4 out of 4 stars
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Stories and biographies about “self-made men” getting ahead in life by virtue of their strong worth ethic and clever investments are hardly thin on the ground. Ever since Ben Franklin, such stories have been stables of American writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Jorge Newbery’s autobiographical Burn Zones: Playing Life’s Bad Hands starts out squarely in this same vein: seven-year-old Jorge gets a newspaper route, then invests his earnings in a ice-cream tricycle, then moves on to a teen-aged career in punk music production. The book’s title refers to the author’s time as a bicycle racer, in which difficult “burn zones” challenge a rider’s toughness, make him stronger, and eventually lead to victory and reward.
Despite a cliched premise, this book is truly fascinating to read. For one thing, there is something irresistible about the idea of having the “inside scoop.” Anyone with even passing interest in the early days of punk music, zines and youth culture of the 1980s (including the Straight Edge movement within punk), or professional bike racing will be turning pages to read more of Newbery’s steady stream of personal stories. It’s all unapologetically subjective: Newbery is, at all times, giving his own side of the story. I felt like I had a front-row seat to the workings of a mind with motivations and perceptions, not to mention experiences, very different from mine.
When the story turns to what the author considers his most challenging “burn zone,” his acquisition and then disastrous loss of a huge portfolio of housing complexes, the genre changes in an interesting way. It becomes a little less of a Horatio-Alger-inspired, rags-to-riches tale, and more of an exercise in unrelenting probing of a still-raw wound. What is really interesting about this is that it challenges the supposed premise of the book: that “burn zones” are always worth the pain and the sufferer always comes out stronger. Newbury is clearly, at the time of writing, still angry, hurt, and full of self-doubt. His memories of disgrace, of fear of prison time, and of extreme anxiety are still fresh. Newbery comes out on the other side, but we understand that this victory was not total and was not inevitable. New growth and joy come after the “burn zone,” but it isn’t clear if the new success makes up for the old pain. These moments of emotional honesty and ambiguity are to me the most interesting feature of the book.
The book it not without faults. The most obvious: it is unapologetically, sometimes obnoxiously self-righteous. This mostly stopped bothering me after a few pages, as it is all part of the “inside scoop”: this truly seems to be how this man sees himself, and we are seeing through his eyes. Beyond this, and more troublingly, there is a certain awkwardness and self-contradiction in Newbery’s portrayal of sexuality and of race.
When Newbery dwells on the details of innovative mortgage financing, the profession on which he settles after the fiasco of the apartment complex and financial collapse, it becomes clear how dependent the interest of the book is on a steady stream of anecdotes and brisk plot. Perhaps someone with pre-existing deep knowledge of finance would be captivated by these chapters, but I had to force myself to get through them.
Fortunately, on the other side there was a reward: a return to topics of general social historical interest (the Occupy movement) and relate-able personal interest (which I suppose are spoilers).
The book is well-edited, and I did not find notable errors in grammar or proof-reading.
On the basis of its unexpected originality, I rate this book 4/4. I recommend this book to those interested in business (a category that does not include me), to those interested in the psychology of ambition, to those interested in coping with perceived failure, and to those simply looking for a window into a life outside the norm.
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