Review of Max Baer & the Star of David on

Max Baer was only a quarter Jewish, but he wore a Star of David on his trunks, smart marketing in the 1930s when many Jews fought professionally, especially smart when Baer fought and pummeled German heavyweight Max Schmeling. But the symbolic star resonates beyond a marketing ploy in this novel. The lusty connection between black Horace and Joleen and white Max, champion of and for the Jews, suggests a larger racial connection. Blacks and Jews, the slaves of the United States and the original slaves in Egypt, two oppressed races forced to do hard labor and too-often forced to hide their identities or watch their words, are united physically and symbolically in Neugeboron’s novel. Only once does Max’s in-ring violence enter his daily life, and it’s to defend his brother Horace. While enjoying a night out, a belligerent customer confronts the two friends and points to a We Serve Whites Only sign above the bar. At first, Max counters the racist with humor: “So you’re okay then. They can serve you here.” But when the altercation escalates and the bartender pulls out a baseball bat to enforce the whites-only rule, Max, not a young man anymore, flexes his muscles. Another patron recognizes Max as the great Max Baer, and when his identity is revealed, the mere mortals back down. Horace Littlejohn infers the race-connection when he wraps up the tale, “The man who had confronted Max backed away, told Max he didn’t mess with killers or kikes, and hurried out the door.” The black man and the man representing the Jews remain in the bar. The racist is banished. Max buys everyone a round of drinks and, if only for a moment, unity trumps hate and divide.

Max Baer and the Star of David is a novel first, a boxing novel second. And that’s how it should be for a novel whose title character may have been more famous for his out-of-ring escapades than his pugilistic career. The real fighters in this novel are the people that surround Max, Horace and Joleen and a woman Horace falls for as a middle-aged man, a woman who teaches the handicapped how to hear without hearing and see without sight. Novelists fill in the senses; they make the unreal real. Jay Neugeboren takes old fight-film footage, removes the graininess, introduces color, helps us hear and see the men and women behind the man, as well as the man himself, Max Baer, whose life was as colorful as the deep blue star emblazoned on his trunks.

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