1st Prize--2020 Top Shelf Book Awards--Fiction--General
Dancer Stonemason, a minor league pitcher, falls into a downward spiral in Joy’s debut novel.
This darkly nostalgic story is a study of an American family through good times and bad, engagingly set against major events from the 1950s to the ’70s, as issues of race simmer in the background. After pitching a perfect game, Dancer dreams of playing in the major leagues, but he never gets his chance due to a perpetually sore arm and the financial needs of his expanding family. He moves from his off-season job as a parts inspector at a Caterpillar plant to the company’s better-paying foundry, run by the Thackers, a father and son who are also members of the Ku Klux Klan. Joy vividly describes the workplace as a Dantean hell: “Once the furnace was fired up and the men started building molds, the air would be filled with carbon ash and fine black molding sand. The junk hung in the air and made everything look blurry, like a bad dream.”
Stripped of his own dream, Dancer starts drinking and getting into fights; eventually, he gets arrested and becomes increasingly alienated from his wife and sons. Dancer’s older son Clayton, who once idolized him, grows to hate him, despite the fact that he’s just like Dancer in many ways. Meanwhile, Dede, Dancer’s wife, goes to work and has affairs but still helps her husband whenever he’s in trouble. Eventually, Dancer is taken in by a black milkman who’s a recovering alcoholic, a situation that eventually leads to a violent denouement and Dancer’s ultimate redemption. Overall, this novel is a natural for history buffs, filled with period details such as sting-ray bikes, Green Stamps, and the names of famous baseball players, including Spahn, Larsen, Mantle and Musial. However, it’s also an expertly written examination of the importance of dreams to the human psyche.
A well-crafted novel that will particularly appeal to sports and history aficionados.
"'That game was the only thing I ever accomplished that was all mine. And even you can’t take that away from me.'"
Dancer Stonemason is a small-town, Minor League Baseball prospect who’s about to finally get his big break with the St. Louis Cardinals. With his son set to watch him pitch for the first time, Dancer hits his pitching limit for the day but is a third of the way to a perfect game and wants to give his son a show while respecting the rarified air of a full defensive shutout. Though Dancer accomplishes the incredible, crowd-pleasing feat, the extra work puts a strain on his arm, and Dancer ends up bypassed this time around. As the years go by, Dancer’s family grows, and the need for more money becomes pressing, forcing him to work harder off the diamond than on it. The dream that he was a single decision away from reaching ends up slipping away from him permanently.
Blue-collar work with a life-changing accident, giving up on his Major League Baseball dream, and a growing divide between Dancer and his wife Dede result in him retreating to alcohol and growing increasingly temperamental and violent. His choices in life, including moral stands against Klan-affiliated higher-ups in his factory, lead him down a dark road that costs him nearly everything but leaves a chance open for redemption in the eyes of those he loves, particularly the oldest son who watched a perfect game and once idolized his father. Portraying lifestyles and attitudes of blue-collar America in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, this book celebrates the working class and the game of baseball without glossing over the racial and economic ugliness that persisted publicly and unashamedly throughout the era.
Like any good slice of Americana, this book gives the reader plenty to romanticize and wax nostalgic about while also giving equal time to the unfortunate aspects of the culture in the country at that time. Being along for the ride with Dancer as he starts the story out at maybe the highest point of his life before a long, slow decline is painful, and the audience may come to find his behavior irresponsible and selfish. Though Dancer does turn things around and does his best to heal the wounds he has caused, it takes faith and patience on the part of the reader to see that journey through to its bittersweet ending. The road is entertaining, though, with plenty of emotional scenes and powerful exchanges that are vivid in the imagination.
An interesting interplay exists between the characters in that many of them are often trying to act in what they think are each other’s best interests. However, these actions keep pulling them away from the tenuous hold that keeps them together. Dede’s urging of Dancer to walk away from baseball and focus on providing for the family is something that she thinks will protect him from disappointment; but without that drive and that dream, her husband becomes aimless and frustrated. The portrayal of that transition from what one wants to do to what one has to do is realistic and challenging, and the author portrays it accurately without dramatizing it. Joy’s book ventures into some of the more honest but painful aspects of working-class life. The backdrop, characters, and situations all act as complementary ingredients, resulting in a story that readers invest in as they share in the pain and redemption of its fallen hero.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review