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Saturday, May 14, 2011

Spectator Sport by James Alexander Thom

One of James Alexander Thom's first published books - shows his potential and rookie problems.

James Alexander Thom
James Alexander Thom is one of my favorite authors. In my classroom I have had two of his books on my shelves and kids come to me looking for something to read I recommend those books first due to the power of the storytelling. Those that accept my recommendations concerning his books are never disappointed. Great stuff!

While most of his books concern the frontier days of America's old Northwest Territory (Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, etc.), Spectator Sport concerns itself with the rain-shortened and deadly 1973 Indy 500. The race took part over the course of 3 days and was finally called after a little more than 300 miles due to rain and the fact that only 9 of the 33 starters were still on the track. Thom was at the race and the events inspired him to write this book and explore the motivations of race fans, violence on television and the news and voyeurism of all sorts.

This book however does not qualify as great - it is too up and down and inconsistent.

First - what is done well:

-Thom accurately portrays the way the 'Snake Pit' of the Indy 500 used to be - the dirt, the beer, the hedonism.

-Thom accurately captures the feel of the 500 just before the race starts. The tension, the anticipation, the pomp and ritual.

-Thom's descriptions of the Speedway and its environs are dead-on. Especially the traffic and the insanity of the some of the police who are directing it.

What does not work so well:

-Too many characters - especially the boy from Kokomo who has to see the race no matter what. The girls who break out from the Indiana Girls' School (Indiana's prison for teenaged girls)and party in the infield are interesting but also fail to advance the story.

-Thom's theme is that sex, violence and power are all inter-related. The fighter pilot war hero and the soft-porn movie starlet, and the 500 festival princess who poses naked for the camera are all supposed to tie in with the race and the mayhem that occurred on the track, in the stands (debris and fuel were sprayed all over one section of the stands) and in the infield. However, I thought that Thom failed to connect all of these dots and the story gets too off-target. Too many themes means that he hits none of them well. It would have been better to have made two books - one exploring the violence of auto racing and the motivations of the racers and the fans, the other exploring sexuality, power and fidelity.

Fans of the 500 will appreciate:

-Transcripts of the race thrown into the text to tell the reader how far along the race is. These are actually transcribed from "The Voice of the 500" Sid Collins' personal tapes and include ads, Sid Collins and other local (Indy area) broadcasters such as Mike Ahern.

-Local sites such as the Indiana Girls' School, The Coke Lot, The Snake Pit and a local west side bakery that just has to be Long's Bakery.

Bottom line: The book has lots of faults, shows his great promise as an author but really does not quite deliver. Hardcore fans of the Indy 500 will certainly appreciate it.

**On a different note, why do they use a modern era Indy Car on the cover photo rather than a car from the '73 race?

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Spectator Sport

Reviewed on January 4, 2006.

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