Book Review: Steve Rushin’s “Nights in White Castle,” in Which a Sportswriting Boy Becomes a Sportswriting Man

Book Review: Steve Rushin’s “Nights in White Castle,” in Which a Sportswriting Boy Becomes a Sportswriting Man

When I saw Steve Rushin’s 2017 memoir Sting-Ray Afternoons, I wondered why the world needed the childhood memories of a gen-X white writer guy from Minnesota. Being a gen-X white writer guy from Minnesota, of course, I devoured it — and laughed more often than at any book since The Last Catholic in America.

Recognition played a part, no doubt; Rushin even went to a Catholic grade school with almost the same name as my own Catholic grade school, just ten miles to the northeast. Most of all, though, what made Sting-Ray Afternoons work is what makes any memoir work: an eye for the bridge between specific details (his five-kid family refer to themselves as “one redhead and four shitheads”) and the broader picture.

Rushin’s style, to which he returns in the new sequel Nights in White Castle, is to repeatedly telescope back and forth between his own life and the broader forces shaping the American experience. He’s particularly attuned to the consumer landscape that shapes our material lives — and did so particularly for middle-class kids in the ’70s and ’80s, when mass-produced products thrived and screens hadn’t yet proliferated.

To say so isn’t necessarily to speak of a better, simpler time: we spent as much time as we possibly could glued to the few screens available to us. One spot where my life and Rushin’s diverge is that I preferred to watch Transformers and Siskel & Ebert, while he tuned to sports.

One of the pleasures of Sting-Ray Afternoons, particularly for a fellow Minnesotan, was the way that Rushin evoked the proud awe of an era when Bloomington, Minnesota seemed to contend with Manchester and Rio as one of the world’s sporting colossi. The specific colossus was Metropolitan Stadium, home to the Minnesota Vikings, the Minnesota Twins, and even the Minnesota Kicks.

Being about a decade younger than Rushin, I don’t remember those glory days — my parents had to leave a Twins game at Met Stadium in August 1975, when my mom started having contractions for the labor that would led to my own birth — but I’m very familiar with the sense, which we think is specific to the Gopher State but which in fact is universal among kids, that our home is the center of the universe.

Nights in White Castle picks up the story as the author finishes high school and departs for Marquette University. By the end of the book it’s clear, for those who didn’t read the author blurb on the cover, that Rushin isn’t exactly just another white writer guy from Minnesota. He became one of America’s best-known sportswriters, and delivered his alma mater’s commencement address in 2007.

The new book chronicles Rushin’s rapid rise to staff writer at Sports Illustrated, via connections that begin when he pens a letter to the magazine about the S.H.I.T.: the Saunders Hoop Invitational Tournament, a series of three-on-three matches in the Bloomington backyard of Flip Saunders, the former University of Minnesota player who was then an assistant coach for the Golden Gophers and would go on to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The fact that Nights in White Castle begins in high school, then travels through college and lands in Times Square gives it more of a disjointed feel than the warmly cohesive Sting-Ray Afternoons, and all in all it’s not quite as funny. Most of its laughs come early on, when Rushin’s still running “the Strip” (that would be Interstate 494) with his high school buddies in Bloomington.

One priceless scene, for example, has a group of Swedish stewardesses on break from the nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport deciding to go topless when sunbathing by the pool on what the kids call “Airport Beach” at the Holiday Inn pool. “In less than a minute,” writes Rushin, an attendant “sprinted from the lobby with a floral bedspread and threw it across the stewardesses as if putting out a fire.”

(Ah, Minnesota, where the “American Swedish Institute” isn’t a spa with nude kubb, but a museum full of Scandinavian ceramics.)

Rushin does have a plot thread: his development as a sportswriter who starts out writing game recaps just because he wants to, ultimately parlaying that passion into a gig as a fact-checker who becomes a full-fledged writer at SI. Rapid though his rise was, it wasn’t without hiccups…for example, paying an additional $925 of the magazine’s money for a prepaid plane ticket.

The book’s title comes from the fact that, in high school, every night ended at “the Castle” for Rushin and his friends. Even a night that began with an eating contest at the Pizza Hut buffet landed at the White Castle on Lyndale Avenue as “a kind of valedictory, the victory cigar after a fine evening.”

Like its predecessor, Nights in White Castle is an affectionate but not misty-eyed look back at one man’s emergence from the remarkably unremarkable cradle of Middle America. Rushin found himself on the basketball court, while others among us found ourselves right back on Lyndale Avenue — albeit an urban stretch, where the local White Castle has been repurposed as an antiques store.

The Twins and the Vikings moved to the Metrodome, where Rushin worked selling Dome Dogs (“for three seconds at a time, a dozen times a night, I get to know the right fielders of the American League” including “the exquisitely named Rusty Kuntz”). The old Met Stadium site is now Mall of America, where Rushin promises you “might hear the faint echo” of his distant days as a vendor selling in a stage whisper so as not to draw the ire of devoted Kenny Rogers fans.

“Pop-cawn! Get your pop-cawn here!”

Jay Gabler