Back in the Game packs a solid punch – it’s full of awkward and endearing humanity – with its straight-ahead style and character-driven plot. How some authors work so much believability and sympathy in a slim volume is completely beyond me. This book oddly shares an impressive heart, and a comfortable, reasonable approach to life that belies the desperation of some of its characters.
Stanley Mercer, a former pro ballplayer, has come home to America from France, where he was trying unsuccessfully to find funding for a barnstorming baseball tour. His influential brother secures him a teaching job at an elementary school in Iowa, and Stanley finds himself trying to make sense of it all. He scarcely believes it. Not one to dwell too much dashed dreams, he discharges his new responsibilities reasonably well, making a pretty good teacher for the year, particularly since he never quite got his bachelor’s degree. He becomes involved with one or two families during the year, and one of them, the Rawlingses, is headed by Reggie, who is unfortunately a meth addict. As always, addicts are unpredictable while high, and Stanley has to deal with the raging Reggie, who may or may not know the extent of Stanley’s involvement with his wife, Amy.
Mr. Holdefer constructs his tale with his protagonist’s point of view once removed from the action that propels the story. His first-person narration captures for us the fairly routine events of the young teacher’s life, but the characters he encounters provide the drama and narrative energy. Through it all, we the lucky readers are treated to pitch-perfect portrayals of resilient small-town Iowans. As Stanley makes his way, the meth plague rears its ugly head, and the large local hog operation sustains an emergency hazardous spill. Events, never under Stanley’s control to begin with, spiral even further outside his ambit: his supposed girlfriend, half a day away in Chicago, may or may not have plans that include him. The local woman he dallies with turns out to be an adversary as events unfold, largely because her daughter is in Stanley’s class, and her husband is the meth addict.
I recommend this book to readers of literate fiction for its unique structure, for its finely-observed humanity, and for its big heart.