So much for my little lull. I raced through two books over the past week. So as I don’t forget about them over the holiday weekend, here they are.
The Lock Artist – Steve Hamilton
This book arrived with loads of praise from many different sources. And it ended up being a magnificent read.
Our narrator is Michael, a man who is writing down his memoirs while serving a prison sentence. As he warns us up front, his memories will not be shared in chronological order. That is because there was a terrible event in his childhood that, he claims, he needs to work through other memories before he can share it with us. He does give us the hint that people call him The Miracle Boy because of whatever happened back then. An after effect of that event has major ramifications for the entire book: Michael does not speak. Key words being does not. He has no physical issues that prevent him from speaking: his vocal chords are intact, his mouth works just fine, he has a tongue. But something about that childhood encounter has left him speechless for over 20 years. But, as he promises, we’ll get to that.
He runs through his childhood with his uncle, who cared for him after his parents weren’t able to. In his teenage years he became infatuated with two things: art, specifically drawing, and locks. He would take apart locks, figure out how they worked, then put them back together. This led to impressing his classmates by helping kids who forgot their locker combinations to open them, picking door locks, etc. Along the way he meets and falls in love with a girl who also has a passion for drawing. Their relationship is unorthodox on many levels, not the least that he can only communicate with her via the comics they draw for each other.
These memories alternate with others from his late teen years, when he comes to work for various crime groups as one of the best lock pickers and safe crackers – also known as boxmen – in the country. He makes a little money and gets famous in certain circles in the process. But he’s also involved in two capers that go horribly wrong and is lucky to escape with his life. The second of these is what lands him in prison.
The big reveal, of the tragedy of his childhood, is wonderfully laid out. It is dramatic, cathartic, emotional, utterly shocking, and completely delivers. Hamilton even finds a way to make a book that closes with this horrible revelation and several key characters getting murdered end on a hopeful note.
The Boys of Dunbar – Alejandro Danois
This is an accounting of one of the best high school basketball teams of all time, the 1981–1982 Dunbar Poets of Baltimore. That team featured an unbelievable amount of talent. Reggie Williams and David Wingate both starred on the powerful Georgetown teams of the mid–80s. Muggsy Bogues went on to play at Wake Forest. Reggie Lewis at Northeastern. And Gary Graham captained UNLV’s 1987 Final Four team. All of them played in the NBA. Beyond those players was a bench that could beat most staring lineups they faced. Unlike the super teams of today, which are built around prep schools that recruit across the country, all these guys grew up in East Baltimore and played at Dunbar for legendary coach Bob Wade.
In that 81–82 season, Dunbar really should have won the mythical high school national championship. They were denied that honor, though, by cross-town rival Calvert Hall, a private school that refused to play them that year. We get inside their practices, how they just destroyed everyone they played, how the kids on the team struggled with growing up in East Baltimore as the economy there was crumbling and the drug trade was becoming increasingly violet, and how Wade, a former NFL player, insisted his players take care of their academics first and set themselves up for a future when sports wouldn’t get them where they wanted to be.
It’s a little hagiographic – all the Dunbar players come across as saints who never did anything worse than a little horsing around – but given how dirty elite high school sports are these days, it serves as a nice reminder that not everything is about getting to the NBA as quickly as possible. And it made me appreciate how good Muggsy Bogues was. Sure, he played in the NBA, effectively, for a long time. But still I looked at him as a novelty, the 5’3” freak who somehow hung on despite his size. His addition to the team in 1981 took a team that was very good and turned them into an epic squad. In fact, despite losing Wingate and Graham to graduation, Muggsy was the key in a second-straight undefeated season in 1982–83, and finally earning the national title.