Posted by: mdegeorge | August 24, 2010

Summer Reading: Senior Year by Dan Shaughnessy

One of the great joys of childhood was always summer vacation. And like any proud intellectual (read: nerd), one of the highlights of that eight-week nirvana of a hiatus was the plethora of time available for tearing into my summer reading list. The days spent sprawled out on lounge chairs in the shade delving into the offerings of the local library are one of the great joys of adolescence lost.

Now, as an underemployed college grad with plenty of time on my hands, what better way to while away the days then by giving my library card a work out? My grandparents’ suburban home and spacious decks have been replaced by a sweaty one-bedroom apartment, but the aim is the same. So, all summer, I’ll be posting brief synopses of the latest book to tickle my fancy.

I picked up Senior Year because it appeared to have all the elements of an enjoyable read. Dan Shaughnessy is an award-winning writer (despite repeatedly drawing the ire of Bill Simmons) whose voluminous body of work as the Red Sox beatwriter is tremendous. The tale of a father and son journeying through their final year in high school sports seemed alluring. I treasured the time spent with my father traveling to and from a lifetime of baseball games and wish those days still existed. And, I had just finished Tim Russert’s book, Big Russ and Me, detailing the many lessons he had learned from his father and how he sought to pass them onto the next generation.

Despite the obvious appeal, Senior Year simply didn’t measure up to me. Perhaps its because I found myself constantly measuring against Russert’s effort. Perhaps it’s the reality that I shared more common ground with Russert’s blue-collar upbringing in South Buffalo than Sam Shaughnessy’s sheltered (to say the least) adolescence in granola-crunching, whale-saving, perpetually politically correct Newtown, Massachusetts.

Or perhaps it’s just the viewpoint of the author. Russert describes life as the son, a son who makes few mistakes and is the kind of son many a father would dream to have. Sam Shaughnessy doesn’t always fit that portrait of perfection, as his drunken elocution to his mother about his personal troubles attests. In fact, the Shaughnessys rarely have deep conversations with each other, which is to be expected given that Sam is a popular, athletic teenager who probably has little use for parental discussions. (That’s not to say that Russert’s father, a grizzled veteran of World War II and American Legion leader, was always the most open parent. Russert at least has years of experience as a father himself and the benefit of hindsight to draw upon.)The writing style also isn’t ideal. It’s a stream of consciousness, which hasn’t sat well with me since the iconic and irritating The Catcher in the Rye was thrust upon me in the eighth grade. The digressions make it difficult to enjoy the events of the year. The elder Shaughnessy frequently wanders off the beaten path for what I anticipate will be an enlightening aside, only he never returns to the original train of thought.

The combination of Sam’s emotional seclusion and Dan’s literary wanderings often shift the balance of the story in favor of the father rather than the son. Sometimes it seems more about Dan and his high school experiences and how Sam’s basketball tryouts impact him and what he is thinking during the college recruitment process. I guess its no wonder why the front cover reads “A father, a son, and high school baseball.”

I assume part of the reason for Dan’s occasional elevation to main character is due to a general dearth of information on the mindset of the younger Shaughnessy beyond his collection of baseball bats, his grunts of recognition to questions, and memories of experiences past.

The story also has an interesting addendum. Sam Shaughnessy spent three years at Boston College as a player, including a redshirt season in 2007. He had a strong season in 2008 as a redhirt freshman, playing in 38 games and leading the team with a .418 on base percentage. But in 2009, he appeared in just six games, going 1-6 from the plate. He didn’t play in what would have been his junior season in 2010, though he is still listed as a member of the class of 2010 (no word on whether he graduated, but his Facebook profile picture indicated he may have gravitated towards other interests in Chestnut Hill).

I’m not vilifying either Shaughnessy to the extent Simmons might, and it still was a moderately enjoyable read that included some fantastic stories of triumph (such as Sam’s older sister’s battle against leukemia as a child or the family’s affinity for a local Chinese restaurant that closes its doors during the senior year). But Senior Year wasn’t all I hope it would be.

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