Two Heavy but Heartening Boston Autobiographies

It may be a cliche to say that Boston is a city of writers, but it’s a valid one, and it’s also safe to say that Boston is a city of people who like to write about themselves. We’ve certainly been inundated by the political stories and the Whitey Bulger henchman cash-ins, but thankfully the Nick Flynns and Andre Dubus IIIs of the world represent our region with books that temper their solipsism with biting, trenchant writing and engrossing stories. Fortunately, we can welcome the release (and re-release) of two autobiographies that add to the tradition and not to the cliche:

First up is A Song in the Night: A Memoir of Resilience, by Somerville’s Bob Massie (out May 15, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $24). If his name is familiar to you only as some North-of-the-Charles activist or for his brief Senate campaign last year (abandoned thanks to Elizabeth Warren), then you’re in for a surprise. Massie has a long and strangely impressive personal history that involves growing up as the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Sovietologist who coached Reagan to make friends with Gorbachev. Massie himself is known more recently for being an environmental businessman and philanthropist, but he’s also a man of the cloth, overseeing Grace Church in Manhattan before becoming the minister at Christ Episcopal Church in the ‘Ville. Oh, and the Senate wasn’t his first race: He ran for Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor in 1994.

All this is even more impressive when you learn from his book that he was born with hemophilia and struggled even with basic walking as a boy, a sword of Damocles that hovered over him even as he enjoyed the experience of living in Paris with his family for a spell as a youth. Then came AIDS, and a tainted blood transfusion gave him HIV — which only inspired him to offer up his body for research. And when you find out that he contracted Hepatitis C and almost died but for a liver transplant just a year before that Senate campaign, then his political ambition seems more brave and determined than merely quixotic.

The only caveat: Feel free to skip sections where he appears to be selling his philosophy more than his story. Some of the bullet points about his environmental consortium reek of self-promotion, while the epilogue of expository worldview that isn’t so far removed from Scott Brown’s autobiography. Yes, the politics are different, but the desire to present oneself as a Big Thinker is the same … and totally not necessary when the life is compelling.

Then there’s the second autobiography, perfectly timed for the Celtics first-round playoff knockout of the Hawks (yay, Kevin Garnett!), even though it’s not a tale the team would put on a banner. The paperback edition of Basketball Junkie just came out on Tuesday (St. Martin’s Griffin, $15), and if you haven’t read it, pick it up. Chris Herren was a high-school hoops hero out of Fall River back in the 1990s, and for a while he seemed like he was living the local-boy-makes-good dream: playing at BC and then Fresno State for Jerry Tarkanian (a legend for his coaching prowess as well as for his crooked programs), getting drafted into the NBA, then eventually coming home to the Celtics to play for his home team.

The problem? Herren was an addict. Alcohol and heroin not only derailed his once-promising career, but also pushed away his wife and three kids. The famous story about him (perhaps because it’s how Boston learned of his decline) is the one where he gets busted with drugs in his car…after he passed out in it with a needle in his arm … while he was going to get some doughnuts. Yes, it’s that low.

However, the story is not. While Basketball Junkie is certainly not a literary masterpiece like, say, Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries (also sort of about drugs and hoops, but in 1960s NYC), it also doesn’t try to be. It’s a clear-cut tale of how your inner demons can make you squander the greatest opportunities in the world (both professional and personal), and its plain-spoken, self-aware style makes it even more poignant. So when Herren does in the end get his life together, his overcoming struggle is even more impressive.

Both of these books fall into the autobiographical rabbit hole of the Big Overcoming-Struggle Book, but they both make for reads that will let you into interesting lives, and tell you something about our city and our region in the process. Sometimes cliches foster good things.