Bob Greene sends a buddy trio on a feel-good tour of America

June 13, 1993|By Susanne Trowbridge

ALL SUMMER LONG.

Bob Greene.

Doubleday.

387 pages. $23. Bob Greene, the columnist for the Chicago Tribune, is a man fascinated by details. His best columns are like carefully crafted miniatures, examining topics most reporters wouldn't give a second glance, such as a small-town high school's basketball schedule, a Bob Evans restaurant menu, or the names of Amtrak train routes. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that "All Summer Long," his first novel, reads like an extended version of one of his columns.

Even after more than 20 years in the business, Mr. Greene has never lost his sunny, gee-whiz attitude; like a child tugging on his parent's sleeve, he wants us to stop walking so fast and look around at the wonderful things that surround us. Occasionally, he does acknowledge the darker side of life, as in a recent series on abused children. Far more typical was a reader-written string of columns on good things about America, which inspired rival scribe Mike Royko to invite his fans to send in lists of what really ticks them off.

Incurable curmudgeons such as Mr. Royko no doubt won't be won over by "All Summer Long," which recounts the adventures of three men in their early 40s who decide to cast off their responsibilities and spend the summer traveling across America. Fast friends during their youth in bucolic Bristol, Ohio, they meet again at their 25th high school reunion, where Ben Kroeger, a successful television reporter, hatches the plan. "What would happen if the three of us just took off?" he asks.

Initially, his pals -- Ronnie Hepps, a businessman who married into money, and Michael Wolff, a schoolteacher at Bristol High -- are reluctant. But Ben persuades them, and they embark on their three-month road trip. Ronnie, a wheeler-dealer who is always phoning his office, is the resident cynic, but both Ben and Michael are in constant awe of the world around them.

In one early episode, Ben uses his broadcasting connections to get himself and his friends into the Chicago Cubs' locker room. Inside, Michael spots a table topped with containers of Bazooka bubble gum: "The three canisters -- regular, sugarless, soft -- somehow represented something. Those transparent Bazooka

bins were a blunt representation of the difference between this world and our world. How many men, on their way to work each day, are lucky enough to be able to stop off at a Bazooka bin? . . . There might be many mundane aspects to the daily lives of these players, but at the core there still was magic."

During a sojourn in Manhattan, Ben tells Michael why the Big Apple isn't such a great place, after all: "You should never live in any town that doesn't have a Main Street." After the men have taken in New York City, Las Vegas, Florida, California and Chicago, will anyone be surprised when they conclude that there's no place like home?

"All Summer Long" would be an easy book to make fun of -- its unwavering belief in the purity and goodness of American small towns, its predictable finale, its corniness. But after a while, it becomes apparent that "All Summer Long" is a book with a great big heart.

The author seems to have put more than a little of himself into the character of Ben. Like Mr. Greene, who wrote about his own high school days in a small Ohio town in "Be True to Your School," Ben takes great pleasure in noticing details, "the little nuggets of life that struck me as the things I'd want to tell people about at dinner."

In the end, that's the real reason to read "All Summer Long" -- for the details. Sometimes, as in the Bazooka anecdote, Mr. Greene goes over the top. But others are simply and beautifully observed: the elaborate mating dance of teen-agers at a swimming pool; the joy of catching fireflies and then letting them go; the warm feeling that comes from seeing the person you love the most turn the corner and head up the street toward your house.

As heartfelt and sweetly nostalgic as a Fourth of July parade, "All Summer Long" is sure to charm readers who have dreamed of leaving their cares behind and hitting the road. The ride isn't always a smooth one, but overall, Mr. Greene delivers a satisfying trip.

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

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