As the real-life prizefighter Baer rises to become heavyweight champion and a national celebrity, he shares himself and his good fortune with a black couple who guard an awful secret.
Neugeboren (The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, 2013, etc.) starts this odd historical novel with a Foreword in which a fictional African-American biblical scholar introduces the book as a memoir dictated to his mother, Joleen Littlejohn, by his visually challenged uncle, Horace, whom he thought of as a father, before his death in 1999. The scholar also reveals that his biological father was Max Baer and that his mother, besides sleeping with the boxer, had sex for years with brother Horace, who was also a bedmate of Baer’s. It’s quite a setup that not only discloses almost all the book’s juicy stuff, but tries to give it a biblical blessing by citing the Song of Solomon’s praise of physical love. Neugeboren goes on to flesh out a narrative loosely hung on the real-life Baer’s boxing career. The siblings meet him in 1929 and sexual sparks fly. But don’t expect Fifteen Rounds of Grey here. The steamy action is offstage as the Littlejohns work for Baer, living on his ranch and off his triumphs and celebrity. Also don’t expect too much from the book’s title, which gives unwarranted freight to the boxer’s wearing a Star of David on his shorts for a 1933 bout with Hitler favorite Max Schmeling. The fictional Baer is more interested in publicity than in crusading. Last and worst, don’t expect much of a clue as to why the author of a quasi-historical novel would create a pair of incestuous black siblings and link them to the pugilist.
An accomplished writer, Neugeboren draws a nice sketch of an ebullient, affectionate Baer, but overall he leaves too many questions unanswered.