Fighting in the Shade by Sterling Watson
(Akashic Books, August 2011)
Reviewed by Jeffery Hess
Like the Spartans at the center of this book’s conceit, the protagonist, Billy Dyer, is forced by tightly woven events in 1964 Florida to fight a series of battles. (The title comes from a quote by Dienekes, the bravest of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermoylae, in response to a report that the Persian archers’ arrows would block the sun.) Like Dienekes, Billy lives without comfort and seeks love and acceptance from his fellow warriors—his high school football team and coaches.
But this is more than a coming of age novel. Billy Dyer is a complex and unforgettable seventeen-year-old who “loved [his teammates] and what they did more than anything else in the world.” The lengths he goes to prove his allegiance tests the very limits of the warrior ethos where honor and pride are most valued.
Billy faces opponents on the field, a troubled (broken) home life, a blue blood town led by corrupt businessmen, and the secrets he is duty bound to keep.
Early in the book, Billy’s father warns, “…you don’t know what football means to this town, the old families here…the powers that be and always will be…. It starts when they’re born into luck and money, and people like us, we don’t know what it is. We don’t know, and we aren’t included….”
During an extreme hazing ritual, Billy confronts the opposite of honor—shame. He rebels, which provokes the ire of coaches and older teammates. The ensuing chase and fight injures one player and gets Billy kicked off the team.
With free time and a need for money to help his mother, Billy takes a night job at the nearby orange juice processing plant. This physical work helps financially and keeps him in shape. Because of the injury he inflicted on his teammate, the football team loses three straight games, which is unacceptable to the businessmen who pull the strings in this town. As a result, they need Billy to play, but he’s unwilling to do it for free. The men who pay him also employ his father and now have both Dyers fighting their battles for them. This drives the ultimate conflict that rolls quickly to its satisfying climax.
The period’s small town corruption, the injustices between the haves and have-nots, the exertion and collisions of football, as well as Florida’s “molten August air,” and the “haze” that “hung above the city, smelling of orange peels burning at the juice plant east of town” all ring absolutely true. The story that unfolds is one of right and wrong, honor and shame, and what that means, not just for Billy but for the entire town, and by extension, all of us.
Jeffery Hess served six years in the U.S. Navy, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and edited the anthology Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform (Press 53). He’s held writing positions at a daily newspaper, a Fortune 500 company, and a university-based research center. In addition to corporate publications and websites, his writing has appeared in r.kv.r.y., Plots with Guns, The MacGuffin, The Houston Literary Review, American Skating World, The Tampa Tribune, and Writer’s Journal. He lives in Florida where he’s completing a novel and leads a creative writing workshop for military veterans.