Do you believe you can shape your future, determine your destiny? One spring day in 1954, three sixth grade boys make a bet: the one who can climb first to the top of a small green merry-go-round outside their school will be "Champ for life!" For the rest of his days he'll be “on Easy Street!" So they engage in a "mad scramble - clambering over each other with murderous intent," and eventually one of them reaches the summit and stands triumphant, lording it over the others. He is the merry-go-round man.
The Merry-Go-Round Man is a novel about three boys growing up in the so-called innocent days of the Eisenhower ‘50s. It's about rites of passage, loss of innocence, sexual initiation, racism, and much more. Of the three boys, Johnny Roth is central. He possesses two transcendent gifts which are only beginning to emerge as the novel begins. One of them is the ability to box or fight, something he deeply fears. The other ability is artistic and mystical. He is a natural expressionistic painter of vast potential. Unfortunately, Johnny's father, an orthodox Jew, hates both of these pursuits, and his opposition tears Johnny apart.
Of the two other boys, Lee Esner grows up to be a gifted football player with what looks like a lucrative pro career ahead of him. He also has a flair for attracting beautiful girls. Is he the merry-go-round man? The third boy, Jimmy Wiggins, is black and from the ghetto. Attending an elite white school with Johnny and Lee, his naive love for a pretty white girl is destroyed by her cruel racism. Another rite of passage. Symbols such as a burning Buddhist monk make us ask whether anyone is really The Merry-Go-Man in life.