A Review of Len Joy’s American Past Time
by Jody Hobbs Hesler
Len Joy’s debut novel, American Past Time, is part time capsule and part baseball love affair. The title itself promises this (baseball is considered an America’s pastime, and this novel takes place in America’s past). It hearkens to the American hunger for the major leagues and the good life, spanning twenty years in the lives of the Stonemason family – from the post-war world of 1953 all the way to the summer of 1973.
Readers might expect such a nostalgic look at America to take a too-narrow, Mom-and-apple-pie approach, but Joy avoids this pitfall. What readers get instead is a steady-on account of a gifted ball player, Dancer Stonemason, first as he is poised on the brink of what might be a glorious career in the majors, next as he reckons with the more tortured day-in, day-out existence of a factory job in the 1950s American South, and beyond.
The first section of the book belongs to Dancer. The point of view shifts to his wife, Dede, in the next section, and finally to that of their two sons, Jimmy and Clayton, in the third and final section of the novel. Joy chose a pivotal twenty years to cover in his work. His characters reckon with pressures at the workplace from the Ku Klux Klan, the shocking (especially at the time) discovery of a wife’s lesbian lover, stories of the Civil Rights Movement,= and evidence of the slow changes it brings, a son going off to Vietnam, cancer, and more.
The Stonemasons’ many struggles, failures, and triumphs parallel the challenges and changes of the nation throughout these same times. But we start simply, with Dancer’s pure love of baseball: “He had a hand built for pitching – a pancake-sized palm and long, tapered fingers that hid the ball from the batter for that extra heartbeat” (2).
One bright day in Maple Springs, Missouri – a week before Dancer is scheduled to sub for a major league pitcher and get his chance at the big leagues – his wife and son come to watch him pitch. Everything he loves is in one place. Even the weather cooperates with Dancer’s optimism: “The sky was great-to-be-alive blue” (18).
Before the game, Rolla Rebel team owner, Doc, advises Dancer to go easy on his arm to keep it fresh for next week, and they plan to pull him after a few innings. But as the game promises to become legendary, fellow Rebel and veteran catcher, Billy Pardue, tells him, “You want to stay up in the Bigs, remember this – respect the goddam game. Play every game like it’s your last” (17), echoing Dancer’s own desire to honor his love for the game and continue.
As the innings progress toward what will become Dancer’s one perfect game, the community watching seems to unite in awe of him: “As he walked out to the mound for the seventh inning the crowd was eerily quiet, as if they were afraid the cheering might upset the baseball gods” (20-21).
Afterward, clouds roll into that “great-to-be-alive blue” sky. Doc lets Dancer know he can’t fill in for the major league pitcher anymore because he exhausted his arm, but surely he would get another chance. And Dancer takes heart. “It was a perfect game. No one could take that from him. … No matter what else happened they would always have that game. That moment. And Doc was right. He was young. He’d get another chance” (27). That innocent trust in the future sets up the disappointment and aching nostalgia that follow Dancer, and really all of us, after a peak moment we never know will be the last of its kind.
Dancer’s legendary game buys him a few years of low-level local fame, but we learn soon afterward that “the problem with his arm had developed the spring after the perfect game” (29). Dancer takes a better-paying job, pouring steel at the Caterpillar foundry, and the weight he gains in muscle mass, according to Doc, “might have thrown off his mechanics” (29). Whatever the cause, clearly nothing will be the same for Dancer again.
Soon Dancer is nobody’s hero anymore, and the work is hard and unrelenting. On the job, Dancer faces pressure from the owner’s son to attend Ku Klux Klan meetings. At home, his wife and two sons need more than he seems able to provide. He starts drinking with his best friend, staying out later and later. Everything starts slipping. Eventually, his wife Dede fears, “Things were never going to be normal in Maple Springs. Dancer was broken. … [E]very time she got a little bit ahead, Dancer would end up knocking that rock back down the hill” (199). All evidence seems to doom Dancer to ultimate failure. But sometimes, when second chances happen, they don’t look a thing like what you would expect.
This novel is a paean to the American Dream, not the showy upmarket commercial full-of-promises version, but the sort of dream you gain through trial, error, toil, and endurance. In Len Joy’s American Past Time, Dancer Stonemason rebuilds his dreams against the backdrop of a country doing the same thing.
Len Joy, American Past Time. Hark! New Era Publishing, LLC, 2014: $5.99
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, feature articles, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in Steel Toe Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, Pearl, Charlottesville Family Magazine, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah, and others. You can follow her at jodyhobbshesler.com or on her Facebook writer page: Jody Hobbs Hesler – Writer.