Max Baer and the Star of David

Written by Jay Neugeboren
Review by Lawrence Battersby

This short novel employs the literary artifice of a fictional eyewitness account, ostensibly to tell Max Baer’s story from 1929 until his death, aged fifty, in 1959. In that period, Max Baer killed one fellow boxer, may have played a role in the death of another, turned hero by wearing the Star of David on his shorts for his fight with German boxer Max Schmeling, and became the world heavyweight boxing champion. He makes an inspired choice of subject for biographical historical fiction

The story is narrated partly by the fictional Horace Littlejohn Sr. (who maintains an incestuous sham marriage with his sister, Joleen, both of whom are hired by Max) and Horace Littlejohn Jr. (Max’s fictional illegitimate son by Joleen). A fictional homosexual relationship between Max Baer and narrator Horace Sr. is largely left undeveloped.

Greater prominence is given to the lives of the fictional narrators and their family than to Max Baer. Events such as fratricide, Horace Sr.’s extramarital affair, and Horace Jr.’s evolution as a brilliant biblical scholar have no apparent relationship with Max Baer’s story but are all dramatized and given considerable space.

Key facts, dates and events concerning Max Baer’s boxing career are provided for the reader, but with the exception of his killing of boxer Frankie Campbell and his wearing the Star of David, the majority of real events relating to Max Baer are reported, not dramatized.

Max Baer is portrayed as generous, clownish and at times endearing. Thus fans of boxing who took offence at Ron Howard’s ‘superficial’ portrayal of Max as a bloodthirsty, thuggish antagonist in his 2005 film, The Cinderella Man, a biopic on the boxer James Braddock, should be content with this novel, which contains a more sympathetic depiction.