Oil Can Boyd Wrote the Best Sports Memoir in 2012
There can be no middle ground on Oil Can Boyd’s They Call Me Oil Can. It is either the best sports memoir ever written or it is the most intriguing sports memoir ever written. There are a number of reasons why this feels true but I cannot start without explaining Boyd’s wholesale rejection of the sports memoir as a genre.
I love sports memoirs but they usually feel like a USA Today weekend character profile that has been inflated 180 pages with 35 pages of glossy pictures jammed in the middle and 4 pages of stats in the back. Every sports memoir reads like it was dictated over a week’s of continental breakfasts with the exception of one airing of grievances/festivus. There are usually one or two festivuses (festivi?) per title. The festivus usually manifests in a few riffs on missed playing time or being overlooked by coaches, owners or teammates. Most ghostwriters apply the festivus element sparingly-its the only evidence that betrays the fact that athletes are humans. I don’t know how but I’ve always had the sense that athletes fear that these revelations could somehow jeopardize that partial ownership of a Toyota dealership or maybe the sales of flunky tee ball sets. But They Call Me Oil Can(TCMOC) doesn’t spare the festivus and he doesn’t give a shit about saving face to protect a sponsorship.
It is as brutally honest and heartbreaking of a portrait of as you are going to find in sports memoir. In They Call Me Oil Can, Boyd shares the fear and trauma of growing up in a culture of horrifying violence and oppression in Meridian, Mississippi. There are a number of harrowing incidents but two major anecdotes stand out in his early years. In the first chapter shares the story of the first two white men he met. They were workers in the civil rights movement and they were murdered by the KKK after the KKK receiving a tip on their whereabouts from local law enforcement. This incident takes place when Boyd is 5 years old.
Another anecdote, maybe the bleakest part of the book, details Boyd’s experiences on the mound of a Mississippi state playoff game. Boyd is the only black player on the field and the opposing team throws pebbles at him as he walks onto the field. His teammates are keenly aware of the hostile environment and try their best to rally around him. When Boyd takes the mound he really dominates the other team striking out a ton of batters before finally giving up a double. When the batter reaches second he begins to taunt Boyd with slurs. The opposing team and their fans pick up on it and join in the merciless taunting of an 11th grader. Boyd continues the hurl the ball with tears streaming down his face. The umpires do literally nothing and let the bullshit reign for the full nine innings.
There are times when the memoir rides in like Darryl Strawberry’s 2010 memoir Straw: Find My Way or Gary Sheffield 2007’s Inside Power but the nature and the tone of Boyd’s descriptions of his childhood are bleaker and the challenges of growing up in Meridian, Mississippi eclipse anything I’ve read in the baseball memoir world. It deserves to be read and inserted into any serious discussions of the modern American horror canon.
The book is not a technically flawless work-it stutters and stops at several points and you wonder if it’ll ever find a rhythm. But I don’t think it really needs a rhythm. Thematic or tonal shifts that would be back-breakers for any other book just kind of reinforce the sharp edges of the mosaic. One of the most badass passages of Call Me Oil Can or really any book generally details Boyd catching Wade Boggs saying something racist on a Red Sox team flight in 1986. Boyd responds by punching Wade Boggs in the back of the head.
Anyone who punches Wade Boggs on an airplane gets to keep the mic. I am not doing justice for this book and all its glorious fractals but here is a short list of people who should read CMOC:
-former Montreal Expos
If anyone wants to be a charter member of the CMOC book club we are taking applications NOW.