By Jim Mulvaney
SORE LOSER, by Mike McAlary, William Morrow and Company. 295 pp. $24.
In his last newspaper column, Mike McAlary wrote that one of his children had asked him if he were a sore loser, a crybaby of sorts. The question followed a trip to a bookstore that displayed Mike’s powerful novel. The child read aloud: "SORE LOSER MIKE McALARY" and wondered if this was an accurate statement about his dad.
There was every reason for Mike to be sore. He was dying of cancer at 41 just as he was hitting his professional peak. He played hooky from chemotherapy to break the story of the plunger attack on an innocent prisoner in a New York City police station. He limped out of the hospital to accept the Pulitzer Prize, journalism highest honor. He died on Christmas Day.
If Mike were a sore loser, he would have written a confessional of a misspent youth; tales of barrooms and lost evenings and maybe even the car wreck that nearly took his life. From the parts of his life I personally witnessed, I’d say McAlary’s autobiography would have been a heck of a read. A sore loser might have penned a preachy tale, pontificating on life’s lessons as seen from a deathbed. But even sick, Mike was too smart for that. "Sore Loser" is a whirlwind final tour through the cinematic world he traveled, a kaleidoscopic display of McAlary’s New York — from Elaine’s celebrity bar to the junkie shooting galleries of Manhattan’s Alphabet City. You can smell the sweat when he takes you into the Yankee locker room, your eyes will tear from the liniment in the rubdown room of the pro tennis tour, and a twinge of hunger will slap your belly from description of the sizzling grill in a New York diner. The tension at a police command post is palpable and the back stabbing in police headquarters painful.
The story is a murder mystery, starring Deputy Inspector Mickey Donovan, who bears a striking resemblance to former Chief John Timoney (now Philadelphia’s top cop), sporting idiosyncrasies of a dozen other legendary detectives.
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Donovan’s task is to investigate the murder of a softball umpire, a tennis judge and a basketball referee. It is an unlikely tale, but we aren’t here for the story, we’re here for the ambiance. The chief suspect is Ginny Glade, a fading star on the women’s tennis tour who becomes the love interest.
McAlary’s strength is characters. Some of them are real: a drunken Yankee manager named Billy Martin insulting Reggie Jackson in absentia, a Yankee owner being "poured" into a taxi cab after a night of drinking (George Steinbrenner used to call Mike "Malarky" for writing unfavorable stories about the Bronx ballteam), and a graceful Arthur Ashe, who is portrayed heroically, a thank-you note to the tennis great who was once very patient with a college sportswriter named McAlary. This is not the stuff of secondhand gossip, McAlary puts you right in the room.
Some of the characters have made-up names: John Mason, the swashbuckling police spokesman, is obviously reporter and former cop flack John Miller, who spent many hours sharing a table with Mike at Elaine’s. There are some riddles for the cognoscenti: the cop groupie named Babe gets her last name from a decidedly male New York Post cop reporter, and a saloon keeper is used as a tribute to John Cotter, a legendary tabloid editor who helped McAlary invent himself.
Even the fictional characters ring true. He starts with Brendan Bailey, a homicide detective who keeps track of the height of all of his victims and carefully adds it up in a little red book. "This makes an even four miles for me," the cop says and the reader knows that quote is too good to be made up. A pro baseball player is described simply: What "he didn’t have in talent he made up for in conceit."
The funniest character is the fictional mayor whose egotistical antics come hilariously close to equaling the excesses of Rudy Giuliani.
And, perhaps, that is the weakness of the book. As powerful as they are, the fictional characters don’t ever measure up to Mike himself.
I remember standing in front of the publisher’s office at the Daily News as Pete Hamill was being fired for trying to replace gossip with news. Mike had tried to explain to the big bosses how important Hamill was to the paper.
"If that’s what passes for newspaper owners these days," Mike said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder, "it’s just as well I’ve got the cancer." Less than a year later, he was dead.
No novel could be as good as McAlary’s life, but this one comes close.
(Jim Mulvaney first worked with Mike McAlary at Newsday and later at the New York Daily News. Mulvaney led a team of reporters at the Orange County Register who won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1996.)