By Mark Harris
Donald I. Fine. 285 pp. $19.95
Mark Harris has written 12 novels, of which "Bang the Drum Slowly" is the best known. The "us guys" texture of that novel was wonderfully complemented by its intense story line -- baseball catcher Bruce Pearson's fatal illness is established in the opening pages -- and one only wishes that "Speed," an episodic story of two brothers growing up, possessed similar coherence or a similar unifying device.
"Speed" is less a coming-of-age story of Speed himself than of his brother, a year older and unnamed, who narrates this account of the boys making it into adulthood in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in the decades surrounding World War II. Offspring of an Irish immigrant chief of police and grandchildren by way of their mother of one of the town's and nation's most powerful businessmen, the boys find themselves early on (it seems) in the presence of such figures as Babe Ruth, Mr. Morgan, Mr. Rockefeller, Mr. Carnegie.
Speed stutters, perhaps the consequences of being pushed from a table by his brother when the two were infants, but perhaps not; history, after all, is a game of mirrors. However slow his speech, though, Speed's gifts as an athlete and his gifts of conscience and integrity are great. His brother, on the other hand, gifted with gab, remains approximately devoid of conscience. Thus, as the two boys undergo misadventures of growing up, Speed -- his own experiences largely off-page -- provides ongoing critiques of morality, while the narrator's ethical insights are worked into the novel from a perspective of looking back as an adult, at times speaking directly to the reader. This latter device comes across as an attempt to have it both ways, to grant laughs over the narrator's comic irreverence in the present, and moral observations -- a little too knowing and righteous -- from the mouth of the same character as an accomplished novelist in his sixties.
Interesting characters and motifs are set up in "Speed" only to vanish. Aunt Ember, introduced as a hot, key figure, all but disappears from the story; contemporary history, interwoven at the outset, gets forgotten; Speed himself, remotely realized as a character, slips away altogether. What is left are the narrator's near-picturesque episodes, which include his Saturday Evening Post route; his "Occupational Life Intention" essay for his class in occupational guidance, written by Speed; his erotic affair with a teenage maid who lives and works in his grandfather's mansion; his work as a newspaper reporter; his chaste affair with another young woman; and his telescoped success as a world-renowned novelist, most things in his successful life facilitated by his devious nature and his comic lack of moral awareness.
Speed's experiences, observed for us secondhand, center on his philosophical dreams of justice and fairness throughout the world, his co-discovery of the one-handed jump shot, his rejection much of the time by much of his family, and his love affair, apparently never consummated, with a mystical, beautiful Indian Scout motorcycle -- and everything in his life of rare victories and much frustration is marred by his speech impediment and by his instincts for what is fair. This is a story in which the bad guy takes home the prizes and the good guy loses all.
Describing plot and characters, however, does not convey "Speed's" main ingredient, which tends toward social criticism through humor. Nor does a brief description convey its main flaw, which is one of tone, a play for cartoonish laughs and a cartoonish reluctance to take itself seriously. This novel lacks the kind of chemistry of "Bang the Drum Slowly," which remained seriously within its own artistic boundaries. Where one book is careful, the other by comparison is careless. At worst, "Speed's" form has the flow of a child's history of the world -- this happened, then this happened, then this happened.
While "Speed" does offer a raucous sense of humor, it has neither the deep humor of, say, David Shield's "Dead Languages," which is also about a set-shot artist who stutters; nor the aura of history of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime"; nor the stunning authority of William Kennedy's "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game," which really is about Irish pols and takes place at the about same time a few miles north along the Hudson. "Speed" settles for grins when it should be striving for laughter and historical perspective.
The reviewer's latest novel is "Winning the City." He teaches at Emerson College in Boston.