July 29, 2014
Guest: Robert Timberg
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. At age 26, our guest, Robert Timberg was a handsome young man in uniform. That was before a landmine in Vietnam left him so disfigured that he terrified little children on the street. Dr. Lynn Ketchum, a respected plastic surgeon who did reconstructive surgery on many injured soldiers, wrote in his personal journal that he had many patients in his career with facial burns, but none as bad as Bob Timberg.
Timberg's new memoir, "Blue-Eyed Boy," is the story of his long struggle to recover from his wounds and find his place in the civilian world. Timberg eventually became a successful journalist and author, covering the White House for the Baltimore Sun, and writing three books, including one about the Iran-Contra scandal that led him to reflect on how Vietnam had scarred the nation as it had scarred him. Timberg spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Robert Timberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. You say at the beginning of the book that for a long time, people had urged you to write a memoir and tell your story, but you didn't, mostly because you felt the world didn't need another book about heroic recovery from a devastating injury. What changed your mind and made you decide to write this?
ROBERT TIMBERG: Well, to some extent Craig was a player here. Craig was the one who was ultimately...
DAVIES: Your son?
TIMBERG: ...Yeah, my son Craig bullied my into it. But, you know, people had been talking about that, saying, you know, you ought to do this. And I said, yeah, yeah right. But, you know. they thought I didn't, you know, I didn't want to do it because I was going to have all of this after-flash of Vietnam and everything. And really it was, you know, as you read, I just didn't think, you know, another story was needed of that type. And then one morning, sort of out of nowhere, I went sort of mildly berserk. I was shaving and I just started focusing on my face, which of course you know, had been severely disfigured by a landmine in Vietnam. And I started doing this strange stuff, like, talking to myself and saying things like, OK, enough already. The joke's over. Let's go back to where we were. Meaning, it was as if I was demanding of my face in the mirror that it turn me back to what I was at age 26, when - you know, before I hit the landmine. And of course after several seconds, I realized what I was doing and, you know, stopped. But it was at that point I also thought, you know, maybe the time has come.
DAVIES: All right, but let's try and talk about your story. Tell us about your parents.
TIMBERG: My parents were extremely decent people who had issues, but they were show business people. My father was a composer. His brother was a headliner comedian back in like, 1910, '15, and in fact wrote the Marx Brothers first act, and in fact, performed with the Marx Brothers on stage. And my dad would room with the Marx Brothers when they were on the road and they would play tricks on him.
TIMBERG: But, at any rate - yeah - but my dad was a really accomplished composer. And he wrote the background music for, you know, many of the Fleischer Studio cartoons, like "Popeye," "Betty Boop" and "Casper The Ghost." The only problem my father really ever had, as far as I could tell, was he was timid. And he couldn't - he just could be, kind of pushed around. Or he wouldn't do stuff that he needed to do to advance himself. I mean, as it was, he was, you know - those who knew him thought of him as a certifiable genius. But I reacted to my dad - number one, I loved him, and number two, I didn't want to be like him. I mean, whatever that meant to me. It meant being - it meant being tougher than him.
DAVIES: I want to talk about that. Before we do, just tell me a little bit about your mom.
TIMBERG: My mom was - the first thing you think about my mom is that she was beautiful. And, you know, everybody thinks their mom is beautiful but lots of people thought my mom was beautiful. I mean, she was on the cover of magazines, McCall's. And she was also a - she was a Ziegfeld Girl, you know the famous Florenz Ziegfeld? He discovered her and she was in a lot of his shows.
DAVIES: As a dancer, yeah.
TIMBERG: She was - yeah. Not in the chorus. She was not what they called a Ziegfeld Girl. I always thought of her that way, but she would say, no I was not a Ziegfeld Girl. I was never in the chorus. (Laughing). That was my mom; she was always a little stuck-up.
But the other thing is, as time went on and my mom and dad, you know, were married and had, you know, me - the oldest kid, and two others, the marriage frayed and it frayed badly. And my mother ultimately became an alcoholic. And my father never, ever quite put things together as I and others hoped he would.
DAVIES: So you said that your father was, you know, timid, didn't assert himself and, you know, get what he needed from life. How did that affect the decisions you made?
