Back in the Game

Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protests to the contrary, there are plenty of second acts in American lives, and Charles Holdefer’s Back in the Game offers a case in point. The novel follows former AAA and European League baseball player Stanley Mercer as he struggles to make a life for himself as a schoolteacher in the small town of Legion, Iowa. That Stanley has never graduated from college is the least of his worries as he falls for a married woman who also happens to be the mother of one of his worst students.

Throughout the novel, Holdefer develops a perfect level of synergy between setting and character. Like any small town, Legion is home to a wide range of endearing individuals, not the least of which are a pair of misfit siblings named the Snows, who ride the school bus with Stanley amid a constant barrage of verbal slings and arrows from their classmates. Yet while the people of Legion may fit the traditional profile in many ways, Holdefer offers a complex vision of Small Town America that firmly resists cliché. Indeed, while the townspeople cheer their high-school football team by donning rubber pig noses and squealing from the sidelines, methamphetamine abuse runs rampant behind closed doors and environmental disaster looms on the horizon in the form of a massive sewage lagoon. To put it mildly, the simple life has never been so complicated.

Back in the Game explores the changing face of Middle America in a moving and nuanced way. Quirky as they are heartbreaking, Holdefer’s characters come across as nothing less than fully human in this loving study of the relationship between people and the places we call home.

Related: A Conversation with Charles Holdefer.

Minus One: A Twelve Step Journey – Review by Cindy Zelman

It’s not often that I continue reading a book when, at first, I don’t like the lead character. For quite a few pages, this was the case with protagonist, Terry Manescu, in Bridget Bufford’s novel, Minus One: A Twelve-Step Journey. My dislike was due to her attitude: I found the twenty-something Terry to be grating, self-absorbed, and annoyingly angry.  Normally, such derisive feelings toward a protagonist spell disaster in terms of continuing to read a book, but something kept me moving forward, and that was simply the author’s superb writing.

Not far into the book, Bufford managed to deftly convert me into a Terry-loving cheerleader. The author transformed Terry into a multi-dimensional, open, and sympathetic character in a powerful and pivotal scene involving sex and pain and mental anguish.  I was stunned and breathless throughout the violently sexual episode between Terry and Pat, a woman she meets at a diner and with whom she has a one night stand. The scene turns out to be Terry’s low point, and from there, she works her way up to sobriety and emotional health.  She’s still a hot head at times, but now she has self-awareness – and that’s the key. Now I, as reader, like her and root for her.

Bufford has a way of teaching us about the 12-Steps that is fascinating, beginning with some laconic and often humorous quotes overheard at AA meetings. One of my favorites: “Getting lost in my head is like talking to an asshole in a bad neighborhood.” Bufford also is expert at having characters dialogue in meaningful ways about the Twelve Steps and what they mean and how to use them in one’s life.  Terry’s attitude is one of both resistance and embrace.

Just for the ability to engage us in such a topic that could have been deadly boring, I designate Bufford a word-wielding, character-building, story-telling magician. Bufford infuses humor and self-deprecation in throughout the book, which helps to lighten a very serious story of overcoming alcohol abuse.  I learned a lot about the 12-Step Program, and I found it applicable to my life, too, even though I’m not in recovery from drugs or alcohol. Perhaps we are all in recovery from something.

For example, I found myself making amends this week to someone I felt I had wronged months ago, and I don’t believe I would have done this – the act itself or the labeling of it as “amends” – if not for Bufford’s book. It’s a powerful story and a powerful author who can actually affect my behavior.

I need to mention that Bufford writes fabulous sex scenes between women. Her scenes are natural, smooth, emotional, suspenseful,  and passionate. Yet, she avoids any blushing moments and doesn’t need to use any “dirty” words. As a lesbian and a writer, too, I admire what she does with her sex scenes. The ones I write are sometimes embarrassing in their rawness, often sadly humorous, and full of bad words and bad sex. I see Bufford’s work as a lesson in how to write such scenes with perfect pacing, tone, mood, and emotion.

Here is a short excerpt:  “Her hands on my shoulders betray a fine tremor. I grip her hips,lean my forehead against her, knead the muscles of her hamstrings, her calves, pull every part of her close…”

Bufford’s novel reads like the finest creative nonfiction memoir, and for saying that, I suspect the author would like to clobber me over the head, so I will acknowledge this book as a work of fiction.For anyone interested in alcoholism, in the way gay women interact with one another, or just in a very human story of triumph over adversity, this is a great read by a very talented author. I look forward to reading her second book, Cemetery Bird.

The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door

A shark attack, a starlet in hiding, a mysterious black box. The opening pages of Stephen Stark’s The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door have all the makings of a Hollywood page turner, but the novel’s style places the author in a far more literary league.

The novel is a hefty one in terms of content as well as form. Weighing in at well over 600 pages (in 12 pt. Garamond, no less!), The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door touches on a wide range of topics — show business, fame, predestination, love, reality, lucid dreaming, and standup comedy, to name just a few. To tackle these subjects, Stark offers the reader Ellen Gregory, a thirty-something standup comic turned TV superstar whose recent run-in with a murderous stalker leaves her questioning everything about the world she’s grown used to. That her world consists largely of hype and rumors only complicates matters for the increasingly cagey celebrity.

Ellen’s Hollywood narrative alone would certainly provide enough material for a provocative examination of fame and its trappings, but Stark sweetens the deal by adding virtual reality to the mix. Shortly after escaping from the confines of her successful sitcom, Ellen falls for a computer programmer whose experiments have opened a doorway into a mysterious dimension that isn’t quite real but is, in some ways, more real than real. When Michael falls prey to a vicious attack, Ellen’s world turns upside down, and her entire world — not to mention her sense of self — goes up for grabs.

Stylistically, Stark’s writing evokes a diverse range of contemporary authors. From the more “literary” camp, there’s Jennifer Egan and Don DeLillo, while the elements of science-fiction present in the novel call to mind William Gibson’s interest in virtual reality and Jamil Nasir’s examination of lucid dreaming in The Houses of Time. Complex, ambitious, and genre-bending, The Final Appearance of America’s Favorite Girl Next Door is a philosophical page turner that dares to ask what it means to really know someone.

-Review by Marc Schuster