- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2009

By Jim Lehrer
Random House, $25, 240 pages

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.

“I like mostly the O. Henry stories — you know, the surprise-ending ones,” Johnny said.

OK, so maybe the characters are a little wooden, the dialogue a little stiff. But maybe Mr. Lehrer’s book is full of ideas, ideas so grand their very airing can overcome minor deficiencies like character development or natural-sounding speech patterns.

And it’s true; there are some ideas in this little novel. The problem is that they’re ideas that are handled far more persuasively in other books.

For example, consider Mr. Lehrer’s treatment of baseball. He mirrors Johnny’s rise and fall in the minor league game to the rise and fall of Johnny’s affections for Betsy. Betsy and baseball go hand in hand, variations of the same strain of puppy love that afflicts so many young men before they are faced with entrance into the real world.

It’s a fine-enough idea, but it’s not executed well-enough to give any real sense of what the game is about. Those interested in reading about the passions inspired by baseball are better off tracking down a copy of Buzz Bissinger’s “3 Nights in August.” Even Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” a volume obsessed with the statistical revelations brought to the game by Billy Beane and his ilk, does a better job of getting to the heart of what it means to be a failed ballplayer in the chapters detailing Mr. Beane’s own career.

Then there’s Mr. Lehrer’s treatment of the greatest generation. It’s no secret that World War II vets stoically suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and Mr. Lehrer goes to great lengths to talk about the shells of men who returned from the Pacific theater. Other books treat the issue with far more grace, however: “Band of Brothers” springs to mind.

“Oh Johnny” will find a nice home in junior high libraries, checked out once or twice a year by curious seventh-or eighth-grade baseball players intrigued by the cover and the synopsis and in need of a Necco Wafer. The rest of us are better off picking M&Ms, however.

Sonny Bunch is a reporter on the features desk at The Washington Times.



Click to Read More

Click to Hide