TIMBERG: Well, you know, it was not like this was sort of like, a little formless sphere. I felt this really, really forcefully. And so I did a number of things that, you know, I guess I don't even want to use this term but it's jumping into my head - manly things. I decided I was going to play football, and I did. I played football in high school and I played football after high school before I went to the Naval Academy. I would've played it at the Naval Academy if I had been good enough. I mean, I certainly tried.
But then it came, well, at the Naval Academy you can, when you're getting your graduation, you make what's called service selection. It's meant - Navy, which would be the obvious choice, or the Marine Corps. Most people don't realize the Marine Corps is part of the Navy department. And so you could select the Marine Corps rather than the Navy if that's what, you know, if that's what you wanted to do. And I'm not sure I was actually going nuts to be a Marine. But it was the tougher thing to do and so, I did it. And I'm actually very happy that I did it, in spite of all the bad things that subsequently happened. And I am proud to have been a Marine and I still am. You know, it's one of the most, you know, things I take the greatest pride in. But, you know, when I did it I was doing it because it was not the easy road. It was the tough road.
DAVIES: You were there in 1966. You were a lieutenant, and one of the tragic things about your injury is that you weren't actually supposed to be in a combat area that day. Do you want to explain that?
TIMBERG: Well, I will try. I will try, Dave. The - I was actually 13 days from the end of my tour in Vietnam and I was ready to go home. What you usually did when you got that close to being done is, you got a little R&R and you went some place like Japan or Okinawa and you started looking for stereo equipment and maybe some pearls for your wife. Well, that's what I was planning on doing. Except in the Marine Corps you always pay the troops every two weeks. And we all took turn - all the officers in the company - took turns serving as pay officer. And that day, I certainly wasn't due to be pay officer, somebody else was. But there suddenly was another call on his time. This was a war of course, I couldn't exactly say, well, hey you know, I'm going to Okinawa, I'm going to get some stereo stuff. I mean, it was just - the job fell to me. And I was riding on a vehicle called an amtracker, a kind of Marine Corps version of an army personnel carrier, and we hit a landmine. And essentially, the area near me on that vehicle erupted in flames and it basically blew me off the vehicle, but not before I had been very severely burned, primarily on the face.
DAVIES: You tell the story of waking up in a hospital and your first conversation with the medical corpsman. Do you want to relate that to us?
TIMBERG: The first thing they said was, we're going to have to cut a little hole in your throat because we don't think you're going to be able to breathe on your own much longer because we think you've inhaled something - either it's the fumes or some of the flames - and your throat is going to close up. And, so you know, this may hurt a little, but actually we're going to give you some - we're going to anesthetize it, so won't be quite so bad. Well, you know, whatever they thought they were doing to anesthetize it didn't work because the next thing I felt was a knife cutting into my throat. But fortunately, it scared me so much I just passed out. So that was my - that was the anesthesia in that instance, for me.
DAVIES: I was thinking of the moment after that, when you wake up and someone asks you a question and - you say what happened. You tell us what happened when you tried to answer.
TIMBERG: Well, when I tried to answer I couldn't talk. And so I was told to - I had to put a finger over this - I had a hole in my throat - and this is what they call a tracheotomy. And for me to get the air into my, I guess, into my mouth so I could speak, I had to put my finger over this hole in my throat before I could talk. That's how I talked.
DAVIES: So for several days, that you had to be...
TIMBERG: For a few weeks before they actually closed it off, yeah.
DAVIES: You could only speak by covering the hole in your throat with your finger.
TIMBERG: Yeah. Yeah. Which, all things considered, all the other things that were going wrong, was not really all that much of a hardship.
DAVIES: So for many days your head was wrapped in bandages and you were taken from Da Nag, in Vietnam, to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.
TIMBERG: Yeah. Right. This was - I have to say, that in terms of military medicine, I couldn't have gotten better treatment. And I was at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines and everybody had, you know, had been treated well. And the entire time before and after. But there was this one instance where I was lying on a gurney, I guess, or in a hospital bed but my head was wrapped up and I couldn't see, and I heard this nurse, who I - you know, you get to know people by their voices - and this was a nurse I hadn't, you know, wasn't familiar with. And she said, where's the burn?
DAVIES: She wasn't speaking to you, she was speaking to someone else?
