The fiction of Don Robertson (1929-1979) was the subject of my master’s thesis, “The Last American Transcendentalist.” Robertson was from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and, for a time, reported for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. His second book of what fans have come to think of as The Morris Bird III Trilogy, The Sum and Total of Now, deals with events in 1948, the last year the Indians won the pennant.
Morris Bird III is thirteen years old in 1948, suffering from acne, parent-itis, a little sister, various social insecurities (often involving involuntary erections in inconvenient venues like school, or bus stops, or train station waiting rooms) and, most direfully, the looming loss of his beloved grandmother to cancer. We forget, today, when cancer is so often curable and support groups and pink ribbons flourish proudly, that “cancer” back then was a word that frightened people so badly that it was referred to, in whispers, as “The Big C.” If the doctor said that somebody had “a growth,” it was a sign that the person might as well go ahead and get measured for a shroud. Morris Bird’s mother and his aunts and uncles discuss the grandmother’s upcoming demise in whispers, the while quarreling more vocally and nastily over who will get what items from the barn where her worldly goods have been stored.
Morris is miserable. His grandmother has always been “The One” for him. During the war, when his mother had to go out to work, his grandmother came to live with the Bird family, and Morris’s life became a warmer, more secure, more vibrant one because of her. She brought laughter, good food (despite rationing!), and serenity into a house dominated by Morris’s mother’s pinched and joyless ways and his father’s vast egotism. Morris concludes, rightly, that his grandmother’s children are a flock of self-centered vultures. He also thinks–quite in vain, and knowing that it IS in vain makes him even more miserable–that his grandmother ought to be stronger than her disease, which has reduced a once-vibrant woman to a shriveled, whimpering shell. (This was also a time when doctors were reluctant to prescribe morphine, lest patients become addicted–something essential to worry about when one is terminally ill, of course.) But of course, she can’t, and the grieving Morris learns how fragile life really is, and how pain can reduce even the strongest of us to a barely-still-breathing collection of scarcely recognizable human wreckage.
The story of Morris’s decision to do something about these sorry affairs, and what he subsequently does, is the climax of the novel, and it is highly satisfying to the reader. (No spoilers–go on and read it; it’s in print again.) In between, we see the great American pastime through Morris’s eyes (and ears): Lou Boudreau and Bob Feller et al. triumph on the diamond, and even though Morris’s world is in tatters, he can still rejoice, as he rejoices at the movies, where reality can take a back seat for a blessed while. We meet the sparrowy figure of Julie, who teaches Morris to play Raindrop Race; we travel with him to Paradise Falls; we go back in time to Cleveland, when trolley cars rolled along Hough Avenue and Lake Erie was a gray smudged backdrop to the last surge of American industrialism. The book is, like its predecesssor, The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, a love letter and an elegy to Cleveland and to adolescent love and faith and sorrow, emotions felt more keenly then, perhaps because the defences grownups erect against them have not had time to harden yet.
Don Robertson had a reportorial eye and ear, an artist’s vision, and the voice of a bard. His books include Praise the Human Season (which will break your heart forever), Paradise Falls (my choice for Great American Novel about the 19th century), A Flag Full of Stars (about the 1948 Truman-Dewey election), the Civil War Trilogy, and many more. He was a writer of rare ability, and, what is rarer, sentiment. Not sentimentality–there is nothing unearned or gratuitous or fake in his art. Only heart.