Review: The Whore of Akron by Scott Raab
To say that The Whore of Akron is a book about LeBron James would be a massive over-simplification and would be doing Raab’s writing a great disservice. While James’ decision to leave the Cavaliers and join forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach is certainly the driving force of the book, The Whore of Akron is a far more complex narrative than it’s title would suggest. Despite the obvious hate and vitriol that moved Raab to document James’ final season with the Cavaliers and his first with the Heat, The Whore of Akron is a work of love. It is a testament to the love and pride Clevelanders feel towards their city and a man’s love towards his wife and child.
The Whore of Akron is largely a memoir of Scott Raab’s own life. Raab is a born and mostly raised Clevelander (he spent a few years of his childhood in Los Angeles until his parents divorced) pushing the age of 60. Raab writes with a tone of urgency and seems to be fairly convinced that his time on the Earth is quickly counting down. Reading about his life, I’m not entirely inclined to disagree. Raab’s had a rough, drug and alcohol fueled life and, as a memoir, The Whore of Akron reads similarly to the works of Charles Bukowski, specifically Ham on Rye.
Raab writes about his own life with an eye just as critical and cutting as the treatment he gives James. In fact, LeBron James enters into the story mostly as a foil to Raab himself. Throughout the book, Raab writes that the feelings one man feels towards another are simply a mirror reflection of his own feelings towards himself. Raab contrasts himself to James throughout and the comparisons couldn’t be any more different. Whereas James is a mere year older than myself (he’s currently 26), he’s worth millions, is a world-wide brand and is poised to become the greatest and most successful athlete ever. Meanwhile, Raab spent his twenties drunk and high, bumming around some of Cleveland’s seedier neighborhoods and doing other horrible things I won’t spoil in this review. Suffice to say, Raab’s had a colorful life and there were more than a few moments where I stared at the page stunned at something he’s done.
While LeBron’s sins (wearing a Yankee’s cap to Progressive Field, quitting on his team and hometown during the final series against the Celtics, and The Decision) easily pale in comparison to Raab’s, the comparison between how the two men have carried those sins with themselves is the most compelling part of the story. Raab’s sins have obviously been an enormous burden on his life and he knows he’ll never live them down. However, he openly admits that and has, seemingly, grown from them and in the meantime has always remained true and loyal to the things he values, his (second) wife and son, his hometown and his own sense of pride. Meanwhile, James seemingly has no loyalty to anyone or anything but himself and his global brand and won’t even admit he’s made a mistake yet alone try to grow from one.
It’s a very subtle and nuanced approach to covering The Decision and it’s one I don’t expect to go over very well with the ESPN crowd given the complexity of the argument. Also muddling the point is the language Raab uses throughout. Believe it or not, LeBron escapes the harshiest criticisms in the book (that honor goes to former Browns owner Art Modell), and I can easily see Raab being written off as a hateful, vitriolic hypocrite given his tone throughout the book.
But that’s too simplistic of a view. Much like Raab uses LeBron as a foil, I couldn’t help but read The Whore of Akron and view Raab in the same way he views James. I’ve always found Raab to be a boorish, hateful writer when it comes to his treatment of James and generally wrote him off as the literary equivalent of a shock jock. However, reading The Whore of Akron makes the source of this hatred clear, Raab’s undying sense of loyalty and pride towards the city of Cleveland, which is a feeling I can absolutely relate to.
Raab writes about our mutual hometown with the same feeling of love that he uses towards his wife and son, which is especially pronounced when comparing these passages to the ones he uses to write about James. As he writes about different neighborhoods, I felt as if someone was holding a mirror up to my own personal emotions about them. He writes about the same Cleveland Heights and Lee road that I know, love and call home. He writes about Independence, which is mere minutes from where my parents live and where I grew up, in a way that brings me back to all the good times I had there as a child. And he writes about other suburbs in a way that makes me want to go explore them and know them as well as I know my stomping grounds.
It’s these brief flashes of humanity and love sprinkled throughout that make The Whore of Akron such a compelling read. If this was simply an inside story on the buildup to and aftermath of The Decision, there’d be no point to read it. However, by taking the story of LeBron James and holding it up as a mirror into the life, failings and loves of a man like Scott Raab, The Whore of Akron transforms itself into an amazingly introspective study on what it means to be a man. It’s easily the best love story to the city of Cleveland I’ve ever read and there are some truly genuinely moving sections within. In particular, there’s a scene where a doped up Raab is hallucinating a conversation with James over some peach cobbler that is one of the most powerfully moving pieces of introspection I’ve ever read.
Simply put, The Whore of Akron is a must-read. While at it’s heart it’s a story of two NBA seasons, the basketball is secondary to a truly compelling story of man doing the best to live with his past and another man so concerned with his legacy and future that he’s missed everything he’s had all along. It’s powerful stuff and easily at the top of my list for best books of 2011.
The Whore of Akron is available everywhere books are sold this Tuesday, November 15th and can’t be recommended enough by this writer.