Monday, August 31, 2009

Oh, Johnny

Jim Lehrer

This is the nineteenth novel by Jim Lehrer: yes, that Jim Lehrer, the host of The News Hour on PBS. In it, Lehrer brings back a couple of his favorite themes; the Marine Corps; Lerhrer was a Marine, and buses, the Greyhound and Trailways kind. I know from hearing him interviewed on the radio that Lehrer owns an old reconditioned bus and occasionally takes it out on the road near his country home outside Washington DC. Johnny, the central character, is the second Lehrer protagonist, after The One Eyed Jack, to become a bus line ticket agent, a job that Lehrer once held himself.

Oh Johnny asks the same question that I did, or intended to, in my review of to Ken Robinson's The Element. What happens when a person pursues a dream, to do something that he loves and is very good at, and yet he fails? In reality this is an all too common occurrence. As in real life Lehrer's answer is "not much."

We meet Johnny Wrigley as an 17 year old Marine on a troop train headed west to go fight the Japanese in WWII. Because of the war he has missed a chance to play minor league baseball. The team that offered him a tryout has, along with the rest of the league, suspended operations for the duration of the war. Johnny is convinced that some day he will be a star center fielder in the majors.

Stopping for a 30 minute layover in Wichita Kansas - Jim Lehrer's birthplace, incidentally - Johnny meets and falls in love with a young girl he meets on the station platform. After some truly horrible experiences in the war, which Lehrer gets us through with minimal fuss, Johnny returns, to find that he is unable to locate his dream girl. Returning to his home in Maryland Johnny does get into the minors but injures himself by running into the center field wall and is no longer able to play.

The book revolves around Johnny's "shell shock" or PTSD, as we would now call it, his inability to find his Betsy and his disappointed attempts to become a professional baseball player. At one point he does eventually find the girl he met but finds that she is a completely different, and less attractive, person than he had thought. Professional baseball reveals itself to be a hard life in which one mistake can end your career and in which no quarter is given, even by one's own teammates.

Johnny's expectations are dashed at every turn, throughout the book, yet he finds a sunny optimism, based on the idea of luck, which carries him through the war and through his attempts at professional baseball. Betsy, the girl on the Wichita platform was his good luck charm. When he finally meets Betsy he learns how false his good luck has been.

There is a dramatic scene in which Johnny's life turns around involving a baseball field. I won't give it away any further than that. In the end Johnny settles for a life as a bus line ticket agent, married to someone other than his dream girl. He leads a normal mundane life and is just fine with it. His is not a life of quiet desperation.

It is possible that Jim Lehrer eventually settled for a life as a national evening news host and a novelist when his dream was to drive a bus.


  1. That is a rather odd idea. I can't imagine Jim Lehrer as a bus driver. Well, we find our dreams, find they are a bit different than expected, then create new ones.

  2. A ticket agent sends people off to distant, exotic destinations, like Cincinnati and Albuquerque and he gets to announce bus departures over the P.A. system! Not only that but he can ride anywhere for free.


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