In July another librarian and I took a road trip to Prairie Lights, an independent bookstore in Iowa City, to hear Charles Holdefer read from his latest novel, Back in theGame. Why would we make a three-hour round trip drive for a half hour reading? Holdefer had offered to come to Carnegie-Stout for an author visit this fall, so we wanted to learn more about him and his book. Although his schedule didn’t allow Holdefer to come to Dubuque in October for a program after all, I did get a signed copy of his book to read.
Raised in Knoxville, Iowa, Holdefer attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop before moving to France in 1985, where he teaches at the University of Poitiers. He returns to Iowa frequently to visit and to teach. This summer his weeklong Novel Fundamentals class was part of the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Since November is NaNoWrMo, now seems like a good time to review his book.
"[Back in the Game] is about a guy who fakes his credentials to become an elementary-school teacher and finds himself in a small town in Iowa," Holdefer said. "He starts an affair with the mother of one of his pupils. The mother's husband is a meth addict."
This is not a bucolic, happily-ever after fairy tale set in the rustic Iowa of years past. This is 21st Century Iowa with smelly hog lots, bullying of special education students, meth labs and dysfunctional families. Stanley Mercer, the main character in Back in the Game, never made it past Triple A ball in the United States. He has been living out of the country for almost 15 years, never realizing his dream of major league success. He is reeling from the triple whammy of losing his job playing baseball in Europe, being dumped by his French girlfriend and facing a future for which he has not prepared. Encouraged by his brother Riley, an Illinois hotshot lawyer who is not anxious for Stanley to sponge off his family, Stanley looks for a real job, and he finds real people with real problems, and he is forced to deal with his own shortcomings. The game he finds in Iowa is making a new life after baseball; this life forces him to consider where he’s been and where he’d like to go.
Despite being a fraud with no preparation for the classroom, Stanley is not the worst teacher ever. He relates well to his students and encounters other teachers with problems of their own. He finds himself drawn into the life of the community. The story unwinds leisurely, and the quirky characters take time to reveal themselves. They’re worth the wait: Beverly, the nurse and maybe lover in Chicago; Nelson, the art teacher unhappy at his failed marriage; the Rawlings family with Mom Amy having an affair with Stanley, her daughter Ginny’s teacher, and Dad Reggie clinging to family wealth as he wallows in methamphetamine addiction; Patty Gordon, the teacher with 28 years under her belt who helps Stanley survive his first few weeks of teaching; and Stanley’s Mom and her boyfriend Archie of the cranberry-colored sports jacket; what a cast!
Setting, particularly local color, is almost as an important element to me as characters I care about, a compelling plot and an intriguing topic. Charles Holdefer offers me the whole package in Back in the Game, and his wry humor and social satire are a bonus. I hope he can fit a visit to Dubuque in his schedule next year when he comes back to the United States.