Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Book Review: Shoooting Stars by LeBron James and Buzz Bissinger

Shooting Stars, the LeBron James autobiography co-authored by Buzz Bissinger, is a consistently alienating read--the story of a 24-year-old African-American midwestern product of the Akron public school system and the basketball industrial complex told in the first-person by a 54-year-old white northeasterner who spent his formative years at Phillips Academy and the University of Pennsylvania.

Not that such differences of age, race, class, and geography are impossible to overcome, just that Bissinger* strikes me as an especially unlikely candidate to accomplish the feat.
(He may have his doubts, too.) Not that he had an easy task as, on the basis of the book, LeBron James has no interest in revealing** anything of himself. The combination leaves the reader with Bissinger, in an attempt to overcome the absence of particulars to report, providing a tonally unconvincing (and generically "literary") account of James's life spun out of the occasional telling detail presumably provided by the book's putative narrator via interview. Take the following examples, all of them from the first chapter (i.e. before I stopped noting each and every passage that stood out):
If you went up North Hill in the 1980s, you could tell that life was not like it once was: the obsolete smokestacks in the distance, the downtown felt so tired and weary.
The more I rode my bike around, and you could ride just about everywhere because it was midwestern small and compact...
There was something wholesome about it, the best of the Midwest, Cleveland without the 'hoods where you could go in and never come back out. One of my favorite spots in town was Swensons, which, straight out of Happy Days, still served up a burger and fries and Cherry Coke on a tray that was attached to the window of your car by a goofy-looking teenager still dealing with acne.
Now maybe LeBron James has been enrolled in a mediocre*** Creative Writing program quietly working toward an MFA in the off-season and perhaps I'm making my own assumptions about class and race but these passages (and there are many, many more like them throughout the book) lack verisimilitude. I don't doubt that Akron's decline was visible to a child nor that young LeBron rode his bike a lot nor that Swensons made a tasty burger and kids like drive-ins. None of this, though, is expressed with any sort of immediacy or authenticity. For that, the book suffers fatally and is to the credit of none who were involved in its creation, the inspiration for which is perhaps best indicated by this passage in the acknowledgments:
I would like to give a special thank you to my friend and manager Maverick Carter. Maverick, who also is the chief executive officer of LRMR, the marketing and branding company that handles all my business affairs, played an invaluable role in helping to create the vision for Shooting Stars.
The book improves as it begins to feature stories of James's AAU and high school teammates in chapters that recall the best of Bissinger's achievements in Friday Night Lights and wherein the combination of Bissinger's voice and recognizably direct recollections from James combine better than in the passages written in the first person.

Bissinger made his reputation as a writer about sports with Friday Night Lights, the success of which was fueled as much by a provincial shock (both Bissinger's and the literary establishment's) at the revelation that some Texas towns might take high school football a bit too seriously as by Bissinger's talent as a reporter and writer. Michael Lewis's valentine to Billy Beane is a more recent example of the potential success of old news breathlessly reported to a new audience.

The composition of those who blurbed the book (Jay-Z, Bob Costas, John Grisham, Mike Krzyzewski, Warren Buffett, Steve Lopez, and Madeline Blais) suggests that this is a book designed to appeal to media, cultural, financial, and athletic establishments rather than to be interesting.



CoCo said...

At this point you are rarely ever going to read something about LeBron and find out something you didn't already know about him in said reading. The only reason people keep writing about LeBron is because he's popular. There's never any new revelations about him, therefore it's a slight waste of time to indulge oneself in a story about LeBron and his life. Basically if you've read one, you've read them all.

Brian said...

I was raised in Akron and everything he says about Swenson's is really true. lol