Stanley Mercer might be called an accidental teacher. After fourteen years of pursuing his youthful dream of professional baseball through the U.S., Mexico and France, he returns to America, without success or his girlfriend, Delphine. Everything he owns is in the duffel bag he slings over his shoulder. His brother, Riley, a successful attorney, donates sympathy and a temporary bed, but Stanley knows he can’t stay. Even his widowed mother has moved on with a new hairstyle, sexy wardrobe and a colorfully-dressed lover. He has to do something with his life to avoid becoming a barely-tolerated fixture in other families’ bathrooms.
With just a “small lie,” he accepts a teaching job in Legion, Iowa. While everything appears to be quiet in Legion, Stanley soon learns that his new, small town life is anything but peaceful. He witnesses an odd sort of boosterism in a community where gossip prevails over facts and the mascot is a mythical hog. Methamphetamine labs and addiction afflict the families of his students. The nearby hog confinement company, The Double Dee, is the primary employer around Legion, but its sewage lagoons signify both prosperity and imminent disaster. Stanley experiences the pleasures, wiles and wills of lovers, with each woman remaining as much a mystery to Stanley as the children in his classroom. He lives with a cautious goodwill the presumes the same in other people, even where it is lacking.
Back in the Game depicts present-day life in a fictional Iowa small town, but it explores how disappointed people struggle to relaunch themselves into better lives. Stanley and other characters in Holdefer’s story inhabit that silent expanse of time and place that follows the wheezy deflation of dreams. As with his other literary fiction, Charles Holdefer balances tragic elements with an uplifting twist of humor, delicately avoiding the excesses of caricature and gloom. This is neither Lake Wobegon nor a requiem for the end of rural communities on the American Great Plains. Holdefer writes an affectionate and genuine story of people in small communities who wager their lives, loves and economies against poverty and loneliness. He considers how closely-guarded myths can prevent meaningful change. His flawed but resilient characters invite us to consider how we might ease our own ways through great disappointments, as they must do for survival.