TIMBERG: Yeah. She was speaking to - yeah - she was speaking to, you know, probably some other nurses or medical people. And I thought, what's that? Where's the burn? Who? What? You know, what is? - And then, it hit me. It hit me, it was like in a flash of revelation. And I realized, you know, I was the burn. And, you know, that was probably the single most dispiriting experience of, you know, my entire years of recuperation.
DAVIES: That you were reduced to - the burn?
TIMBERG: Yeah. Yeah, I was the burn.
DAVIES: We are speaking with Robert Timberg. His book is "Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Robert Timberg. He is a veteran reporter and was a Marine in Vietnam, where he suffered a disfiguring facial injury from a burn. His vehicle hit a land mine. His memoir is called "Blue-Eyed Boy." It was a long - a long time in military hospitals, first in Da Nang, then in Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, then in Japan and then back to, I guess, San Diego. And for the longest time, you're faced was bandaged. But you had seen yourself in a mirror before the bandages were on, and you write that you were relieved to see that your features were intact. You looked like yourself. I mean, you obviously had been burned, and there - color was there. But you figured, when the skin grows back, I'm going to be OK; I'm going to look like me again. But you learned, as this went on, that that's not what happens. You want to explain?
TIMBERG: Well, when I first was wounded, and, you know, I said, you know, let me see what happens. Let me - I want to see what my face looks like. And they showed me. And, you know, it looked - it was red. It was kind of raw. But my features were, you know, the same. They hadn't changed. My nose looked like my nose. My eyes looked like my eyes. My mouth was not misshapen or anything like that. And so I thought, well, you know, once the skin, you know, grows back, you know, I'm going to be OK. And, you know, I had been kind of led to believe that things were going to go well by the medical people, at least at first. And then, at a certain point, they started saying things like, boy, you know, they really can do great stuff with reconstructive surgery these days. And I thought, reconstructive surgery? What are we talking about here? All I need is my skin to grow back. I mean, I didn't need reconstructive surgery, I thought.
Well, my skin was never going to grow back because third-degree burns, basically - that's what a third-degree burn means is, you know, you've burned off everything that could make the skin regenerate itself. And so you get - I mean, I had a lot of skin grafts. But that was basically covering the red rawness underneath to keep - you know, to avoid infection. And fairly quickly, I discovered that what really happens is scarring takes place. And scarring starts pulling and twisting and turning. And before I knew it, you know, my mouth had been pulled through the size of a straw. My nose, my nostrils were pulled up toward my eyes, giving me a horsey look. And, you know, it was - you know, I don't want to, like, overdo this, but I looked like a monster.
DAVIES: The damage was so severe. You had more than 30 surgeries and eventually ended up with a terrific surgeon named Lynn Ketchum in San Diego, who did great things. And at the risk of belaboring the difficulty you went through, I wonder if you would want to describe the one surgery you got without anesthesia.
TIMBERG: Well, OK, first of all, this - Lynn Ketchum had nothing to do with this surgery. This was...
DAVIES: I understand.
TIMBERG: ...While I was in Japan. And my eyelids - I neglected to mention this when I was describing what my face looked like - my eyelids, my lower eyelids in particular, had been pulled down substantially. And there was, I believe, a very serious question of - somehow, my eyes - I had not lost any vision. But apparently my eyelids had to be, you know, brought back up so that they could continue to, I don't know, whatever they do - moisten the eyeball or whatever. In other words, eyelids are not supposed to be pulled down like mine were. And so my doctor then said well, you know, we're going to have to put in, you know, a graft to take care of this. But he said, and I need you awake for this, but it's not going to hurt because we're going to give you a local anesthesia - anesthetic, rather - and, you know, we'll just do what we have to do, and it'll be fine. So I said, well, OK, fine.
So he and another doctor, you know, get there and hover over me. And the one doctor is going to be the anesthesiologist, and he says, you're going to get a little stick. And he put it in just below my eye. And that was supposed to numb everything. Well, actually, it numbed nothing. In fact, for some reason, it just kept flowing out. It didn't seem to go in. And I felt what was liquid rolling down my face. And it was clear that nothing was being anesthetized. And my doctor, the surgeon, said, Bob, we've got to do this. We've just got to do it. So do what you can to hold your head straight. And, as I recall, the other doctor basically got my head in a kind of vice. And the surgeon did what he had to do. And it - I started screaming. And I kept screaming and screaming, but, you know, subsequently, I know they had to do it. But in terms of the pain, the only thing I could compare it with - it was like, I once saw a porno movie. And at the exquisite moment, there were all these stars and rockets and everything going off. And that's what it felt like, except it wasn't as much fun.
