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Frank Deford: Bliss, Remembered

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Bliss, Remembered

By Frank Deford

Overlook, paperback

Frank Deford is one of the best sportswriters working today. Smart and introspective, he possesses a sense of history about sports, and sports writing, that infuses his work (mainly found in Sports Illustrated, where he has worked since 1962) with a heft not usually found in ESPN The Magazine or PressBox. NPR listeners may recognize him as the sardonic, maybe even pompous, sports commentator with the syrupy baritone. One hopes that will not dissuade them from reading his prose, which is better than his recitation. This book is certainly worth the read.

The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, form the backdrop for this “last story about the war,” as fictional Olympian Sydney Stringfellow calls it. Dying of cancer, she narrates it to her son, who fills in a few other details. The story begins on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and sprawls to New York, Chicago, Berlin, and the Pacific Northwest. Its fulcrum is a love affair as pulpy as any found in a Harlequin book, complete with violence, tragedy, and Nazis.

Bliss is not experimental fiction. It is a well-constructed novel, with the occasional joint seam or rivet head peeking out. The dying confession of the narrator’s mother gives the history its structure and urgency, but there are stretches where one wonders how the old lady could recall, with such with vivid and precise detail, events that transpired more than half a century before—as in a scene with Leni Riefenstahl, in which Ms. Stringfellow recounts 11 lines of dialogue verbatim while keeping track of the comings and goings of three other people.

Still, it’s easy to suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying the story and even the language, which, when not revealing differences in usage and meaning that have arisen since 1936, betrays Deford’s idiolect: very much so, and never mind that because it’s neither here nor there.

One can even forgive Deford the cardinal error of the drinking man’s book: getting the booze wrong. “Everybody used to drink Maryland rye when I was growing up,” Ms. Stringfellow tells her son near the end, just when a shot or two of Pikesville Maryland Rye is most called for. “Oh, my, did Carter Kincaid and I get so awfully tight on that one night when we were kids and her parents were out and we got into her father’s bar. It was called Pikesville. I can’t forget that poison.”

Pikesville Maryland Rye came into being in 1936, when Ms. Stringfellow would have been busy in Berlin. Perhaps this is Deford’s way of telling the careful reader that his protagonist’s memory is not as sharp as it seems. Or, more likely, Deford, born in Baltimore in 1938, endured that liquor-cabinet experience, probably in the early 1950s. “Now of course, they stopped making Maryland rye years ago,” Ms. Stringfellow informs her son. They substitute bourbon.

Yeah, the stuff was discontinued in 1972. But a decade later it was back—albeit as a Kentucky import. Surely, by the time this tale is recounted in 2004, Ms. Stringfellow would have rediscovered that iconic black, white, and gold label. Even so, it’s hard to see how genuine Pikesville Maryland Rye could have made Bliss, Remembered any better.

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