Most books are published to be read; some are created as tributes. “Our Boston,” an anthology edited by literary agent Andrew Blauner, is an uneasy mix of the two. This fat collection benefits the One Fund and uses as its touchstone the Boston Marathon bombings of last spring, whose victims the fund benefits.
Although 29 of the 36 pieces here were written for the book, the violence perpetrated upon the city is not a universal subject. Instead, the majority of these essays revolve around memory — interpreting the unifying theme of the title, perhaps, as a call to look back on personal history as well as the recent tragedy.
Still, the Marathon bombings hang over this book, making objectivity toward this collection at times difficult (and appraising it nearly impossible) for anyone with ties to the city. The heightened emotions the violence provokes are also apparent in the immediacy of the writing, some of which seems to have been done in the days following the attack.
As may be expected, pieces about the bombings are among the most powerful, especially when they focus on the particulars. Kevin Cullen’s opener, “Running Toward the Bombs,” for example, is a masterpiece of reporting that can leave the reader in tears. Never mind that none of the information is new, this blow-by-blow essay, the longest in the book, is reason enough for the collection to exist.
By profiling participants — largely first-responders like doctor-marathoner Natalie Stavas and firefighter Sean O’Brien — in context, as the day unfolds, Cullen avoids bombast. Their efforts, and often their grief and ambivalence, give us the big picture in the details.
Dennis Lehane’s heated “Messing With the Wrong City” also wisely keeps its focus tight. His brief rant, an angry day-after response, starts with a childhood experience of an anti-busing march. “When I speak of my love for this city,” he writes, explaining his opening, “it will be understood that the love does not come filtered through a soft-focus lens.”
Alongside such impassioned pieces, the essays that don’t focus on the bombings, like André Aciman’s “Pride or Prejudice,” can feel anemic. Some of these are needlessly nostalgic about the city, reading like assignments urged by an agent or editor. References to candlepin bowling, Briggs & Briggs, and chowderheads abound.
Sometimes, as in Pico Iyer’s breathless “The Classroom of the Real,” the namedropping (Passim, Larry Bird, the Real Paper) just about works, achieving something close to poetry. At other times sentimentality or vagueness replace honest even if contradictory responses, and the writing flags.
There are, of course, exceptions in both types of pieces. Bud Collins’s meandering “Wounded, Boston’s Heart Remains Strong” skips from one slight anecdote to another before winding up at the bombings. It covers too much territory too quickly, as if the venerable sportswriter had long ago tired of his own stories and decided to skip to the punch lines.
Meanwhile, E.M. Swift’s “The Former Legends,” recounting his ongoing participation in an amateur hockey game as its players age, is both funny and moving, skating along on personality and subtle particulars. It is tales like these, as much as the reactions to the attacks, that give a sense of a shared city, a place where, as Lesley Visser notes, the phrase “the center cannot hold” may as easily be interpreted as a reference to the Patriots as to Yeats.
Whoever chose “Our Boston” as the title for this book must have considered using the ubiquitous catchphrase “Boston Strong”; the phrase pops up often. But the more general title is a good one, even if it contributed to the lack of focus. Because what the best of this collection shows us is that it is our vulnerabilities, our idiosyncrasies rather than our much vaunted strength, that make the city distinctive. “Our Boston” is a mixed bag of personalities and quirks, but, really, so is our town.