This journalistic contest was over before it started. In an attempt to breath relevance into the review of a book certain to be covered by the biggest guns in journalism, the Kansas City Star tossed a saddle on a little known, relatively inexperienced writer and laid down a bunt of a book review of former Star sports scribe Joe Posnanski‘s “Paterno.”
Given the circumstances, it’s one of the weakest book reviews I can recall.
Not because it’s godawful or dreadfully written – freelance writer Sebastian Stockman, a college prof, can obviously write. However, given all that was known and discussed, this review needed to pull no punches and set the record straight on whether good guy Posnanski delivered the hard edged goods.
It really doesn’t.
Take this quote as a summary of Posnanski’s overall effort: “Posnanski has done his best.”
Is it me, or does that sound a bit trite?
“Yes, Posnanski has written a good, if frustrating book,” Stockman adds, likening the effort to a “five act tragic opera” and later adding, “Those who followed Posnanski’s work in The Star will find familiar ground here, as his storytelling is as fluid as ever.”
Unfortunately, some things never change, even when circumstances dictate otherwise.
Stockman’s assertion though that “every now and then (Posnanski’s) sharp reporter’s eye is on display” is a complete reach. The last thing Posnanski was is a reporter – let alone one with a sharp reporter’s eye. Posnanski has a sharp eye alright, but seldom (if ever) for reporting. His is an eye for what some might call “color commentary.”
The Star review takes two anecdotes from the book as kickers; one about one of Paterno’s daughters eating a cucumber at a restaurant, the other about the coach wrestling with how to quantify the number of sick days during his career.
The New York Times on the other hand delivers the goods.
“Paterno was to modern college football as the Amish are to Insane Clown Posse,” Dwight Garner writes. “He sealed his reputation in 1973 when he turned down more than a million dollars to coach the New England Patriots. His beautiful comment: “How much money does one man need?
“He was such a moral authority that when scandal touched him, he had, like the stewardess sucked from an airplane in James Dickey’s famous poem ‘Falling,’ a long way to drop. His longtime defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky turned out to be a serial molester of boys, and Paterno did not do enough to stop him.”
Simple and colorfully to the point.
“Joe Pa, as they called him at Penn State, began to look Nixonian,” Garner continues. “You could suddenly imagine the comic actor Eugene Levy portraying him on screen as a lecherous dweeb, his trousers hiked up to his nipples. Penn State fired him and later hauled away his statue, a Saddam Hussein moment. One of the most strangely touching moments in ‘Paterno,’ Joe Posnanski’s new biography, is learning that this prudish coach had to ask one of his sons, ‘What is sodomy, anyway?’ ”
Garner displays a deft touch quantifying the degree of difficulty Posnanski faced in writing the book:
And Garner was direct in letting readers know Posnanski fell short of the mark.
“Paterno” is breezy and largely sympathetic,” Garner writes. “It doesn’t contain (reverse spoiler alert) any especially startling revelations about what Paterno knew and when he knew it. It adds grain and texture to the historical record, though, while mostly skimming the surface of its subject’s life.”
In other words, the one writer in a position to get to the bottom of things where Paterno was concerned – Posnanski – failed at the task. Garner goes on to describe an example of the book’s “relative slightness” that “can stand in for many.”
Garner’s review ends with a bang, not the whimper the Star’s does.
“The book’s primal moment arrives in its final section,” Garner writes. “Mr. Posnanski sits alone with Paterno, who has already been fired and has learned he has lung cancer, at his kitchen table. “So,’ Paterno asks him, ‘what do you think of all this?’
“Mr. Posnanski writes: ‘I told him that I thought he should have done more when he was told about Jerry Sandusky showering with a boy. I had heard what he had said about not understanding the severity, not knowing much about child molestation, not having Sandusky as an employee. But, I said: ‘You are Joe Paterno. Right or wrong, people expect more from you.’
“The author adds: ‘He did not try to defend or deflect. He simply said, “I wish I had done more,” again, and then he descended into another coughing fit.’ ”