DAVIES: (Laughing) Yeah, you write that you screamed and screamed. And when it was over, the doctors apologized for the pain, said it was necessary. You write, (reading) his pupils were dilated, and he looked drained, washed out, older.
TIMBERG: The doctor, yes.
DAVIES: The doctor.
TIMBERG: I think it was as painful and as difficult, emotionally, for him, as it was for me. Or if not as difficult, it was close. It was close. It was very difficult for him to do that.
GROSS: Bob Timberg will continue his conversation with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of the show. Timberg's new memoir is called "Blue-Eyed Boy." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with journalist Bob Timberg, author of the new memoir "Blue-Eyed Boy." When he was a 26 year-old Marine in Vietnam, a landmine left his face so disfigured, he terrified little children on the street. He eventually became a successful journalist and author, after a long recovery that included over 30 reconstructive surgeries.
DAVIES: There came a point when you went home and you were there with your wife, Janie. What happened then?
TIMBERG: It was a very depressing time, and I was reacting the way depressed people often do. I was number one feeling sorry for myself to the extent that I guess you might say I was - to use the standard, appropriate cliche - wallowing in self-pity. But I was also drinking a lot. And then we get to the point in the hospital where the doctor says hey, Bob, you know, we've done all we can do for awhile. I'm going to release you. And I didn't know what, you know, what does that mean? And I said to Jane, what am I going to do? She said well, you got to do something. I said OK, yeah, what? But what? And so we - first we decided that I needed, probably needed to go to graduate school to learn how to do something other than be a Marine, which, you know, now has limited applicability in the civilian world. And she said well, how about a journalist?
And I said Janie, you've got to be kidding, you know, I've never had a word in print in my life, not even in kindergarten or in high school - nowhere. She said yeah, but you wrote good letters to me. I said, Janie, you know, just because I wrote you, you know, love letters you like, that doesn't mean I can be a journalist. And she said well, you ought to think about it. I said yeah, OK, I'll think about. I mean, think about it this way, not only have I never written anything, I mean, I'm not going to go out looking like I do and walk up to strangers with a notebook and a pen in my hand and ask them about what's going on. You know, forget it, a true nonstarter. Well, she said you still ought to think about it because, you know, all these things we talked about that you thought you might want to do, you could be interested in all of those things as a journalist. And I thought, you know, given the options, this isn't such a bad option. So I decided I was going to become a journalist. And I, you know, wound up - I applied to journalism school at Stanford and got in and went there.
DAVIES: It was interesting that you say when you went to Stanford, well, you had an interesting way of dealing with the problem of your reluctance to approach and talk to strangers. You had writing assignments, you had to turn stuff in. How did you get around it?
TIMBERG: Well, what I did was I never really interviewed people up close. I mean, I would go to, say, some sort of government meeting and sit in the back and see what was going on and take notes. And then I would go back to, say, write the story. And if I didn't know everything, I could just call people up. So, you know, I went through that whole semester of writing stories without once ever going up to a person and asking a question. It was - and I don't know if my - my professors may have known what I was doing. I don't know. They may have just been sympathetic, but I made it through that way. I faked it.
DAVIES: How did you deal with people in public, particularly kids?
TIMBERG: Well, kids - you can't really control kids. And I sort of in the back of my mind knew that. But I also, you know, when I started going out in public again, invariably some kid would say something like dad, dad, look at that man. And I - I couldn't exactly deal with that. I mean, I tried to avoid kids. But when somebody said something like that, I would turn on the parent and, you know, proceed to scold them in a way that was in no way friendly. It was, in fact, I believe, threatening. And, you know, that was no way to go through life, as Janie said, you can't keep doing that. You just can't keep screaming and hollering at every person that, you know, looks at you and makes some sort of comment. And I said yeah, OK, which meant yeah, I hear what you're saying, but it doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to do you what say, so...
