My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Bookshelves: biography, gangsta, in-the-news, party-like-a-rock-star, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous, sports, non-fiction, true-crime, show-your-work, sports
This account of the shooting-star NFL player Aaron Hernandez is a lot like shallow whitewater; it pulls you right along, swirls and eddies and churns and is exciting enough, but it’s not all that deep. To be fair, In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter have already been done. Spoiler alert: There may be some in this review, but if you followed the headlines as events played out, then not really.
The book follows Aaron’s football career, from high school through his years with the Florida Gators and his signing by the New England Patriots. This is paralleled by his off-the-field life, with stops for various shootings and bar brawls, a couple of murder trials, and ultimately his death in 2017. There are a lot of major and minor players, and events spill over into each other, so things are occasionally hard to keep straight. But for all the detail included, there is much missing. Aaron’s fiancee doesn’t appear until he is signed with the Patriots, although they had reportedly been a couple for some years, and there’s next to nothing on the relationship that included her disposing of murder weapons and committing perjury on his behalf. There’s nothing on the investigative and legal teams beyond the tidbit that one defense lawyer was the one who got Casey Anthony acquitted.
It appears that things brought out in the investigations and trials were recreated in a narrative biography form that reads more like fiction, although I can’t say that definitely because no sources are listed. But that is not my preferred style for true crime. I prefer the more standard format of (1) crime (2) in-depth account of the investigation, and (3) solid showing of how all the evidence and testimony played out (or was disallowed) in the courts. I dislike the assumption of omniscience on the writer’s part, with little or no reference to where the information came from. It doesn’t give me what I want, which is to be a fly on the wall for the detective work, forensics, and legal maneuvering. I want to see and hear what the cops and the juries saw and heard, or why they didn’t see or hear it. That’s the reckoning. I want to know where the “facts” came from so I can reach my own conclusions. So ultimately, I don’t have much opinion on the verdicts, as I was left with a poor idea of what the different juries were actually given to work with. (I can say I don’t understand how Aaron’s agent and attorney could refuse to believe he committed suicide. The only reasonable alternative is murder, but the description of his death scene is the classic locked-room scenario.)
There’s enough actual football here for devotees, but not too much for non-fans. There is good backstory on Aaron himself, and I appreciate that every little detail of his childhood was not laid out; it’s tough to make anyone else’s toddler stage interesting to me. Aaron’s emotional chaos from the sudden and shattering death of his father and idol is reflected well, along with his long-term substance abuse and his associations with society’s bottom-feeders. But his advanced CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy, brain degeneration resulting from repeated blows to the head) and how it may have worked with those other factors to produce his erratic, paranoid, and violent behavior is brought up almost an afterthought.
Whether intentionally or not, the book does serve as an indictment of the culture of the athlete in America, with the win-at-any-cost business model, exorbitant salaries, celebrity status, entitled attitudes, and tolerance, if not cover-ups, of domestic violence, drug use, drunk driving, sexual assault, and generally shitty and unsportsmanlike behavior off the field. Not all athletes, certainly not–but for every one that makes the news, how many don’t?
So, it’s not the best true crime I’ve ever read, but it’s still a page-turner. Patterson’s style is headlong, with little cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, and the chapters are so short that it’s easy to read just one more and just one more and just one more… I started reading on a Saturday night and couldn’t stop, fell asleep over it with the light on about 3 a.m. and finished it the next morning. For all its churned-out feel, it’s still an engrossing read.
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