Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: What's New, Harry? (2015)

Edited by Paul Ranallo

Welcome to a time machine.

"What's New, Harry?" really does take the reader back to a different era, and that's partly what makes this book interesting. But the concept will need some explaining first.

Let's start with the star of the show. Phil Ranallo is fondly remembered by those who lived in Buffalo after World War II. He started as a copy boy at the Courier-Express in 1942, and after a brief interruption caused by time in the armed forces, stayed there until the newspaper folded in 1982.

Ranallo did a variety of work for the sports section of the newspaper in that time. He is best remembered as the main columnist from the late 1960s through 1980 or so. He spent the last part of his career as a copy editor, a move that few columnists would even think about attempting before leaving in disgust. When the Courier-Express went under, Ranallo never wrote another word for publication.

During his time as a columnist, the Courier was more of the "blue collar" newspaper in town, more for city folks, while the Buffalo Evening News catered to a suburban mindset. The News had Steve Weller as its sports columnist, a graceful and hilarious writing talent, while Ranallo appealed more to the working class. Our family mostly read the News during the 1970s, so we only saw Ranallo's work when the Sunday newspaper arrived - the News didn't come out on Sundays, if you can believe it.

It's a roundabout way of saying that I didn't get the chance to see many of Ranallo's column. So this book instantly became an interesting way to look back at his work. After zipping through the 250 or so pages lovingly compiled by his son, a couple of points jump out.

Ranallo used a very odd device for some of his columns. He created a character for himself called Harry, and he quoted Harry making comments on the sporting scene. Some columns are virtually nothing but quotes from Harry. His wife became Ruby in the column, and some friends became characters every so often as well. This technique wasn't done in every column, and I have my doubts if anyone is trying it more than once in a while these days. But it does jump out at the reader now as being "old school."

There are more or less two types of columns here: local and national. The local ones are sure to bring back some memories for Western New York readers of athletes, games and places. The national columns, though, don't work as well in hindsight. Articles about say, Lou Brock and Rocky Marciano, feel like they are written from a distance, without much perspective. There are a few quotes in such stories, probably taken from wire service reports. But they don't seem to go farther than the idea that "Pete Rose sure is a great player." Since a book like this certainly is designed for Buffalo-area audiences, I think I would have increased the number of local columns in the collection greatly.

There are a few columns that deal with other subjects here. There are tributes to departing friends, and "game stories" of events like the Kentucky Derby. There are a few columns here that deal with politics in a sense that are a little surprising. I wonder if Phil had to do much arguing to convince the sports editors to run columns on three straight days about the death of Robert Kennedy. I'm sure a piece on the futility of the Vietnam War got him some angry responses from readers too, but it's still interesting now. Ranallo could be funny, and he could be poignant - sometimes in the same column, which is hard to do. His language skills come out here.

For the record, the book has some typographical errors along the way. I would guess that stories had to be retyped by hand, which can lead to mistakes - especially with small publishing outfits. And it's tough to imagine how many legal hoops Paul Ranallo must have gone through to get the rights to the columns; I'm sure the thought went through his head 3,000 times that "I wish I could have done this sooner." 

Still, I certainly appreciate the chance to read "What's New, Harry," even 33 years after the Courier's departure. I got to know Phil a little bit in the final years of his time at the Courier. I can vouch for the fact that this was a gentleman, who was a credit to the business of journalism, and who was very nice to me in our few encounters. It's certainly nice to have some of his work on my bookshelf now.

Three stars

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