‘Stronger’ by Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter
How long is long enough to wait? What amount of time needs to pass before the victim of an unexpected tragedy has sufficient perspective to tell a good, true tale?
I began to ask myself these questions even before I picked up “Stronger,” the memoir by Jeff Bauman, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor and Chelmsford native.
You may not remember Bauman’s name, but you would recognize his picture. The image of Bauman, his legs blown apart into what he calls “applesauce,” being frantically pushed in a wheelchair by a trio of rescuers — including one with a cowboy hat — instantly became one of the bombings’ iconic images.
Now, as that day of infamy is commemorated, comes “Stronger.” It is not alone. At least a dozen Marathon bombing-themed books are being released, many smartly coinciding with the one-year anniversary. More are surely on the way.
“Stronger” is a straightforward, plain-spoken effort. It opens with the book’s best writing: a vivid re-creation of the events of April 15, 2013. Then we move to Bauman’s injury, his identification of Tamerlan Tsarnaev as a chief suspect for the FBI, and the wrenching aftermath of his recovery.
A conversational, first-person narrative (“I don’t like talking about personal stuff,” he says early on), “Stronger” brings together stray thoughts and everyday moments. Despite the catastrophic injury to his legs, Bauman insists he remembers every detail of that day — “It doesn’t get hazy after [the bomb blasts],” he writes. “It gets very clear.”
On that day, Bauman was a 27-year-old Costco worker, a regular guy, living a beer-drinking, sport-loving, video-game-playing, guitar-jamming life.
He attended the Marathon to cheer on his girlfriend, Erin Hurley, whom he had known for less than a year. Bauman is surprisingly candid in his portrayal of those in his inner circle, warts and all — his mother’s issues with drinking, for instance.
Bauman introduces us to the likes of cousin Derek (“Big D’’), his stepmother “Big Csilla,’’ Costco boss Kevin “Heavy Kevy’’ Horst, and “best friend since third grade’’ Sully.
After the blast, we follow his brushes with sports stars, police officers, media personalities, reporters, doctors, and physical therapists. We also meet Carlos Arredondo, the cowboy-hat-wearing savior, who has his own sad story to share.
Adapting to his new life, and learning to walk using prosthetic limbs, the affable Bauman displays a range of emotion, from humor to heartbreak — also bitterness and cynicism. He reluctantly embraces his role as an inspirational “Boston Strong” symbol. As two Boston sports teams make their playoff runs, Bauman is asked to make appearances at TD Garden and Fenway.
“Did the Boston Bruins really want to do something nice for Jeff Bauman the human being? Or did they want him to be a prop? Something they could use to make a crowd of people cheer?” Touché. He feels he’s being used. “Look at Jeff, isn’t he adorable? Look at Jeff, isn’t he brave? Look at Jeff, he’s a symbol. He’s a marketing tool.”
Bauman discusses Erin’s reluctance to have “Strong” published, fearing a loss of the couple’s privacy. He recounts a conversation with his agent, who tells him: “If I wanted to write a book, and I wanted people to read it, I had to write it now. While the memory is fresh, he said. He meant the world’s memory, not mine.”
While he is not particularly thoughtful, Bauman’s periodic displays of insight can take the reader by surprise. When family visits him in the hospital after his surgery, he writes, “They hated looking at the blanket, where the shape of my body stopped too soon.”
Despite his physical and emotional struggles, he impresses the reader with his optimism. “I’ll always be different,’’ he says. “That’s my life. But that doesn’t mean I’m not normal.”
“Stronger” is not merely a triumph-over-adversity story, but a love story. Bauman details his relationship struggles with his long-suffering girlfriend over his mood swings and commitment issues both before and after the bombings. Last month, Bauman announced he and Hurley were engaged and expecting a baby.
Bauman worked on the book with pen-for-hire Bret Witter (the coauthor behind numerous bestsellers, including “The Monuments Men,’’ which was recently turned into a movie). The “I” of an even partially ghostwritten memoir can raise the red flag of inauthenticity. While it is impossible to know how much Bauman wrote himself, the book exudes a sense of transparency and honesty.
Less charitable readers might accuse Bauman of cashing in quick. But perhaps “Stronger” needed to be told the same way that the events themselves unfolded: fast, rough, and unexpected, leaving behind lives utterly changed.