The ethos of the gridiron helps a young man growing up before World War II overcome physical and psychological challenges in this earnest, anxious memoir.
Born into a poor Irish-American family in Queens, N.Y., in 1918, the author’s horizons were circumscribed by a number of factors, the most obvious being a right arm stunted at the age of 2 by a brush with polio. Defying prognoses that he would never use the arm again, he embarked in his teenage years on a grueling exercise regimen that worked so well that he became a formidable amateur boxer. (Several meticulously described fight scenes are high points of the narrative.) The lesson, distilled from bruising sandlot football games, was clear: “When things got tough, I pushed more, ran faster and, worked harder.” That attitude helped Murtagh finish high school while working full time, but not to surmount his life’s central failure—being classified 4F because of his arm and barred from military service in World War II, his generation’s great test of manhood. (He clearly never got over the disappointment, and the book’s obsessive focus on his strength and daring makes the case that he would have been a good soldier.) Murtagh’s reminiscences of his boyhood and Depression-era coming of age paint a gritty, evocative portrait of prewar working-class life, one that was equal parts hardship and hope. The second part of his memoir is stranger and darker as, after the war, he drifts into college and false career starts, briefly joins a monastery, endures panic attacks and bizarre psychosexual seizures and enters therapy, where he unearths childhood traumas and a galloping Oedipal complex. Although Murtagh’s life never quite settles down to a coherent game plan, he writes fluently and often touchingly of his battle to climb out of his mental funk through prayer and sheer determination to “put one foot in front of the other.”
A vivid account of a troubled soul trudging toward stability and purpose.