At first glance, these books seem very similar. Both are about groups of men — a team of Jewish basketball players travelling across America and six men who meet regularly in a London gym — sad, lonely men lifted by comradeship. But it is the differences which are more intriguing.
Back in the 1930s, the sports editor of the New York Daily News wrote: “The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew, with his Oriental background, is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming, flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart-aleckedness.”
There is no shortage of “artful dodging” in Charley Rosen’s delightful novel. No shortage of Jew-baiting either. In January 1936, a group of Jewish basketball players (and an Irishman) cross America, from New York to LA, playing games for money. They are the Moses All-Stars.
It’s a sort of road novel, bringing to life every aspect of Depression America. On their travels they play in prisons, army camps, Native American reservations, rural hick towns, Las Vegas and LA, even staging a fund-raiser for striking miners. There are several constants. The food is bad, the cheap hotels are full of bugs and everywhere they encounter racism, antisemitism and violence.
Rosen, a former basketball player and now a leading commentator and sports writer, knows this world inside out. He is also a very talented novelist, his prose bursting with energy and Yiddish. With tremendous skill, he brings a group of intriguing characters to life — Mitchell, the passionate Zionist; Brooks the socialist; Ron and Leo, who live on the wild side; Saul, the one-time tzadik and, best of all, the narrator, Aaron Steiner, former high school teacher and Bowery bum, on the run from a disastrous marriage. His life is in freefall and he doesn’t know how to put the pieces back together.
Through these personal stories, Rosen weaves a rich sense of 1930s America. He has no illusions about its dark side, especially the antisemitism, vigilante violence and organised crime.
There are clever references to what’s happening at the time in Europe. Rosen also adds two lively sub-plots back in New York, one involving Aaron’s ex-wife and the other concerning his mysterious brother Max, who keeps promising a big payday in LA at the end of the tour.
It helps if you know your basketball and can pick up references to such figures as the legendary Joe Lapchick. But, even if you can’t, the compelling, bitter-sweet storytelling and dialogue will draw you in.
The Lonely Hearts Club is a more lugubrious story of middle-aged melancholia by first-time novelist Dennis Friedman. Friedman is a psychiatrist and it shows. He’s more interested in psychological issues than characters. His novel tells the story of six men and two attractive young women, all from different backgrounds.
This unlikely crew come together at a London gym and bond over coffee at Franco’s and then at a series of birthday lunches.
Both novels are about lonely men in crisis. Women are curiously peripheral.
Friedman’s world may be more familiar but Rosen’s basketball tale is a treat not to be missed.