As a boy, Stephen J. Dubner's hero was Franco Harris, the famed and mysterious running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. When Dubner's father died, he became obsessed -- he dreamed of his hero every night; he signed his school papers "Franco Dubner." Though they never met, it was Franco Harris who shepherded Dubner through a fatherless boyhood.
Twenty years later, Dubner, an accomplished writer, sees Harris on a magazine cover. His long-dormant obsession comes roaring back. He journeys to Pittsburgh, certain that Harris will embrace him. And he is...well, wrong.
Told with the grit of a journalist and the grace of a memoirist, Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper is a breathtaking, heartbreaking, and often humorous story of astonishing developments. It is also a sparkling meditation on the nature of hero worship -- which, like religion and love, tells us as much about ourselves as about the object of our desire.
In a candid yet somewhat disjointed account, Dubner (Turbulent Souls) explores the causes and effects of his devotion to a childhood hero. Dubner's father died when he was relatively young, and Dubner, growing up in rural New York, latched onto Pittsburgh Steeler great Franco Harris as a role model and a source of strength. While much of the book chronicles Dubner's efforts to catch up to Harris and investigate his former (and newly awakened) feelings of awe for him, it attempts to deal with much more. As Dubner explains to Harris at a Pittsburgh restaurant, "I'm also interested in the whole idea of the hero, of the role model. I'm interested in the relationship between a hero and a hero worshiper. I'm interested in how a hero lives through the spotlight and what he does with his life after the spotlight has been turned off." The problem, it turns out, is that Franco really isn't interested. He obviously prefers the relationship to be a distant one, and he'd much rather be tending to the affairs of his nutritional donut company than sharing insights with a starstruck writer. While Dubner's repeated, failed attempts to meet up with Harris are somewhat humorous, the book suffers from Harris's lack of cooperation. One can't help but wonder if a chapter on hero worship that includes the 19th-century historian Thomas Carlyle and the founder of the Lubavitcher sect of Hasidic Jews isn't the product of Dubner digging too deeply for material. While the book doesn't come together as a whole, Dubner's elegant, deeply honest writing will keep readers engaged.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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January 20, 2004
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Excerpt from Confessions of a Hero-Worshiper by Stephen J. Dubner
The House of Dreams
Yes, I should have known better than to go home again. This couldn't end well, wouldn't end well, and I knew it full well. But I was powerless to resist.
From New York City, my safe and distant metropolis -- this was a few years ago, before madmen had crashed airplanes into skyscrapers -- I drove in the back way, through the Catskills and up into the rolling lowlands. I passed a junk shop, a self-serve farm stand, a rotted-out covered bridge. Spring had just surrendered to summer. Far in the distance I could see the sweet, straight line where the cornfields, a mile wide, dead-ended at the base of steep woody hills. That line still excited me, just as other lines now excite me -- the curve of my new bride's bare arm, the sight of my own byline.
Along Route 30, memories pounced at me. In Middleburgh: the high-school ballfield where I broke up a no-hitter in the last inning. (We must have lost the game but my own sliver of glory is all that comes to mind.) In Schoharie: the ragged, shallow creek where my mother taught me to fish. (We never caught a thing and lost all our lures.) I saw a flat-faced man soaping up a flat-faced school bus and the thought of riding it -- the thought of childhood -- made my insides sag.
Gallupville Road, my road, dipped and snaked through hayfields and hillocks, pea-green in the muted June light. I had biked these hills a million times, a million years ago. I cursed their steepness and the dogs that sprang silently, teeth bared, from behind the forsythia. Now I only had to nudge the gas pedal and the hills fell away.
For twenty minutes I didn't pass another car. It was taking forever. I checked the speedometer: 23 mph, it said. This was a homecoming retarded by memories; Odysseus had made better time.
Up the steepest hill yet and finally, there below, lay my Eden.
Right away I saw that it was all wrong. The house still stood but the yard did not. The yard was gone. It was now a gravel lot, filled with a couple dozen cars.
The yard was the reason I had come home. The yard was a long, sloping spit of crabgrass where we staked our cow and played ball and recited the Rosary in summertime, the eight of us kneeling in a tight circle around our parents. And a momentous event had taken place in that yard. I had come home to stand in the tall grass at its edge and maybe close my eyes and commune with that momentous event.
The momentous event was in fact a dream -- a visitation, really -- that came to me every single night for a few years. The Dream featured a man I never met but who meant more to me than any man, dog, or deity. Jesus included. In my parents' home, Jesus was the only thing that truly mattered and although there was some mystery as to how the family had gotten that way, his dominion was never challenged. Our world revolved around the goings-on at Our Lady of Fatima, where my parents were pillars and where I, the baby of the family, became an altar boy when I was five.
The church, I had been instructed, was named for the Virgin Mary's appearances to three shepherd children in the Portuguese mountain village of Fatima. I had further been instructed that it would be an honor to receive such a visitation myself, and that I should keep my eyes open.
So when my own visitation arrived, I took it seriously. My hero came to me with a force, a grace, a reality that neither Jesus nor Mary could muster. He left me quivering in my sleep, astir with joy and longing. In my waking hours I thought of him always, and tried to walk in his light.
But my hero was a football player. This was plainly a heresy, and I therefore never as much as mentioned the Dream to anyone. Still, I depended on it. Every night I looked forward to bedtime -- which may say less about the Dream than about the unmoored, keening state of my childhood.