The erudite and upstanding host of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, Scott Simon, has seen it all, firsthand, from El Salvador to Sarajevo. Yet in spite of his vast professional portfolio, when the quintessential news correspondent wrote a memoir, it was, loosely, about being a sports fan. But names can be confusing. Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan is certainly much more than a memoir, and it's about much more than being a fan. Its center, however, does spin around sports: the hard-won and bravely worn metaphor of his hometown, Chicago -- a big, burly town that's always tried harder, carrying a tradition of losing that's four major-league teams deep on its broad, Sandburgian shoulders. Forming that image are a handful of true stories: about the courageous battles of Gale Sayers on and off the field; about the ubiquitous fan base of Michael Jordan, which Simon observed around the world from the slums of Rio to refugee camps in the Middle East; about the kindness of Sammy Sosa, whom he compares ("if I may mention them in the same breath") to Mother Teresa; and his own story, that of a young man growing up around show-biz figures in times marked by rapid change and ultimately choosing a straight-and-narrow career in journalism. For choosing to write in that arena, Simon has no regrets or apologies.
"Rehashing my so-called reportorial career would not be as engaging," Simon notes, making what seems to be a typically unassuming reply. "We don't usually do our best work when being dutiful." But anyone who's listened to Simon for five minutes on a Saturday morning would disagree. He both tells stories and ekes them out of others in a facile and gentle way that inevitably exposes a sweet, epiphanic bloom. You feel good listening to him. You'll feel good, too, reading his book.
He had good teachers. Simon's father, Ernie, was a performing comedian with a simple formula: "One of the most persistent insights my father ever passed on is that jokes work best on a rhythm of three: one, two, three and throw a punchline, as in roof-roof, root-root, Ruth-Ruth, and then, Hmmm. Perhaps I should have said DiMaggio? In a moment in that year in San Francisco, with Sputnik spinning on overhead, Willie Mays and the Giants packing up at the Polo Grounds for the trail west, and my mother, father, and myself trying to find life's punchline, I realized my father could make my mother laugh in a way that unlocked something between them that was precious and astounding. I probably even felt a little left out the night I overheard that laughter in the bathroom. My mother's howls and cries, shrieks and smiles, chiming off the chipped hotel shower tiles: we're alone, adrift, and alive," Simon writes. (Ah, there's a rose for you).
Asked to sum up the book for readers, Simon chooses to quote a colleague, Juan Williams of NPR's Talk of the Nation: "It's not ultimately a book about sports. It's about fabulous characters performing under pressure." The Chicago Bears represent his most consummate example: "It's irresistible. You're out there in the snow, doing your best -- and losing." And, he adds, "It has to do with being able to perform in cold weather. If you live in Chicago, you've got to be tough.
"One of the fascinations we have is for how we live our own lives," Simon explains. "Sports offer the cathartic opportunity to put yourself in somebody else's skin. We all believe character is formed in that crucible, and we admire people who do it well.