In June of 1933, American boxer Max Baer and German heavyweight Max Schmeling, a former world champion, fought a highly publicized bout in front of sixty thousand fans in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Schmeling was Hitler’s favorite fighter and was favored to win. In the days leading up to the fight, Schmeling told American reporters that stories of Germany’s persecution of Jews were untrue. Max Baer, in a move that was part publicity stunt and part sincere act of defiance, sewed a large Star of David to his trunks. Baer’s subsequent victory over Schmeling became an international symbol of Jewish resistance to fascism. One year later, Baer, still with Star of David on the left leg of his trunks, became heavyweight champion of the world. In June of 1933, American boxer Max Baer and German heavyweight Max Schmeling, a former world champion, fought a highly publicized bout in front of sixty thousand fans in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Schmeling was Hitler’s favorite fighter and was favored to win. In the days leading up to the fight, Schmeling told American reporters that stories of Germany’s persecution of Jews were untrue. Max Baer, in a move that was part publicity stunt and part sincere act of defiance, sewed a large Star of David to his trunks. Baer’s subsequent victory over Schmeling became an international symbol of Jewish resistance to fascism. One year later, Baer, still with Star of David on the left leg of his trunks, became heavyweight champion of the world.
Boxing is the “sweet science” of beating the living daylights out of another human being. The writing of successful historical fiction is the sweet science of turning real-world figures into believable, fascinating characters and of molding the known events of their lives into dramatic stories. Max Baer and the Star of David, Jay Neugeboren’s fifteenth published book of fiction, is an exciting blend of fact and fiction.
While ostensibly focused on the life of Max Baer, his longtime sparring partner and companion, Horace Littlejohn, narrates the novel. Horace and his wife Joleen form a particularly close relationship with Baer. They live with him on the Baer family ranch and Horace travels with Baer to major bouts. Horace is present on both occasions when Baer kills opponents in the ring (not a spoiler, these are true events). No grammarian, Baer speaks in clichés and short phrases while Horace and Joleen speak in a refined tongue developed through repeated readings of the King James Bible, of which they possess an almost encyclopedic knowledge and recall. It is a pleasure to listen to the three of them interact.
Early in the book, Horace relates the story of their first encounter with Max Baer in a San Francisco restaurant. Baer approaches the couple and says that they look “so goddamned beautiful.” Max is a bold character with no reservations about expressing his desires. He says he’d like to touch Horace and Joleen. He’s heard about Horace, the man with lightning quick hands and uncommonly long fingers:
Max chewed on his lower lip, looked at Joleen’s hand and, very gently, placed his right hand of top of hers.
A moment later I let my hand rest on top of his.
He spoke to me: ”When I got closer and saw your hands—kind of freakish, a guy your size, you don’t mind my saying so—I guessed who you were right off, so I just kept on coming.” He rubbed a finger along the curve of Joleen’s wedding band. “And hey, maybe this is the ring for me—not that other one, where people get hurt, though I guess married people can hurt each other too.”
Joleen stared at me, nodded slightly, and I discerned her meaning.
“Perhaps I can spar with you on occasion,” I said to Max.
Neugeboren has created an intensely fascinating character in Horace and one whose distinct narration carries the novel. The first half of the book largely follows his career working with Baer in the ring and relates the tensions and intimacies between Baer, Joleen, and himself. As Baer’s career reaches its height, so too does the affection between him and Horace.
Horace Littlejohn’s narration is intimate and delivered with the satisfying, true-seeming immediacy of memoir. Baer was a flesh and blood person beyond the pages of Neugeboren’s novel, Horace and Joleen were (as far as I can discern) not, but in the world of this novel their passions are as real as any bout Baer ever fought.
I’m convinced that boxing is a brutal, outdated sport, a relic from when Neanderthals killed food with their bare hands. I am, perhaps, not the target audience for a boxing novel. And yet, Neugeboren’s Max Baer and the Star of David caught my eye with its fancy footwork: a cast of characters that combat my blood-sport stereotypes and a plot that blocks, ducks, and jabs at just the right times. Is it a knockout of a novel? Not quite, but it wins on points.
At about the midpoint of the book, there is a shift from the world of Baer’s boxing career and his life with the narrator. There is a sense that Horace has not only entered into a new phase of his life, but also that readers have picked up a similar, but different book than the one they’d begun. But Neugeboren brings everything together with real force.
The relationship between the narrator and Baer is tender. In the final, gripping pages, Horace describes Baer in a parking lot after a boxing demonstration at a San Francisco YMCA:
He was crying softy, and I realized that until the doctor had warned him about his heart, it had probably never occurred to him that he was going to die some day. I held him close to me. [ . . . ] For a brief moment, in return for what he was confiding in me, I considered telling him the truth about me and Joleen.
You want to learn what the above ellipsis leaves out. You want to learn about what Baer was confiding in Horace. You want to learn the truth about him and Joleen.
I still need some convincing that boxing is truly a “sweet science,” but Max Baer and the Star of David is definitely an example of the sweet science of plotting and writing excellent fiction. That Neugeboren is a master practitioner of this science, there is no doubt.