Book Review: “Max Baer and the Star of David”

By Adam Berlin on February 10, 2016
Book Review: “Max Baer and the Star of David”
Max buys everyone a round of drinks. If only for a moment, unity trumps hate and divide.

Neugeboren the novelist is more interested in what’s below the biographical facts of wins tallied and punches thrown…

Jay Neugeboren has written twenty-one books, which in boxing terms makes him a seasoned professional. His work, fiction and non-fiction, has covered a spectrum of life’s big topics, love and lust and ambition and loss, but Neugeboren started his writing career with a sports novel titled Big Man about a basketball star brought down by a point-fixing scandal. In his most recent novel, Max Baer and the Star of David, Neugeboren turns to boxing for his inspiration. 

Max Baer was a larger-than-life character in real life, a man with insatiable appetites blessed with a beautiful body and a vicious punch. He was responsible for two deaths in the ring. He dated movie stars and starred in movies. He reigned briefly as heavyweight champion. If the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction rings true, then Baer trumped the cliché—his biography was more Hollywood than Hollywood. Max Baer and the Star of David goes deeper than Hollywood and enlightens more than biographical facts. While Neugeboren’s novel follows the trajectory of the famous fighter’s life, with quick attention to Baer’s most celebrated bouts, Neugeboren is far more interested in exploring Baer’s life outside the ropes. 

The narrator of this story is Horace Littlejohn, who begins the novel as a young man living with his sister Joleen in San Francisco. They’ve escaped a harsh family past, hidden their identities by pretending to be husband and wife, and, out one night, are spotted by Max Baer. The young heavyweight is smitten with Joleen’s beauty and makes an offer to the young black couple: He will put them up at his ranch in exchange for services rendered. Some of these services are work-related—Horace, a boxer himself, will work out and travel with Max as he fights across the country; Joleen, a teacher by trade, will help educate Max’s family. The non-work-related services are more intriguing—Max enters an already illicit love affair (the incestuous relationship between brother Horace and sister Joleen) to create an unlikely threesome. Baer’s appetites are never sated, he continues to live his heightened life away from Horace and Joleen, dating and/or marrying one white woman after another, but away from the spotlight, his clandestine relationship with this black couple becomes a steady if immoral compass. Their connection is sealed when, after the birth of Max’s legitimate son, Joleen bears a child, the illegitimate Horace Littlejohn, Jr. While the boy has Littlejohn’s name, his genes are Baer’s. Joleen’s motives to have a child with Max may not be pure, theirs is a complex relationship and Joleen lives “in the unlit caves of her melancholic disposition,” but Max’s love for his secret son is pure and good. Through Horace’s formal-sounding narration, for Horace is a man who studies and knows the bible, Neugeboren highlights the heart of heavyweight champ Max Baer, not his fighting heart but his loving heart. Baer’s words often seem simple, his wit is often sophomorically crude, but his allegiances are mighty.

The fight scenes themselves are quick, painted with enough detail to suggest Max Baer’s ring prowess. But again, Neugeboren the novelist is more interested in what’s below the biographical facts of wins tallied and punches thrown, namely the expressions and origins of violence. Bridging the seeming discrepancy between Baer’s deadly fists and Baer’s innocent, almost childlike love of life, Horace Littlejohn tells us, “I believe he (Max Baer) loved being lost in an elemental passion for hitting and being hit…and he also loved the gratification that came with practicing a craft at which he was master, and which like the act of love, and the ecstasy of being in love, fed his desire to take as much pleasure from life as possible, so that the extended moments in which he could give free reign to his power and his desires, whether in the ring or in his romances, served to enhance and heighten his love of life itself.”

Horace and Max are brothers in spirit if not blood. Intimate friends, they are connected by one woman and so connected biblically. While their lust mostly happens offstage, their physicality onstage takes the form of playful sparring. They never engage in the death hugs featured in George Bellows paintings; instead, their embraces are loving, akin to two fighters holding each other after a fight. This pure bond between two men, a love beyond violence and lust, almost post-coital in its peacefulness, is part of the “heightened” life-love Horace describes.

Max Baer was only a quarter Jewish, but he wore a Star of David on his trunks, smart marketing in the 1930s when many Jews fought professionally, especially smart when Baer fought and pummeled German heavyweight Max Schmeling. But the symbolic star resonates beyond a marketing ploy in this novel. The lusty connection between black Horace and Joleen and white Max, champion of and for the Jews, suggests a larger racial connection. Blacks and Jews, the slaves of the United States and the original slaves in Egypt, two oppressed races forced to do hard labor and too-often forced to hide their identities or watch their words, are united physically and symbolically in Neugeboron’s novel. Only once does Max’s in-ring violence enter his daily life, and it’s to defend his brother Horace. While enjoying a night out, a belligerent customer confronts the two friends and points to a We Serve Whites Only sign above the bar. At first, Max counters the racist with humor: “So you’re okay then. They can serve you here.” But when the altercation escalates and the bartender pulls out a baseball bat to enforce the whites-only rule, Max, not a young man anymore, flexes his muscles. Another patron recognizes Max as the great Max Baer, and when his identity is revealed, the mere mortals back down. Horace Littlejohn infers the race-connection when he wraps up the tale, “The man who had confronted Max backed away, told Max he didn’t mess with killers or kikes, and hurried out the door.” The black man and the man representing the Jews remain in the bar. The racist is banished. Max buys everyone a round of drinks and, if only for a moment, unity trumps hate and divide.

Max Baer and the Star of David is a novel first, a boxing novel second.  And that’s how it should be for a novel whose title character may have been more famous for his out-of-ring escapades than his pugilistic career. The real fighters in this novel are the people that surround Max, Horace and Joleen and a woman Horace falls for as a middle-aged man, a woman who teaches the handicapped how to hear without hearing and see without sight. Novelists fill in the senses; they make the unreal real. Jay Neugeboren takes old fight-film footage, removes the graininess, introduces color, helps us hear and see the men and women behind the man, as well as the man himself, Max Baer, whose life was as colorful as the deep blue star emblazoned on his trunks.

Adam Berlin is the author of the recently published boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). His other novels are The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). For more, please visit adamberlin.com.

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  1. Robert Ecksel 07:14pm, 02/11/2016

    There’s a quote from Kingsley Amis, with which I agree, “If you can’t annoy somebody, there’s little point in writing,” that I always keep in mind when Adam Berlin submits an article. I knew Adam’s book review would open a can of worms. I didn’t think this was the can of worms it would open.

    Boxing.com is an open forum where everyone is free to express themselves, but when it gets out of hand, as it did today, something has to be done. I accept the coarsening of discourse. It’s an unfortunate sign of the times. What I cannot accept is that Boxing.com, a website that has made a real attempt to raise the bar, keeps being dragged through the mud.

    If I say nothing I’m accused of colluding with crypto-fascists. If I bring down the hammer I’m accused of being an autocrat. That it’s come to this is pretty sad. It’s also pretty pathetic. But that’s where the prettiness ends. Boxing.com is about boxing. There are plenty of websites devoted to politics, religion, paranoia and whatnot that love this kind of thing. Boxing.com is not one of them. By popular demand I’m deleting all the posts on this article, none of which relate to the subject at hand.

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