Fighting in the Shade, the new novel by Sterling Watson, opens with a description of a Florida small-town football team practicing under the August sun that is so vivid you can almost feel the sweaty crash of flesh on flesh — not to mention the concussion the main character suffers.
But Fighting in the Shade is less a sports novel than a coming-of-age story wound around a mystery, with football as symbol and symptom.
Watson is the director of the creative writing program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, holder of its Peter Meinke Chair in literature and creative writing. He's also a co-founder, with Dennis Lehane, of the annual Writers in Paradise conference.
Fighting in the Shade, Watson's sixth novel, is set in 1964 in the fictional town of Oleander, somewhere between Tampa and Sarasota. Dominated by a juice processing plant that makes the whole town smell like oranges, it's a place of strict social hierarchy and, at least on the surface, old-fashioned Southern gentility.
Billy Dyer, the novel's protagonist, is the new kid in town. He's hoping to find his place by making the football team, the Carr High Spartans. He knows he's a talented player, but so is Sim Sizemore, his rival for the flanker position, and Sim is one of the town's golden boys.
Both are the sons of lawyers, but Sim's father, Cam, is firmly entrenched in the town's power structure, while Billy's dad, David, is an outsider barely scraping by. He's recently divorced, and he and Billy live a sparse but companionable bachelor life.
In the meantime, Billy's mother has moved to Sarasota, found a job, bought a new wardrobe and seems not to miss either of them much at all.
So Billy is a kid with plenty to figure out — and plenty of unresolved anger. The latter serves him well when he butts heads on the gridiron with the privileged boys who consider positions on the team their birthright. Making the team turns out to involve more than Billy bargained for when he finds himself way out in the woods at Mystery Night.
It's one of those predictable jock rites of passage, a night of amateur boozing capped off with a pathetic mumbo-jumbo initiation ritual complete with physical and sexual abuse. Billy won't submit to it and bolts into the woods. Someone gets badly hurt, and Billy gets booted from the team.
It's what he expected, but the next play isn't. Blake Rainey, who owns the juice plant, half the town, a judge in Tallahassee and who knows what else, offers him money to come back to the team. Just what are the stakes for keeping what happened at Mystery Night a secret? And what deeper secret does football, tribal and violent, double for?
Watson weaves several subplots into the story, such as Billy's relationships with an unusually forward (for 1964) fellow student named Moira and with his English teacher, Mrs. English (cue high school snickers), who does such disturbingly exotic things as invite students to her home for parties and assign books that aren't on the curriculum.
Another mystery involves the upcoming construction of the interstate through Oleander. As it did in so many cities and towns, it will run right through Oleander's black neighborhood — but who will profit, and does Billy's father have something to do with it?
After a cascade of disasters, Billy struggles to decipher all those mysteries, to bring something resembling justice to pass — and to find out how to be his father's son.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.