April 2010 Issue
My Ohio: Novel Approach
Author and journalist Don Robertson was a remarkable talent and an Ohio original.
He was a big, big man with a big, big talent and a personality to match. If he were a character in one of his novels, he would give himself a name something like Phineas T. Bluster, the cantankerous mayor of Doodyville on the old “Howdy Doody” show. But in truth he was more a mixture of Princess Summerfall Winterspring and Buffalo Bob himself — graceful, warm, elegant in his own peculiar way and, most of all, hopelessly sentimental and sweet.
That was my friend Don Robertson — brilliant author, provocative newspaper columnist, outspoken TV commentator, fire-breathing radio host, dedicated student of movies, political know-it-all and the most devoted fan in the history of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Don died in 1999, which is the only reason I can get away with writing this piece. If he were here, he would roll his eyes and harrumph and tell me to write something important, for pity’s sake, not this clapdoodle. And then his eyes would well up, he’d blow his nose and he’d express his thanks in a way that was so over the top that one of us (probably him) would feel obliged to say something outrageously irreverent and rude to balance the moment out.
Just one more thing before I get to the point. (I can feel Don at my back telling me to move on with it, already.) He would not have minded that I started all this with Doodyville references. In fact, that is exactly the sort of ironic tribute he would have liked. And he would have loved — did I mention his penchant for italics? — the use of the names Phineas T. Bluster and Princess Summerfall Winterspring and the word choices of clapdoodle and harrumph.
His writing was full of names and words like that, words with whimsy and music. And then there were Don’s incredibly credible characters — such as the precocious Morris Bird III, the central figure in a classic trilogy of his works. (You can relax now, Don, this brings me to the point.)
Two of the Morris Bird books have been reissued by Harper Paperbacks. The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread
, reissued in 2008, is set against the East Ohio Gas Company explosion of 1944 and features Morris at 9 years old. The Greatest Thing That Almost Happened
, which made its reappearance late last year, follows Morris into adulthood.
This is not a book review, mind you, but may I offer some advice? Buy the books. Or go to the library and pull any Don Robertson book off the shelf. Give it a read. You’ll be hooked.
My own personal favorite is Praise the Human Season
(1974), which has the most spectacular and unexpected ending I’ve ever read. (Don’t peek.) After I read it, I asked Don if he knew when he began the book how it would end. “The last paragraph was the first paragraph I wrote,” he said. “I tacked it to the wall above my typewriter and I wrote to it.”
That remains the best writing lesson I ever had. And far more accomplished writers than I learned valuable lessons from Don. In a 15-page “forenote” to Don’s novel The Ideal, Genuine Man
(1987), Stephen King writes of the epiphany he experienced when he read Robertson for the very first time.
Knowing Don, of course, was itself a lesson in writing and life. His wife, Sherri, and I often have talked of the adventure it was simply to spend time in his company. Sherri keeps a library of Don’s work — including 18 published novels and several more that should be — in the Cleveland Heights home they shared. And she is vigilant in her mission to keep the power of his words alive. “It’s almost sacred to me,” she once told me.
Read Don Robertson and you’ll understand why. Here’s how Stephen King put it at the conclusion of his forenote:
“I repeat: win, lose or draw, you have never read anything quite like the novel which follows. Never. Never.”
Richard Osborne is publisher and editor of