DAVIES: You know, when you were at Stanford, the Vietnam War was still going on. And now you're entering a world where you're with men and women of your generation, who had such a different experience than you. And I'd like you to share how you felt about men your age that you knew there, many of whom opposed the war, maybe protested the war, who, as you say, were throwing Frisbees on the quad at college while you and your fellow soldiers and Marines were overseas in combat.
TIMBERG: You know, even to this day I haven't quite made my peace with that. But you have to understand what was going on. The Vietnam War - 50,000 men were killed. I think something like 270,000 were wounded, and 5,000 were permanently disabled, many of them losing one or more limbs. So, you know, this was not an academic exercise for me. And seeing people who I knew were able-bodied, but had somehow managed to avoid the draft was difficult for me to deal with. I mean, I didn't think this was a great war. And I didn't think they were, you know, that protesting the war was an evil thing either. What I did feel though was that if you were going to, you know, do this, you had to do something that in some way put yourself in peril, in a way that, you know, much of the rest of your generation was doing in Vietnam. And as I tried to sort of figure out what did that mean, I discovered that there was a classmate who I never met at Stanford named David Harris who had organized this organization called Resistance. And what David Harris did was he essentially said, you know, I'm not going and, you know, you can put me in jail, I'm not going. And essentially he said that's how we should fight this. And I believe that if people had followed David Harris' lead, the war might've ended a lot sooner because if - because we're talking about middle-class kids, like - and if suddenly all these middle-class kids are getting thrown into the slammer, things were going to change awfully quickly.
DAVIES: You went to Stanford as a journalist and eventually got a job in Annapolis, Maryland, for the Evening Capital.
TIMBERG: I went to Stanford to sort of learn how to be a journalist.
DAVIES: Right. You got a job in Annapolis Maryland, working for the Evening Capital and covered general stuff. You ended up moving up, covering state politics, eventually found your way into the Baltimore Daily and eventually became the White House correspondent, in the Washington bureau, right, for the Baltimore Sun. And you'd...
DAVIES: ...Had a lot of experience, you'd done good work, you'd gotten the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. And I'm wondering how - you know, you said one of the things that made it tough for you to go into journalism - and you write that this was a difficulty with your first job - was, you know, given how I look, how do I go up to strangers, introduce myself and ask them questions? How did you come to terms with that?
TIMBERG: What happened is necessity - you know, necessity is the mother of invention or some cliche like that fits into this thing. I was in my first or second day at the Annapolis evening Capital. And the city editor suddenly erupts with, hey, there's this woman that's going to jump off or just jumped off the Spa Creek bridge. And I looked up and thought, wow, that's interesting. And when I looked up I saw that the city editor was looking at me, and he said Timberg, go. So, you know, I stuck a notebook in my pocket and ran out, and I get down to the - down to where the dock where this supposedly happened.
So I went up to these two police officers, and I said, what happened? I said I'm with the Evening Capital. They said well, you know, we can't talk to you. We're not authorized to talk to you. I said listen, this is my first day on the job. You got to, you know, give me a hint of what happened. They said, well, this lady jumped off the bridge and blankety-blank. Well, I needed to know more. I needed to know. And there were all these people, and I thought, I - you know, I got to talk to them.
And so I did. I just did, and my feeling was, you know, I had to get the story. And if they wanted to, you know, get themselves sort of, you know, disturbed by how I looked, fine. I didn't care as long as they talked to me. And they did. They talked to me, and maybe some of them looked shocked and everything when I came up to them, but I didn't have time to deal with that. And I wrote the story. And I thought, you know, I wasn't a victim in this baby. I was - you know, this was something that I did, and I did it well, and I can do this. And so for the next 35 years I did it in one way, shape or form.
DAVIES: Did you kind of adopt a persona, you know? I'm not this disfigured war veteran. I'm a journalist. I'm a smart, aggressive, inquisitive guy, and you're going to talk to me.
