I love biographies, but I don’t trust them. I tend to think they’re more akin to what Truman Capote called “nonfiction novels.”
I just finished Joe Posnanski’s biography of Penn State’s legendary coach Joe Paterno, who was fired during the firestorm over the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal. The scandal broke while Posnanski was writing the book — meaning he has either the worst or the best literary timing in history.
Paterno emerges as a closed-off, single-minded figure who refuses to let his family use Penn State pencils because they’re school property, and publicly berates his daughter for stealing when she sneaks a cucumber slice off her sister’s salad plate at a restaurant.
But the book — save a fleeting sentence or two — does not include any sympathy that Paterno and his family may have had for Sandusky’s victims. And it’s a conspicuous absence. The concern is saved for Paterno’s state of mind, his job, and his reputation. When Paterno’s son tries to get his father to understand the seriousness of the situation, Paterno will have none of it. He only wants to talk about the next game.
Though he was obsessed with Penn State football, Paterno, according to Posnanski, repeatedly emphasized education and downplayed the sport to his players. His life’s work, the book says again and again, was to develop hardworking, responsible, courageous, virtuous young men.
So how could he have failed so many young people so badly?