A high school basketball coach deals with small-town secrets.
From the outset of this novel, just about every aspect of Darwin Burr’s life in Claxton, 60 miles from Chicago, is set up for possible upheaval. He works at AutoPro, a nationwide car parts retailer, for his childhood buddy Billy Rourke, who has been involved in some increasingly questionable business practices. Darwin has a stable but cold relationship with his wife, Daina, who thinks he lacks ambition. Their daughter, Astra, is getting ready to try out for the high school varsity basketball team.
That’s when the changes start. The team’s coach becomes ill, suffering chest pains. Billy arranges for Darwin, a former Claxton basketball star, to assist the school’s guidance counselor, Fariba Pahlavi, in coaching the team. Then Billy disappears as representatives from the corporate office show up looking to fire him and turn him over to the FBI. One of those reps, Stephanie Washington, steps in as the interim boss to audit Billy’s records. Adding to the turmoil, Darwin takes an interest in recruiting Toni, a young girl, for the basketball team and soon winds up trying to help her out of a difficult home situation. Everyone he knows has secrets, and they all seem to be revealed at once, forcing Darwin to figure out who he is without his support group. There are a lot of characters swirling around Darwin, the center of this story, and Joy (Letting Go, 2018, etc.) makes them all count. They each have distinct personalities, from the guy who owns the breakfast place to Daina, Fariba, and Darwin himself. The author has a good eye for telling details and exchanges between characters. At one point, when Darwin is trying to find out more about Daina’s past as a Latvian immigrant, he observes, “I learned that when she put my name at the end of her speech it meant our discussion was over.” This version of Claxton feels real, like North Bath, New York, in Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is that Joy avoids the temptation to wrap everything up too cleanly after introducing so many complications.
A character-rich, skillfully plotted Midwestern drama.
Better Days is a bighearted, wry, and tender novel that focuses on love and loyalty.
Len Joy’s Better Days is an attention-grabbing crime story in which unexpected upheavals result in welcome second chances.
What’s the penalty for blind trust and loyalty? That’s the question Darwin Burr must answer when the FBI announces that his lifelong friend and now missing boss, Billy, is a person of interest. Mysterious envelopes stuffed with money, diamonds, and gold coins turn up out of nowhere, and Darwin’s leisurely work life at an auto parts distribution center becomes anything but—particularly since he’s always signed the papers Billy passed across his desk, no questions asked. Soon, everything in his life is called into question, including his marriage, his family, and his career.
Darwin narrates his tangled web with amusing slang and witty observations. His voice is a counterpoint to the story’s serious legal accusations and dark romantic temptations. Winning, laid-back prose belies the seriousness of Darwin’s situation, but turns up the tension to eleven as he seeks truth from those who say they are only trying to protect him.
Detailed scenes set in familiar bars and sweaty high school gyms are juxtaposed to spirited dialogue, resulting in a rhythmic text that moves at a clip. Through capable foreshadowing and well-timed revelations, the story negotiates absorbing subplots—especially around an endangered young girl, Toni, who is in Darwin’s charge, and her basketball coach for whom Darwin develops feelings. References to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, with its themes of racism and incest, bring in weightier topics than the novel’s primary themes of guilt and innocence, perhaps hinting at things happening offscreen in Toni’s life. This layered undercurrent adds more to contemplate, though such secondary story lines slow the novel’s pace, and the denouement feels delayed as a result.
There are many characters in this book, but they are all complex and realistic. Sympathy is secured when even the villains exhibit humanity, from a lawyer sent to take Darwin down who helps him instead, to a misanthropic prepper neighbor who becomes a powerful ally. This caring lineup of secondary characters is drawn with optimism that fits the story’s tone.
Appropriate punishments and rewards are meted out by the end, with puzzle pieces clicking into place to reveal the entire picture. Some characters’ secrets, now known, remain unacknowledged, and that silence reads as an act of love.
Better Days is a bighearted, wry, and tender novel that focuses on love and loyalty.
"Sometimes love has to be enough."
There are first-rate writers. There are excellent storytellers. Every now and then they even reside in the same body. On occasion, these hybrids are also able to tell their tales in a uniquely American voice—one that’s easy on the ear even when it’s hard on the heart. Pete Dexter is such a writer. Davis Grub and Elmore Leonard are a couple of others. If this novel is any indication, and it certainly is, you just might want to put Len Joy into that category, as well. Joy’s tale of one man’s midlife crisis—not precipitated by internal navel-gazing but rather by snowballing external factors—is that rare parable that makes many of us wonder how we’d react if we were in the crosshairs and forced to choose between doing what’s best and doing what’s right.
Darwin, by his own calculations, is luckier than most. He has a good job, a pretty wife, and a teenage daughter who actually doesn’t hate her parents. He lives in a nice house in a pleasant town. He has good friends. He is, by many standards, living the American dream and enjoying a life he’s absolutely satisfied with. His wife wishes he were more ambitious, more motivated to move up through the ranks of his company, but Darwin feels like he’s in a very good place already, particularly since his immediate boss is his lifelong friend Billy. Billy and Darwin were teammates on their town’s high school championship basketball team. Billy stole the ball and passed to Darwin, who made the shot that made history—a history Billy’s been recounting to anyone who’ll listen for the past thirty-plus years. As those years passed, the flamboyant Billy became extremely successful; the steady Darwin became increasingly loyal (even while realizing his best friend’s eccentricities), and their friendship held firm—at least until things started to get really weird.
Billy vanishes. Darwin learns that his friend and benefactor has been playing fast and loose with company policy and business ethics while walking a tightrope over potential racketeering charges. All of a sudden, it’s not just corporate bigwigs who are looking into things but also the FBI. Simultaneously, the cooperative coaching assignment Darwin began, at Billy’s behest, has turned into a potential marriage-wrecker due to the captivating allure of the beautiful and athletic guidance counselor turned coach that Darwin agreed to help. As if all of that weren’t enough, local gang activity heats up, Darwin’s family is pulled into a high-profile shooting, and the Feds decide to offer Darwin a way out of all his problems, if he’ll just rat on his old pal, Billy.
Joy’s storytelling prowess is exceptional. He’s able to create seemingly bizarre situations that when thought about logically are completely credible. His prose style is wonderfully conversational. One never gets the impression that he’s trying to dazzle his readers with style. Yet his seeming understatements often strike profound notes, as when he says, “The frisky, fun-loving girl who drove the boys crazy and who loved me more than all of them, had vanished long ago. I missed that girl, but I understood. Nothing lasts.”
There is also the ring of authenticity throughout all of the author’s descriptions of basketball training and playing. One gets the sense that this is an individual who has known the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat and has truly never forgotten either. While Joy’s characters seem honest and real, and his plot intricate and compelling, it is his insightful examination of friendship that sticks with you long after the last page has been turned. That examination alone makes the book involving. His ability to tell his story so well is what makes it memorable.
RECOMMENDED by the US Review