TIMBERG: Well, yeah, there was that but, you know, there was also another element which I think of - you know, people most recognize as the Colombo persona, which is it never hurts to act dumb with somebody and get them - and they start to tell you something, and you say, oh, you know, I can't quite - could you explain that a little better? And, you know, they - and you just keep them talking - keep them talking. That was if not my ace in the hole 'cause I'm not the only guy that ever thought of it, but I did it. And - but I was also - when necessary I was, you know, aggressive. I did not hang back.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Timberg. His book is "Blue-Eyed Boy: A Memoir." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is Robert Timberg . He's a journalist who covered Washington for the Baltimore Sun and he had a disfiguring injury when he was serving in Vietnam in 1966. His memoir is called "Blue-Eyed Boy." You had your footlocker from your days in Vietnam, and you'd had it for decades and had never opened it, right?
TIMBERG: Yeah, that's right. It had followed me around for - yeah, several decades. I had it. I had never opened it. I had walked around it. I had nudged it with my toe and never opened it because I basically knew, I thought, what was in it. And I was kind of right. And I didn't want to see my wife's letters to me because by then she was my ex-wife - not that I felt any sort of hostility toward her. I just didn't want to be reminded of what we had.
DAVIES: And why did you - what made you decide to open it up and look at that stuff?
TIMBERG: You know, I just finally - after I got so far into the book I just decided, you know, it's time. And when I opened it up, it was pretty much what I thought, although, there were the letters. There was also, if you can believe it, my wallet from 1967, which apparently I had blown - when I was wounded I had lost, and some Marines on patrol had found it and sent it to my company commander who sent it to my wife. And there it was, sitting in my footlocker. But, you know, the hardest part was the letters because I couldn't not look at Janie's letters to me. And, you know, it was - I mean, I - Janie saved me in a lot of ways. And I treated her, ultimately, poorly. And we were divorced because I had an affair, which devastated the marriage. Janie never did anything to hurt me, and I did stuff that hurt her. And so reading through those letters before the bad stuff happened was very hard for me. I had done some good things, but I had also done some bad things. And, you know, it was no use pretending that I hadn't.
DAVIES: We haven't talked about the marriage here, but you write about in the book. And when you started the journalism career, she was at home with three kids and you were really busy trying to make your bones as a journalist. You spent a lot of time doing that. You neglected - you paid less attention, neglected her and eventually had the affair. Are you and Janie on good terms today?
TIMBERG: Yes, we are, believe it or not - very good terms. And, you know, I've - yes, in fact, she doesn't live that far from me, and she's remarried to a prince of a man - a lawyer - a D.C. lawyer, which is not as pejorative as it usually - I don't mean it in a pejorative way. He's a good, honest D.C. lawyer. At any rate - but, you know, they sometimes worry about me. And, you know, if they think I'm going to be alone on a holiday, they'll invite me over, or if there's going to be some sort of family gathering that they know I would like to be at, they'll invite me over. And yeah, we have a really good relationship. And that's primarily because Janie's very forgiving.
DAVIES: You know, at the beginning of the book when you're talking about why you finally decided to write your memoir, you describe this moment when you look in the mirror and look at your face and really focus on it and say enough already. I've been this way 1967 - 40 years, and it's time for this crap to end. The joke is over. It's not funny anymore. You say it's time to return to normal - for your face to heal. I mean, obviously, physically you couldn't do that. But I'm wondering, has telling the story in this book changed your feeling about that at all? Do you look at your face and feel differently?
TIMBERG: I probably do. I mean, I just - I know nothing's going to change, and what I do know is that I've made whatever peace I'm ever going to make with it. And I don't walk around thinking people are staring at me. If little kids - I suddenly noticed little kids staring at me. I just wave to them and smile which, in a way, means I've sort of come a long way as opposed to, you know, screaming at their parents. And often - more often than not a little kid will smile and wave back. So, you know, it's - you know, I sort of think that in some bizarre way, whatever life had in store for me, I pretty much have lived it. I mean there were some bumps along the way but, you know, it's OK.
DAVIES: The other thing I guess about an injury like this is - you know, I think it's - young people are much more conscious of their appearance. It's probably much harder to take that you're not yourself. And as you look at the pictures that you include in the book, I mean, you look a lot better than you did when you were 26 and this happened. Do you feel that way?
TIMBERG: Yes, yes, but a lot of that was the fine surgical skill of my primary surgeon, Lynn Ketchum. And a lot of it was healing - just spontaneous healing and softening of tissue. I mean I don't think I look great, you know, but I don't go around worrying about what people are saying about me or noticing or looking - staring. I mean I just got better things to do these days. You know, like writing stupid books (Laughing).
