If “Oh Johnny” has one thing going for it, it’s this: It’s a quick read. Even your humble reviewer, a legendarily slow processor of the written word, was able to drink in Jim Lehrer’s latest work in a little more than an hour.
That’s a good thing, too, since spending much longer with this work seems like a mild waste of time. Not an insane waste of time, mind you. This isn’t an offensively bad book. It’s just a flavorless exercise in empty calorie consumption, the equivalent of choosing chalky Necco Wafers when more delicious M&Ms occupy the neighboring shelf space.
The veteran newsman thinks he has things to say, about baseball, puppy love and the greatest generation. But the way in which he says those things are so bland and so uninteresting and so hackneyed and so cartoonish that one begins to speed through the pages, plowing through language that rarely employs more than three syllables at a whack and never inspires the imagination or tickles the senses.
“Oh Johnny” follows the travails of young Johnny Wrigley, a center fielder good enough to play in the minors (and, one day, maybe even the majors) whose career hits a slight bump with the outbreak of World War II. Instead of chasing down fly balls in the outfield, he’s sent to the Far East to chase down Japanese with a flamethrower.
Before firing up the human torch, however, he has a one-afternoon stand with a girl named Betsy during a stopover in Kansas. Betsy rocks his world, gently initiating him into manhood while simultaneously hating herself for doing so. In one of the few interesting moments in “Oh Johnny,” the audience is exposed to Johnny’s inner thoughts and own self-absorption while, at the same time, the girl he is with talks through her own contemptuous feelings for what has just occurred.
Thoughts of Betsy carry Johnny through the war, through the hardships of Peleliu and Okinawa, through the dead buddies and the horrible sights and sounds, through hell and back to America. While in battle, he composes “Dear Betsy” letters in his head, though he knows he will never send them out. He can’t. He doesn’t know her last name.
When he gets back to the States he tries to track her down, tries to get reacquainted with baseball, and tries to live a normal life. The problem is, it’s hard to care. Could you really care about a pair whose coupling is introduced thusly?
“Follow me,” she said, as if it were a completely natural thing to say.
“I’m Johnny,” he said. “I’m a ballplayer.”
“My name is … Betsy,” she said. “I like to sing.”
“‘Haunted Heart’ is my favorite song,” he said.
“My favorite is the hymn ‘Rock of Ages.’”
“I like ‘Bringing in the Sheaves.’”
“I read a lot,” she said.