Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Review: Great Men Die Twice (2015)

Edited by Mark Kram Jr.

To get personal for a moment, my timing was quite good when it came to this collection of stories from a well-known magazine writer from late in the 20th century, Mark Kram.

He more or less made his reputation with his coverage of boxing in the 1960s and 1970s with Muhammad Ali. Kram spent enough time around Ali to known him and his entourage well, and it was reflected in his stories about the era in Sports Illustrated magazine.

So I was reading some of those stories in the book, "Great Men Die Twice." It was an anthology of his work put together by his son, Mark Jr. Then came the news that Ali had died, making it quite appropriate to review some of those landmark moments.

The title is a reference a magazine article Kram wrote about Ali in 1989. The first time great men die is when they stop being great; the second is when they stop living. Ali, as we know, had a final act of his life that was particularly difficult for many to watch. The man we remembered as so full of life was mostly silent for the final couple of decades due to illness. Ali seemed at peace with fate's decision, but there's a certain joy in these pages of reviewing those times when the boxing champion was at his peak.

After those first 100 pages, all sorts of subjects pop up. There's a profile of a city (Baltimore), and of a family and its obsession with a waterfall (Niagara Falls). A story about former baseball slugger Hack Wilson, written from the first-person perspective well after his death, was quite memorable at the time because of its unique approach when it was written in 1977. That's about the time that personal problems started to catch up with Kram, who lost his job and battled some demons. Some other magazine stories are represented here, in the form of articles on Edwin Moses and Marlon Brando. A 1991 article on the price football players pay for playing such a violent game was well ahead of its time.

The book comes with a good-sized catch. Kram was obviously a smart man, well-versed in all sorts of subjects, and he wasn't afraid to display that intelligence. That can have its drawbacks. There are all sorts of references that can go flying over the head of the reader, and some stories that just never drew me in for one reason or another. That may be the problem of dated material; George Best and Jerry Glanville are names from 30 to 45 years ago.

When the stories in "Great Men Die Twice" work, they work very well. That will make the collection worthwhile to some, and it's nice to have it available. But all the stories aren't for everyone, so you may find yourself picking and choosing a bit as you go along.

Three stars

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