DAVIES: Well, Bob Timberg, thanks so much for speaking with us.
TIMBERG: Dave, really, it was my pleasure.
GROSS: Bob Timberg is the author of the new memoir, "Blue-Eyed Boy." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies who is also senior news reporter WHYY. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel about the driver for a wealthy NBA player. She says the novel references "The Great Gatsby" on nearly every page. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. The new debut novel by Chris Leslie Hynan takes its title, "Ride Around Shining," from a 2006 song by the hip-hop duo Clipse. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says, that there are even older sources for this story of new found wealth and a disastrous fall.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Most sports novels are about the aspiration to excel physically; to run faster, stretch out one's arms farther. The really cool thing about "Ride Around Shining," a debut novel by Chris Leslie Hynan, is that it doesn't stick to that familiar rule book, even though it's set in the world of pro basketball, our narrator here is not the guy who aspires to be a great player. Rather, he's the guy who aspires to be a great suck-up to the great player. Jess, as our narrator is called, is a white-bread grad student, finishing his second useless degree. One day, he hears that a player for the Portland Trail Blazers named Calyph West is looking for a chauffeur and Jess lands the job. Thus begins Jess's life of eager servitude, driving Calyph around in his entry-level Jag, waiting on the party guests who swarm into Calyph's McMansion on weekends, and even helping Calyph to dress, choosing from his array of beautiful suits in pearl gray, honey butter and pinstripe silver. If your literary illusion antennae have begun twitching, you've read your Fitzgerald. This novel, about nouveau-riche excess, social class and hero worship references "The Great Gatsby" on practically every page, beginning with Jess's retrospective, Nick Carroway-like narration, as well as that premise of a white chauffeur driving around his rich, black passenger. That's a scene that mirrors the famous Queensboro Bridge passage in Gatsby. But Gatsby isn't the only great book that Leslie Hynan cites. There's a bit of Othello lurking in a subplot about the scheming Jess's crush on Calyph's white wife, Antonia. And in Jess's tall tales about his own background, and the wily way he sets in motion an accident, via ice sculpture, to sideline Calyph early in the novel, the Ripley stories by suspense master Patricia Highsmith spring to mind. Sometimes all this breathless literary sampling overwhelms Leslie Hynan's own voice and plot, giving his story a contrived final Jeopardy question feel. But in its calmer, more assured moments, "Ride Around Shining" lays claim to being an interesting novel on its own terms, offering some fresh takes on those big American topics of race, class, manhood and meritocracy. Race, in particular enters into even the most casual of interactions between Jess and his employer Calyph, who sometimes seem to be developing a genuine friendship. Other times, Jess tells us, (reading) I felt just as sure we weren't really friends at all - that he was having me on. Maybe he'd just grown accustomed to the queer allegiances of white boys, tired of their own skin.
The most compelling moments here are the crowded party scenes where Jess finds himself the lone, non-basketball player and usually the only white guy - Chalk, as he's called - in the room. Occasionally he's allowed into the conversations, but the black players are always quick to let him know when he's misstepped.
Listen to this snippet of conversation at a house party where the question of who's on the inside and who's on the outside, not only at the party, but in America, becomes especially tangled. Jess spots one of those arcade games outfitted with plastic rifles, so he asks his host, an old basketball player, nicknamed the Pharaoh, if he hunts.
(Reading) The Pharaoh snorts. Who am I, Colin Powell?
Jess tells us that (reading), I was about to banish myself to silence when the Pharaoh shook his head a little wistfully and continued.
I'd like to shoot a Elk, he said. Make me feel part of somethin'. Make you feel part Republican, says another player. Imagine that, Pharaoh said, laughing huskily.
Half a dozen brothers go up to Montana, looking right, showing dignity, shooting at some elk. Why don't that happen? I'm just sayin', we shouldn't shut ourselves out. This America. That's a rousing affirmation of American possibility, but because "Ride Around Shining" is so cleverly retracing Gatsby's doomed route, we readers are clued in that there's a limit to what even the most high-flying basketball player here is going to achieve.
"Ride Around Shining" is an often provocative read. It wouldn't be my first-round draft pick, but it's got game.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Ride Around Shining," by Chris Leslie Hynan.
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