Author Jay Neugeboren is as unsettling as he is prolific. His latest novel, Max Baer and the Star of David, intertwines the historical with the fabricated. It tells the story of Max Baer, who became heavyweight champion of the world in 1934, and the fictional Horace Littlejohn, an early sparring partner of Baer’s and lifelong confidant.
Horace and Joleen Littlejohn, his talented, beautiful sister—who pose as man and wife—are black, and the strange interracial relationship that develops between Baer and the Littlejohns becomes complicated because Baer and Joleen develop a sexual relationship. Baer and Joleen produce two sons who think Horace is the real father.
The sexual arithmetic is dizzying as Neugeboren investigates the symbiotic, often cruel, ways that bond sex to race.
The novel follows Baer’s career. In the ring, in the 1930 fight with Frankie Campbell, he packed a fatal wallop; outside the ring, he starred in Hollywood films and was a womanizer.
Horace, the novel’s narrator, takes readers through the ins-and-outs of many Baer fights, but says little about Baer’s two fights with German heavyweight champion Max Schmeling. Given the tense political climate in June 1933—and the Star of David prominently displayed on Baer’s trunks—it is strange that the novel skirts the very incident that sealed how future generations of American Jews thought about Baer.
The Star of David may have started out as a publicity stunt for the Schmeling bout, but it was more than that. Baer wore trunks with a Star of David during subsequent fights. Baer stood as a powerful American Jewish symbol of the growing war that would pit freedom against fascism. Small wonder that Jews identified with, and took pleasure in, Baer and his victory (although he had only one Jewish grandfather).
At the same time, Neugeboren’s novel is fiction. The Littlejohns’ dialogue is lyrical and sophisticated, their speech intertwined with phrases from the Song of Songs. Baer, on the other hand, is a diamond-in-the-rough who sounds like Jake LaMotta in the film Raging Bull.
Max Baer & The Star of David is counterintuitive in the way that Horace tells the tale of his sister and his best friend. Readers expecting a traditional account of the boxer’s life will be disappointed. But those who let their imaginations open up to this often-strange tale will find it both exciting and illuminating.