I Was A Champion Then: Twelve Stories About Quiet Injustice, Small Rebellions and Restless Hope is a collection of essays and short stories compiled by the author’s son, Christopher Paul Meyer. A book decades in the making, Alfred Meyer had 30,000 pages of unpublished work when he died in 2012. Alfred Meyer writes eloquently about baseball, childhood wargames, lovelorn women, race and other topics that seem at once deeply American and universal. Meyer writes about big American topics; he may not have completed the Great American Novel, but the tenor of these stories suggests he was well on his way.
This is really a heartwarming book through and through – not just because Christopher Meyer is acting on his devotion and respect for his dad, but his dad’s own writing just emanates with the love of writing. A career maritime shipping lawyer, Alfred Meyer was always writing continuously. At his peak, Meyer had two essays published in the “Christian Science Monitor,” both included in the collection. He was also working on a novel, having his fiction rejected by the publishing industry (encouragingly so), and pounding out many stories that never saw the light of day – until now. In short, Alfred Meyer was clearly the kind of writer who wrote because he had to, because he loved to, and because he very clearly had a lot of talent.
It’s not a world-beating talent, as evidenced in these short pieces. This doesn’t read like the work of an undiscovered genius working in the shadows – say, the literary equivalent of Charles Ives. But the stories are certainly moving and evocative and speak of an earlier time, back when people wrote on typewriters – each word and sentence comes out well-considered and well-measured. If there’s an analogue, the feeling is a bit like Richard Yates’ short prose, yet without the extreme pathos. The writing is careful, but never stale, and poetic without being too wordy. He clearly has great passion for each subject he writes about, whether it’s a real person (the controversial baseball player Enos Slaughter), or a fictional character.
Unfortunately, the cover doesn’t really do the prose justice, and some of the images throughout the book – though well-chosen – are stretched and distorted as well. Also, Christopher Meyer’s introductions should have been formatted to show a different voice. A quibble, but given that he doesn’t introduce every piece, it’s tough to know at first who exactly is writing. Otherwise, it’s a very loving tribute. Christopher Meyer’s introductions are a good read as well and add some entertaining backstory.
Perhaps there are a lot of Alfred Meyers out there – people who wrote privately who never had an outlet. Personally, my grandmother falls into this category – I recently discovered some of her writing, which was surprisingly great, and hope to compile it one day. This collection is a template on how to put together this kind of posthumous book. However, I Was A Champion Then isn’t just a son’s dutiful project; Alfred Meyer was a real writer, and these stories are more than worthy of an audience.