Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: Over Time (2012)

By Frank Deford

Writers can be a competitive group, particularly those in journalism. They always want to tell stories, of course. In some cases, it matters to be the first to tell a story; in others it simply matters to do it well. Listen to writers talk, and eventually you'll hear some putdowns of other writers along the lines of "That should have been better." Translation: "I wish I had written it."

I'm not sure that Frank Deford's work ever received such a putdown. There's never been a better writer/reporter when it came to the long-form features that he used to do for Sports Illustrated. He usually wrote the type of stories that could be re-read days or weeks later, with the craftsmanship instead of the content jumping out.

As a result, the more literate of sports fans have tried to follow Deford's work over the years. He's done work on a variety of mediums over the years. Now he's gotten around to writing down some of his personal experiences in a memoir, "Over Time." Yes, Deford makes this look easy too.

One of the author's best qualities comes across loud and clear here. Yes, he's smart -- from Princeton, with a few cultural and historical  references that will send you off to the nearest encyclopedia or search engine for explanations. Yes, he's been lucky to have had access to the greats and near-greats, as the words "Sports Illustrated" could get him in a few extra doors once upon a time. Besides the magazine was willing to spend money to capitalize on that access. 

But mostly, Deford is a student of human behavior. He comes up with conclusions almost in passing, insights that the rest of us would probably consider worthy of the centerpiece of a sociology book. Deford starts every chapter in this book, and there are 46 of them, with such a quote from one of his stories. 

For example, ponder this: "Perhaps no man is so haunted as the one who was once stunned by instant success, for he lives thereafter with the illusion that tomorrow is bound to bring one more bolt of good fortune." I read that shortly after writing a brief biography (five paragraphs, that's how brief) of Joe Charbonneau for my newspaper. Deford could have been talking about Joe, but he could have been talking about many people.

This almost reads like a series of essays, staying on one chapter with one particular theme and then moving on. As could be expected, his families, childhood and adult, get some coverage, as do his days at college. Then there are the jobs, and not just with Sports Illustrated -- even though SI gets more ink than anything else. Deford was the editor of "The National," a great editorial idea with an apparently unworkable business model. He's done radio commentaries for National Public Radio and feature stories for HBO's Real Sports. Then there are novels and screenplays, among other projects.

Naturally, there are good stories about people along the way. Bill Bradley. Bob Cousy. Don King. Bobby Orr. Bob Knight. And so on.  Yet, this is that rare autobiography by a sports writer where the main attraction is not those he or she encountered along the way during a fine career. It's the author himself or herself.

The pages go by quickly, which almost comes across as a parlor trick. How could a book with this much insight seem to be so effortless? Must have something to do with the author.

"Over Time" ought to appeal to any student of the human condition, which should be just about anyone. It's a definite keeper.

Five stars

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