A Boy Grows in Brooklyn

The Powersby Valerie Sayers

Northwestern University Press. 312p $24.95

It is the 1941 baseball season, and Joe DiMaggio is not content. Fans idolize him. He enjoys a record-breaking hitting streak. His wife gives birth to a son. Yet DiMaggio is moody and saturnine, besieged by guilt that he is not the hero his fans expect him to be. He consumes Superman comic books, frustrated because despite popular opinion, his own powers are limited. A tower of insecurity and self-pity, he is rattled by the drafting of Hank Greenberg, by the death of Lou Gehrig and, one evening, by the sudden apparition of some kid he doesn’t know urging him to use his superpowers to help European refugees.


That kid is Joe D’Ambrosio, a fresh graduate from Xavier High School, Catholic Worker volunteer and committed pacifist in a country that seems inevitably propelled, by the moral imperative of stopping Hitler, toward war. Though icons like DiMaggio (pictured on the novel’s cover) and Dorothy Day and Walker Evans appear prominently in Sayers’s compelling novel, The Powers is at heart a coming-of-age story focusing on the idealistic Joe, his more practical friend, Bernhard Keller and, more centrally, on his sometime love interest Agnes O’Leary as they negotiate the challenges of fraught family histories and uncertain futures.

The 17-year-olds in Sayers’s novel are well informed, politically aware and passionate about their beliefs in a way that has much in common with the youth of another generation 25 years later. Joe and Bernie spend their Saturday nights debating whether or not “just this time and this time only” pacifism can be renounced “to fight a madman,” as Agnes listens, enthralled. Sayers effectively evokes a Catholic response to the political climate that no doubt prevailed in the summer and fall of 1941 before Pearl Harbor settled the question of American intervention in the conflicts that were spinning the world out of control. On one hand, there is the question: “What’s a pacifist to do when someone’s dropping bombs?” On the other hand, “How can you read the Gospels, be a Christian and think we should go to war?”

If these positions seem reductive and oversimplified, Sayers expresses them in the voices of characters who are complex and fully realized—Joe, the pacifist, educated by Jesuits at a military school, and Bernie, self-conscious about his German-sounding name and sometimes mistaken for a Jew. It must have been a strange time when a political rally at Madison Square Garden featured Charles Lindbergh on a program with the Socialist Norman Thomas, united by an isolationist platform; a strange time when Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to stop anyone with relatives anywhere in the Reich from emigrating to America; a strange time when an innocuous pastime like baseball became charged with nationalist fervor as teams promoted I Am An American Day, advancing a patriotism that inclined toward jingoism and intolerance. It is in this environment that Sayers’s protagonists, Joe, Bernie and Agnes identify their values and the principles they will live by.

Agnes has the most difficult time, and as Sayers’s narrative unfolds, it is Agnes, with her “view of the world that is pleasantly out of focus” whose growth is best served by Sayers’s limited third person point of view. Unlike her male friends, Agnes doesn’t have the benefit of a Jesuit education; the worldly Jesuits are often compared to more provincial parish priests who look with suspicion upon a woman like Dorothy Day and whose advice Agnes finds informed by a narrowness of vision that the Jesuits see beyond. The details of Agnes’ situation flirt with soap opera: she lives with her three sisters and her father in a Brooklyn flat dominated by Babe, her imperious and bigoted grandmother, who, years after the fact, cannot even begin to forgive her daughter-in-law’s (Agnes’s mother’s) suicide and who forbids her granddaughters to have any contact with that disreputable side of the family.

Agnes, however, rebels. She re-establishes a relationship with her maternal grandfather, who becomes instrumental in her pursuit of a photography career, an ambition born of a chance meeting Agnes has with Walker Evans on the subway one evening. Her grandfather allows her to photograph the corpses in the funeral home he runs, at first only after they have been beautified by make-up and wigs and costumes, but eventually, as they are when they arrive, pale and bloated and grotesque. These dead give life to Agnes’s aspirations so that she comes to see the world, and her place in it, with clarity and precision.

Meanwhile, romance, as it often does, complicates friendship, and Agnes struggles with her feelings for both Joe and Bernie. To whom will she give her heart? To whom will she give her body? She loves both of them, to be sure, but what, exactly, is romantic love and how can Agnes be sure? To her credit, Sayers skillfully sidesteps the potential melodramatic pitfalls her plot invites; she never compromises the integrity of her characters, whose actions are thoughtful, deliberate and believable.

The scenes between Agnes and Babe are among the finest in the book as Agnes challenges Babe’s reflexive pettiness and prejudice. Babe considers herself broadminded for gathering “a pile of used clothes” for “those Jews,” but she warns Agnes that she has had quite enough of Agnes’s talk about Jewish refugees. She seems surprised that she could hardly identify Jews at the ballpark since they “look normal enough.” Her bigotry is monumental, but it is so ingrained she cannot recognize it, and accusations of it genuinely surprise and offend her.

Through Agnes and Babe, Sayers explores timeless and universal questions of intergenerational conflicts in values. Agnes’s education has opened her mind and broadened her perspective, but it has also separated her from her family and, to a degree, from all authority, including that of her church. Agnes is no Stephen Daedalus—she doesn’t have his arrogance or ambition—but aspects of her experience bring to mind Joyce’s character, and, for the sake of her sanity and survival, once firm bonds of familial loyalty and gratitude grow frail.

Sayers’s depiction of Babe never descends into stereotype, as it easily might have. One reason is Babe’s devotion to baseball, and her particular adoration of DiMaggio, with whom she feels a singular mystical connection and for whose success she invokes her “powers.” Monthly she makes the pilgrimage from Brooklyn, home of the worthless Dodgers, to the Bronx, to worship at the shrine of her beloved Yankees. She senses DiMaggio’s dissatisfaction, misgivings and frustration at being “everybody’s goddamned hero” and believes she has “a special gift that soothes a ballplayer.” Her presence at games is an act of faith, and turns a character who, in Agnes’ cynical view, becomes “a fat distorted anti-Semite, a malingering manipulator” into a baseball team’s unheralded benefactor and muse.

Sayers’s novel includes numerous thumb-size contemporary photographs, many of which come from the Office of War Information Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress and from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. These are not easily counted, since so many of them reappear resized or recropped throughout the novel. While they help to evoke the setting and are interesting in their own right, their connection to the narrative seems tenuous and the repetition of selected images turns out to be more distracting than enlightening. Sayers’s style is generally crisp, efficient and eminently readable, despite the intrusion of the occasional cliche (“DiMaggio “ breathes a sigh of relief”; Babe “stops in her tracks”), or the self-conscious attempt to justify a cliche (“The crowd, as they say, goes wild.”) or the expression that sounds a shade anachronistic (“It is what it is.”). A scene in which Agnes surrenders her virginity is a rare blunder; it is explicit in a way that seems inconsistent with both the context and the character. But these stylistic missteps are minor and infrequent. Sayers creates a cast of memorable characters, both real and imagined, and tells their stories with grace, understanding and affection.

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