A Life Well Lived—and Poorly Told
Bob Rich’s rollicking sporting life (his own assessment) is the subject of his new memoir, The Right Angle, where Rich writes about everything from his days as a part-owner of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team to participating in a wide world of sports (e.g., competitive swimming, team handball, polo).
The Right Angle initially intrigued me because I’d get a long look at the lifestyle I had only encountered in magazine articles or television shows. The enthusiasm eroded pretty quickly. By page twenty-five, my interest dimmed. At page fifty, I was wondering if I could switch my assignment. When I dragged myself to the book’s halfway point, I felt defeated. Reading it had officially become an unsatisfying, interminable chore.
This shouldn’t have happened. Bob Rich’s life belongs in a scotch ad. He has fished with heads of state, bought a minor league baseball team (which he still owns), and tried out as a goalie for the United States’ 1964 Olympic squad. The chairman of Rich Products Corporation—the colossal, family-owned food company’s brands include Carvel—has expansive resources, and abundant leisure time. A proud resident of Buffalo, NY, Rich can cast lines in exotic bodies of water, play polo in the immaculate Florida sunshine, and own a puppy while entertaining the grandkids.
The Right Angle’s acute descent can be blamed on Rich’s flat, uninspired writing. The book proceeds like a never-ending, blandly written newsletter, a collection of I-remember-this and He-was-a great-guy. You almost expect one chapter to conclude, Almost landed that MLB franchise; P.S.—the grandkids are getting so big! Over 300 pages, this volume-over-substance approach becomes unbearable. I skipped Rich’s lengthy, intimidating account of his fishing expedition to somewhere sunny or stormy or whatever. He had yet to make me care about a sport that usually bores me stupid, so there was no incentive to endure more hazily recounted accomplishments on choppy waters.
That confession summarizes the experience of reading The Right Angle. A good writer can grab your attention on any subject—suburban life, the history of AIDS, Gypsy Rose Lee. Rich (who’s written other books) never makes us care, including me, the sports-loving goof who has cufflinks made from Shea Stadium’s seats. There’s no soul, no insight about what it’s like living that in Buffalo for a meeting on Friday, in Florida marlin fishing with George H.W. Bush on Saturday life. Seriously, I can’t take the afternoon off to see Bridesmaids. How does Rich find the time and energy to balance high-society pleasures with big business?
We never know. When Rich isn’t playing coy, he’s offering us page after page of empty, cliché-driven prose that numbs us to the storytelling. Ideas and descriptions are never fully formed but always assigned a string of lazy, hollow adjectives that begs the services of a co-writer, expert copy editor, or caffeine-laced beverage.
Here are some examples:
—“In those early days, before he was widely published, Hemingway was remembered as a two-fisted drinker who loved to carouse and brawl and generally burn the candle at both ends.”
—“We’d not only seen one of the most breathtaking sights of nature but been a part of it and experienced a day on the water that I’ll never ever forget.”
—“Dominant is an understatement. We absolutely annihilated our competition. I hardly remember losing any games at all. It was the best team I’ve ever played on in any sport.”
—And, in all seriousness, the introductory quote to one chapter: “Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.”
There are other problems. “Literally” is used entirely too often and, sometimes, incorrectly. (“Chap” is another word crutch he wears down to a nub.) My sexual politics certainly don’t resemble Andrea Dworkin’s, but I was distracted by Rich’s treatment of women. Any female who stumbles into the narrative is immediately greeted with a glowing assessment of their attractiveness, a primitive view for someone running a business post-Clarence Thomas vs. Anita Hill. Thoughts are expressed, but never finished. Dubious statements are made. For some reason, we learn about Rich’s desire to buy a puppy and his posh English heritage.
The web of mediocrity grows more intricate with every page, but throughout Rich comes across as authentic and likable, the kind of guy who’s tickled that someone would want to read about his experiences as a sports guy. I just wish Rich had been more excited about the re-write process.
Books mentioned in this column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, AMC Filmcritic.com, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and The Weekender, and maintains a movie blog. A longtime Mets fan, Pete currently lives in Bucks County, PA, which is Phillies territory. Pray for him. Contact Pete.