By Steve Kluger
There’s not an avid page turner who doesn’t have favorite characters from American literature.
For me it was always Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Holden Cauldfield, Atticus Finch and Ignatius J. Reilly. . . hell Br’er Rabbit for that matter.
But now, having read Steve Kluger’s Last Days of Summer (1998 William Morrow), I’m of the humble opinion that one Joey Margolis of Brooklyn, New York, may just top them all.
Never have I read a character that can hold a candle to Margolis. Or hold a gun to the little beggar (for that matter), which most of the people who come into contact with him—at one time or another—at least threaten to do.
Having lost his father in the late 1930s to divorce and a hated woman he calls Nana Bert, Margolis (a NY Giants fan) relocates with his Jewish mother and aunt in an Italian neighborhood on Brooklyn’s Montgomery Street. There in an apartment with a bedroom window view of Ebbetts Field, the playground of his most hated Brooklyn Dodgers, Margolis (among other activities) slingshots marbles down at Cookie Lavagetto, Hugh Casey and Pee Wee Reese.
Being the new Jewish kid/target on the block our precocious character is abused, bruised and bullied by a pre-teen Italian mafia—Corelli, Verrastro, Fiore, Bierman, and Delvecchi (“Get it, Margolis? Sheenies walk on that side of the street!”).
Fearing more black eyes, cut lips, etc., the identity of these perps is a secret that Joey (telling his shrink) says he will take to his grave. This fear and the fact that he now longs desperately for a father figure, results in behavior that today’s psychiatric professionals might refer to as ACTING OUT.
- Finds himself in the Juvenile Detention Center of Brooklyn for peeing in the borough’s water supply. While in the slam (his words as he enjoys firing dialogue at his interrogators from cop and robber movies of the day) he baffles the Center’s policemen and psychiatrists by lying his way through “rehabilitation.”
- Drives Janet Hicks, his sixth grade teacher to a medical leave. Before caving (nervous breakdown) the teacher writes to Margolis’ mother: “Joseph remains a challenging student. While I appreciate his creativity, I am sure that you will agree that a classroom is an inappropriate forum for a reckless imagination. There is not a shred of evidence to support his claim that Dolly Madison was a lesbian, and even fewer grounds to explain why he even knows what the word means, etc.”
- Handles his infatuation with classmate Rachel Panitz with acts of hostility—throwing pens, erasers, paper clips, fountain pens, and light weight textbooks at the child, just to get her “attention!”
- Pretends, along with his Japanese friend Crag Nakamura, to be The Shadow to Nakamura’s Green Hornet. Through succinct TOP SECRET notes, which the “Super Heroes” fire back and forth between their apartments in a can on a string, they plot to do away with Mrs. Aubaugh, a poor shopkeeper who happens to have a wooden leg. The Shadow and Hornet are convinced that the prosthetic houses (in a secret compartment) everything from German made bombs designed to blow up U.S. aircraft to a Morse lamp she uses at Atlantic Beach to signal Nazi U-boats.
Sound like an endearing little chap?
No, hell no, yet Kluger has managed to create in the 12-year-old the most beloved malcontent since Tony Soprano.
Unlike the evil Soprano, Margolis is funny, really funny!
And for all those poor souls he ticks off (family, friends, neighbors, teachers, ballplayers, jailers, detention officers, school girls, psychiatrists), no one wants to choke him harder than Charlie Banks, a hard hitting, hard living third baseman of Margolis’ beloved New York Giants. Banks, the object of Margolis’ affection and would-be father figure, wants to grip Margolis’ neck as though it were the handle of his 38-ounce Louisville Slugger.
Why? Well the little pest enjoys agitating through the U.S. mail. Craving attention, he writes often belligerent BS letters to everyone from the President of the United States to the aforementioned third sacker of the 1940 New York Giants, offering up tips on, in FDR’s case, how to run the country (lower the voting age to 9 and keep an eye on Denmark) to why Charlie Banks should hit “one out” for Margolis, and preface the home run by dedicating it to Joey on the radio.
Miraculously everyone writes back to the persistent penman. Kluger opens the novel with this gracious response from the President of the United States.
THE WHITE HOUSE
November 26, 1936
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’m 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’m 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
For the most part Kluger tells this unlikely yet riveting tale though correspondence loaded with language that might best be described as Streets of New York (Margolis cusses like a ball player—Charlie swears like a Brooklyn street urchin!). And just to mix it up a bit and move the story along, the novelist drops in an occasional post card, newspaper article, telegram, grade school report card and psychological assessment from the shrink.
The FDR letter (page 1) is a classic. Kluger had me from FDR’s: “Please allow me. . . .”. Then I turned a page and read the first letter from Margolis to Banks and was hooked!
