by John Burnham Schwartz
Americans coming of age abroad has been a popular topic of literature since the generation between the wars made gabbing in smoky Parisian cafés a favorite pastime of the young and angsty. The new version of the old story sends strapping young men off to the Far East to seek fun and freedom between college and the time they face the dreaded Real World. For variations on the theme, see Jay Mclnerney’s Ransom, Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk and Brad Leithauser’s Equal Distance.
Bicycle Days, the latest my-summer-in-Japan novel, comes from a man whose age (24) and handsome mug might suggest he is just a part of the literary brat pack. But Schwartz and this novel shouldn’t be dismissed. While the book has its faults, it is finely, carefully written, with a sweet innocence and naive sense of discovery sadly lacking in many seen-it-all and done-it-all writers Schwartz’s age (no need to mention names anymore).
Alec Stern, the novel’s cold, confused, vulnerable hero, is just out of Yale and working at a computer company in Tokyo (as Schwartz did before graduating from Harvard). Alec’s escapades tell us little of Japan. But Schwartz’s tone captures the Japanese love of order. His prose is as precise, detailed and gentle as an erotic tea ceremony Alec’s girlfriend performs—”slow dancing and leading, in tune with the ceremony and the passing of time.”
There isn’t much plot, just a layering of moments that lead Alec through his time in Japan and home to New York to face a grab bag of postmodern family woes—divorced parents, distant father, wacky mother, resented brother. While the familial unrest isn’t new, Alec’s turmoil parallels Japan’s cultural schizophrenia. Schwartz, drawing a vivid contrast between ancient Japan and its new Westernized incarnation, writes of a woman Alec dates: “She was batting her eyelids up and down. Alec found it hard to look at her. He wanted to tell her that she didn’t have to act flirtatious all the time, like some bad Japanese idea of how an American woman would behave with a man.”
In Alec, Schwartz has created a new hybrid for the era: at once an angry young man and a shy, sensitive type. He cries a lot, often with little provocation, yet he can be mean, violent and inconsiderate. He’s such an involving character, it’s too bad Schwartz wrote his intimate story in the third person. As it is, Schwartz outlines the most incidental happenings of Alec’s life without letting us get inside his mind. It’s as if a great deal yet not nearly enough has been revealed in Bicycle Days. (Summit, $18.95)
Tis the season for Howie-bashing. After taking it on the chin in ex-ABC Sports vice president Jim Spence’s book, Howard Cosell gets laid out again in O’Neil’s entertaining entry.
At the giddy age of 34, O’Neil became producer of ABC’s Monday Night Football, largely because the network brass’s perception was that O’Neil could get along with Cosell. He didn’t even make it through the preseason, though, before he was dumped in a dispute with Cosell over a story about some New England Patriots’ contract holdouts. (O’Neil says Cosell felt the story was biased against two of his social friends—Patriots owner Billy Sullivan and his son Chuck.)
In this book O’Neil convincingly paints Cosell as an insufferable tin dictator. He gives an equally unflattering assessment of CBS’s Brent Musburger, portraying him as a volatile megalomaniac more interested in petty games than in the sports he is covering. (O’Neil says Musburger was instrumental in getting him fired from CBS in 1986.)
Most of the heat generated by the book stems from O’Neil’s assertions about Tom Brookshier’s drinking. O’Neil broke up the CBS football announcing team of Brookshier and Pat Summerall because he felt all the cocktail time they spent together hurt their work. (Summerall and Brookshier, now a radio station owner in Philadelphia, have denied O’Neil’s assertions.) O’Neil is rough, in fact, on most announcers, though John Madden is often mentioned affectionately.
O’Neil’s own dismissal from CBS gave him the motive and time to write this candid memoir of his life in TV sports. At least he’s candid about other people. As for himself, O’Neil confesses to a few muffed calls in the control booth, but never admits a mistake without trotting out two or three excuses. Still, he’s a good writer with lots of stories to tell. Maybe we should be grateful for his insider’s insights. Just as the book was published, O’Neil was hired as executive producer at NBC Sports, where he is back to talking softly but carrying a big stick. Although he has already reverted to the numbing argot of corporate no-speak, he has moved ruthlessly to reshuffle NBC’s on-air staff, replacing mainstay Merlin Olsen with ex-coach Bill Walsh. O’Neil is again playing the game behind the game behind the game. (Harper & Row, $17.95)