It was funny to find that this week's Weekly Geeks theme fits oh-so-well with my week's reading. It's all about (at last) reading a book that you've been meaning to read for a long time that you can't believe you've waited so long to read because it's that good. It just so happens that this was the week that I chose to break free from my sea of obligatory reading and just read something that's been sitting on my shelves for a while. According to my calculations, Steve Kluger's Last Days of Summer has been cooling its heels (pages?) on my shelves since at least 2005, and now, having read it, I really can't believe that I let this gem sit around unread for as long as I did.
Told entirely in letters, notes, and news clippings, Last Days of Summer is the story of Joey Margolis and Charlie Banks. In 1941, 12 year old Joey is a Jewish kid living in a part of Brooklyn where Jewish kids, particularly ones with mouths as big as Joey's, aren't treated too well. Charlie Banks is the hot-headed up and coming third baseman for the New York Giants, and he'd just as soon slug a guy for calling him a name on the basepaths as he would hit a long ball over the wall.
Joey is a smart-alecky kid with uncanny persistence and a knack for writing letters to famous people that actually elicit replies, like his correspondence with President Roosevelt and his staff, for example. It's no shocker, then, that when Joey figures that Charlie Banks might well be the solution to his problem with the neighborhood bullies, Charlie hardly has a chance of resisting. Soon the two are sniping back at each other in letters. It's not long, though, until their real struggles start to work their way into the letters even if they are buried in snark, fibs, and tough guy-isms. Soon, Charlie is proving himself a worthy stand-in for Joey's father, a philandering factory owner with no time for anybody but himself and his new wife, and Joey is calling his hot-tempered hero out on his unsportsmanlike conduct.
Last Days of Summer is, perhaps, a profoundly implausible story, but that small fact never crosses your mind while you're reading it. Kluger gives each of his two main characters such vivid, believable voices that you can't help coming to care about each of them quickly. Only using letters, Kluger fleshes out an entire cast of characters that include Charlie's lounge singer girlfriend, Hazel MacKay, arch enemy of Ethel Merman; Joey's mother and his aunt, a Jewish stereotype of sorts who's always saying that if things go wrong "let it be on your head;" Joey's upstairs neighbor Craig Nakamura, his partner in entrepreneurial pursuits and tracking the movements of old Mrs. Aubaugh the "German spy" with the wooden leg; Charlie's teammate Stuke, famous for making the first unassisted triple play in 21 years; not to mention Joey's Rabbi, a patient if humorless man who gets more than he bargained for when the distinctly un-Jewish Charlie steps in for Joey's dad at Joey's Bar Mitzvah.
Given all this, it's not surprising that Last Days of Summer is laugh out loud hilarious to the point that you might embarrass yourself while giggling away during lunch break while you're at a table by yourself. What is surprising, though, is the way these characters work their way into your heart while you're busy trying not to laugh too loudly in public, how the story can be heartwarming without ever crossing the line into cheesy, and how, even when you guess the ending coming from a hundred pages off, it still takes you by surprise and makes you cry like a baby. I absolutely loved this story of a pair of unlikely buddies who needed each other more than they could have guessed and of two boys who ultimately teach each other how to be men.