Mr. Charles Banks, NY Giants
c/o Third Base
The Polo Grounds
Coogans Bluff, NY
Dear Mr. Banks
I am a 12-year-old boy and I am dying of an incurable disease. It is a horrible one. I have to spend most of my life in hospitals and in bed with high fevers and very white skin. This is because I have no more corpuscles, which you may remember is what provides you with antibodies. I am also paralyzed. Sometimes I am racked with so much pain that I cry out in the night and say things like “Dear God, Dear God.”
The reason I’m writing is because I read in a magazine once where Babe Ruth visited a dying boy in a hospital, and although he provided him with an autograph which he had asked for, what the boy really wanted was for Babe to hit one out for him. Well he did, and the Leukemia went away like that. You do not have to come and visit me, but I would appreciate t if you would hit one out. All you have to do is point to left field or whatever makes you comfortable and then say, “This is for my friend Joey Margolis” (on the radio if possible) and then swing.
I hope you can do this soon because I don’t think I will be around much longer.
It’s Banks reply that kick starts Margolis, snow balling an avalanche of letters between the two that takes the reader all the way to the novel’s fitting and yes, sentimental, ending.
Mr. Joseph Margolis
236 Montgomery Street
Brooklyn, New York
Many thanks for your letter and the kind words contained therein. I am enclosing my picture with the autograph you requested.
Keep on slugging.
Having none of the form letter Margolis re-dips his pen to ink and (in this abbreviated version of letter number two below), suggests that “. . . Lou Gehrig once visited this blind boy in a hospital etc.” The Margolis follow-up begins:
Dear Mr. Banks
“I am a 12-year-old boy and I am blind.”
He closes with this most appropriate salutation.
“I must stop writing now. It is so very, very dark.”
As the flow of “love” letters accelerates, familiarity breeds contempt. Now knowing the penmen’s Yin and the yang we join Margolis and Banks as they “slug” their way through the early War years in New York City. There’s a focus on the New York Giants and politics with Joey calling Charlie out for his temper “. . . you can bet I have more important things to do with my life than waste my time with a bully who just because he gets caught trying to steal home would pop a pitcher in the mouth etc.” and Banks jabbing Margolis’ beloved FDR, calling the President “. . . a Noodle Head and Dime Store New Dealer.” To this Margolis counters by wondering if Charlie “. . . ever had an inauguration or has an oval office.
This along with show business (Banks dates a ravishing redheaded Broadway song bird named Hazel MacKay who sings with the Benny Goodman band), and the subject of Margolis’ recalcitrant behavior in school highlight early correspondence (Dear Mrs. Margolis, I Had hoped that Joseph would return from summer vacation ready to apply himself in a more cooperative fashion. Instead . . . etc.).
There are numerous fascinating characters (the Jewish aunt is a hoot) and plenty of twists in this page turner and we follow the “friends” from the streets of Brooklyn to Manhattan night spots to road trips with the New York Giants. Eventually, Margolis joins the team (rooming with Banks) as a batboy, a bat stacker who has the misimpression that he’s now a major league ballplayer.
Here, barely out of New York’s Penn Station Banks writes to his girl friend informing her that Margolis’ aunt has sent them off by telling Banks to keep Joey away from the bad element!
“. . . What a laugh. He is the bad element. When I got back to the compartment the kid was gone. Where he was was at the other end of the smoker with dice and the whole team around him, rolling 7s and saying such things as ‘Aunt Carrie needs a new girdle’ etc. And by the time I got there he was in the middle of telling a (dirty) joke . . . well after that I locked him up.”
And in the end, when Charlie’s off to the Pacific to fight the war the correspondence continues. Here (in part) Banks tells his friend that he is in fact HIS FRIEND.
“I can’t tell you where we are but this time it is the medics who are putting in the longest hours. Gee usually all doctors are lucky—camps and nurses and leaves. (it has taken me 2 hours to write this much. You know why.)
We lost Shiloh today. He was in the first landing party on the beach and they did not even let him get out of the boat before they chopped him. It turned out he was only 16. That’s you in 2 yrs. Maybe this is why I have not been able to stop thinking about you since I heard the news, and remembering the first letter you ever wrote to me and how we almost didn’t get to be friends and how little you looked when you told me about your father and Nana Bert and etc. We have come a long way together. . .”
Through these spirited, sometimes sentimental notes we fall hard for Kluger’s characters, see them evolve and do so laughing right to the bittersweet end, of this, one of the written words most poignant and endearing friendships.
For a copy check with your local librarian, drop by your local bookseller or purchase a used paperback of Last Days of Summer at Amazon—for less cash than Joey Margolis might pilfer (on a good day) from that blind man’s tip jar at the corner Brooklyn newsstand. Just click above on the book’s cover.