File firmly under fiction.
Max Baer and the Star of David, has on its cover the face of a real man, a flesh and blood heavyweight champion of the world, however, only flashes of the man's true self are contained within. Max Baer’s personality was as sharp as his right hand, and like most of the great characters of history we wish more of him was left, in that endeavour, Jay Neugeboren has created a fictional story and placed his own version of Max at the heart of it.
Dear reader, at this point acknowledgment of bias is in order. You’d be hard pushed to find an author who has consumed more information about Max Baer than I. Therefore, although this is a work of fiction perturbed by some of the inaccuracies that seeped into the story. Those crucial to the plot, I was able to overlook, however things such as referring to Primo Carenra as ‘Argentinian’ (thinking of the fictionalised version of him in The Harder they Fall) was unforgivable. Although this may be pedantic, I think those who, like me, who hold boxing history dear, will find some of these errors distracting.
The main positive aspect is the titular Max. Obviously a more than competent author Neugeboren was able to deliver the voice of Max to the reader in a very entertaining way. His wit, charm and warmth are on full display in patches throughout the novel. His ability to make a big room feel small, and a small person feel big, is something many spoke about upon his passing and I feel this is something the author has latched onto and pushed to deliver across Max’s lines of dialogue.
This is best exemplified in terms of Max’s relationship with his Jewish ancestry. The book’s title stresses the Jewish connection and I think the way Max’s voice is used to exemplify this sense of history and duty is the best part of the work. I would have liked an even more in depth look at this relationship, but it didn’t come.
Instead the author chooses to focus on the plot of his two fictional characters; Horace and Joleen Littlejohn. This plot is distracting, especially from a historians point of view. The sometimes incentsuous, occasionally deranged and always duplicitous, relationship between two fictional supporting characters is at best unnecessary and at worst repellant. I found their characters hollow and uninspired, especially when reflecting a character as huge as Max Baer.
Their dialogue is passable but their characterisation is shallow and I found myself willing Max to come back in and breathe life into the husks that dragged the story away from what I believe were the most interesting aspects.
Ultimately this book will always be trapped between its own intentions. It is not a biography, it is not historical fiction nor is it complete fantasy. In my opinion by using Max in a fictional story, the author has written himself into a corner. His imagined world and characters look bland because they couldn’t possibly live up to the lighting bolt that is the pugilistic protagonist.
Ewan Breeze for SimBoxx
In Association with Clint Patrick