of a friendship between Joey Margolis, a Jewish kid growing up in 1940s Brooklyn, and Charlie Banks, a third-baseman for the New York Giants. Joey’s father is completely absent from his life, and it ain’t easy being the Jewish kid at school without a dad (he gets beat up a lot). As a result, Joey acts out, gets himself thrown into juvie for peeing in the reservoir, and embarks on a relentless campaign to get the attention of an All Star baseball player whom he’s never met. The story is told through letters exchanged between Joey and Charlie, letters between Joey and the Roosevelt administration, letters between Charlie and his girlfriend Hazel, “top secret” notes between Joey and his best friend Craig Nakamura, newspaper clippings, junior high school notices and book reports, transcripts of Joey’s sessions with a therapist, and so on.
This book is amusing and bitter sweet, and I feel a bit of a curmudgeon criticizing it, but I can’t get on board with all the 5-star reviews I’ve seen on Goodreads. (I’m willing to go to 3.5 because it’s cute and the characters are appealing. I expect I’ll be condemned to the same circle of hell as people who think kittens are overrated.)
Joey has what’s called “moxie,” so the story includes plenty of scenes of him doing outrageous things for a 12-year old, including: tracking down his hero’s private address by lying to the Bureau of Vital Statistics; trying to dance with every Hollywood starlet who visits New York City’s jazz clubs; convincing a rabbi to let his Christian hero Charlie stand up for him at his Bar Mitzvah, since his own father can’t be bothered; sneaking onto an actual military base. This is all entertaining, but I can’t pretend I was doubled over with laughter. Some of the humor is such a stretch that it should have been edited out. Example: Joey writes a book report for English class in which he compares a seemingly innocuous mystery novel with Mein Kampf. The next entry is from the principal of Joey’s school informing the students that the teacher has taken a leave of absence. Eh . . . ok, I get that this is 1940, but the idea that a misguided reference to Hitler is the worst behavior she’s ever experienced from a student is too precious for me.
The book also touches on some serious topics, such as when Joey’s friend Craig and Craig’s family are sent to a Japanese internment camp. In response to Joey’s letter criticizing FDR, Press Secretary Stephen T. Early tells him, “Try to remember that the right decisions are not always the poplar ones–and only history can judge whether we have made a fitting choice or a regrettable mistake.”
I wish I were more charmed by this book. I enjoyed it, but in the way you enjoy a total popcorn movie and the more you think about it, the more problems you start to see in it. My biggest criticism is that the novel has a hard time balancing the total dream life Joey manages to create (becoming friends with his hero, going on the road with the NY Giants as a bat boy) with the parts of his life that suck (absentee father, best friend sent to Manzanar, Charlie joins the Marines). The story arc follows the path “sad, funny, funny, funny, funny, funny, funny sad.”
Perhaps it’s because I’m more of a book lover than a baseball lover, but for epistolary stories about friendship, I’ll stick with 84, Charing Cross Road. Come to think of it, where is my copy. . . .