In the early 1950s, sportswriter Steve Rushin's hometown of Bloomington, Minn., had a population of just 9,902. Within a decade, it had exploded to more than 50,000, becoming the kind of booming American suburb where families were large and life centered on school, church and sports.
In his funny, elegiac memoir Sting-Ray Afternoons, Rushin mines this ineffably familiar terrain with a sense of irony and deep affection, working hard to capture the look and feel of the 1970s, as seen through the eyes of a bookish Catholic-school boy growing up in a rambunctious, sports-mad family of seven.
It is the era of the jumbo jet and the boom box, "an age of wonder in which just about anything can happen." Rushin's father is a magnetic-tape salesman for 3M with a wry sense of humor, who wears navy blue or charcoal suits everywhere he goes, even — in one incident — to ski. His mother runs the house with a strict sense of middle-class probity, swooping in to remove glasses from end tables before they can leave rings, and dismissing vulgar or inappropriate behavior with the all-purpose epithet "hillbilly."
Rushin does a good job of conveying the terrors of childhood, how a seven-year-old can find something to fear even in a pop song or a TV Christmas special. He's a child who sleepwalks and wets the bed. But for the most part, Sting-Ray Afternoons is a remarkably sunny coming-of-age story about growing up in a Midwest world of "unfailingly decent and generous people" who believe in not tooting your own horn. Nothing too bad ever happens to Rushin's family. No one has a substance-abuse problem, gets sexually abused, or even really argues much, and the political disruptions of the era — like Vietnam and Watergate — are a distant ripple, followed through TV and newspapers.
Milestones such as the closing of Bloomington's Metropolitan Stadium or an older brother leaving for college can be suffused with sadness, but Rushin manages to lament what has passed without wallowing in loss or regret. This is the world that molded him, after all, and the 1970s "don't seem to recede at all with the passage of time but follow me, the way the moon always followed our car at night when I'd pretend to fall asleep in my seat and be carried into the house and upstairs to bed."
Much of what Rushin writes about — the Sears Christmas Wish Book, leaded gasoline, Johnny Carson's many vacations — will strike a chord with anyone who, like me, grew up in that era. What makes the book more than just late-baby-boomer nostalgia is the writing, which is knowing and funny.
At one point, Rushin gets to meet Alan Page, his favorite Minnesota Viking. "He smiles and puts his hand on top of my head, as if palming a grapefruit. Then he disappears into the stairwell, leaving me to stand there in the lobby, slack-jawed, forming a small puddle of admiration and flop sweat. I am instantly aware that it will be impossible to improve upon this experience, no matter how long I live."
About one of the teachers at his school, he writes, "Sister Mariella was the only nun at Nativity still teaching in the full-penguin habit. Her face, squeezed by her wimple, gave her the look — and the disposition — of a woman perpetually caught between elevator doors."
I could have done without the many short histories of consumer products like the Weber Grill, Romper Stompers and the Sting-Ray bicycle (which gives the book its title). They seem to be an attempt to evoke the texture of life in the '70, in all their tacky, vinyl-clad glory. But Rushin's eye is so sharp, and his writing so good, the book doesn't need them.