“Fields of Fire” by John Young

Review by Daniel Brown  –  April 24th, 2021  |  Published in April 2021

A couple of years ago I reviewed John Young’s first novel, “When The Coin Is in the Air”, not knowing that the author lived here in Cincinnati.  It was a very strong debut novel about a family living on a farm in Southern Indiana,  where high school athletics are the major part of the town’s social life; readers become increasingly horrified as we become aware of a highly abusive father’s obsessions with sports-as-manhood , leading to a near murder of both his wife and his youngest son, who is a version of the author himself, I’ve since learned.

Young has returned with a superb collection of short stories, “Fire in The Field”, which has just been published.  Some of the stories reflect the author’s time living with his family in Greater Boston  (the book blurbs include a note from then-neighbor John Updike), but most return the reader to the small rural town of the novel.  Young writes with an exceptional clarity and deep sympathy for his characters; it’d be easy to mistake his clarity for ease of craft.  The emotional range of the stories is very large, including real tragedy, epiphanies large and small,  humor.  Underneath them all remains the experiences of a white man of rural background, a mostly forgotten kind of narrator/hero/protagonist in today’s very politically charged world.  The values of this rural Midwestern America continue to focus on the importance of high school sports, in particular; fathers who played football expecting their dreams of high school glory to be reincarnated through their sons; mothers who push these sons relentlessly, “popular” girls who are the iconic cheerleaders, and the boys themselves, whose personalities vary more widely than our own high school memories would allow for, but it’s a very masculine culture, old school style, and therein is one of Young’s greatest strengths: he neither idealizes nor romanticizes those rural Midwestern towns that most of us now see as Trump country, fairly or not.  In two linked stories, including the lovely “Wins and Losses”, our high school in question manages an upset football victory to nearby , larger Seymour High School’s team; at the afterparty celebrating this upset, members of the losing team show up; the usual macho things are said, threats thrown in the air, cheerleaders urging their guys not to fall for the bait; the very tragic ending, which involves a game of chicken in a car race, will end in the death of the most popular of the local team’s player, who would’ve gone on to college soon. But in another story, the girl who sat next to this now deceased boy, is almost unable to finish her graduation; the football player was one of the only of his ilk to have been kind to her at parties and she misses him deeply; her young crush on this boy is beautifully rendered as we see the softer, more “feminine” side of the football hero lost forever to the pointlessness of the macho side of sports.

In a similar vein, “Finding the Words”, a widowed mother is also obsessed with sports and fanatically insists on her adolescent son’s becoming a member of the basketball team; he’s already been rejected once from said team ; her own glory days were as a female basketball player.  Her young son finds an opportunity to cover “the big game” for his school newspaper, which turns out to be his real talent, writing, and his mother’s eventual understanding that his talent lays in writing rather than in playing this sport is one of the lovelier epiphanies in this collection.  Young frequently portrays his women as wanting more than small town life, though in a story about a mailman in the town, the reader learns to empathize with this man’s choice to remain in a town where he knows everyone, and they know him, and he loves the rhythms of small town life.

The Massachusetts stories are more cynical, perhaps; “The Antique Deal”, about a small town antique dealer who mainly serves as a source for two larger, more prosperous dealers, manifests how easily he falls into dishonesty, faking antiques but finding a huge market for these fakes through one of the other dealers in town.  “Pumpkin Man”, about a son taking over from his father a ministry in this affluent Greater Boston town, is also more cynical, sadder.  Young’s range is impressive.

“Fire in The Field” is a superb debut collection of stories from a very, very talented mid-career man whose writing career began late but based upon his one novel and this collection of stories, John Young’s writing should go very far; he’s as authentic a writer as you’ll read, honest and honorable, his characters well depicted, our empathy invoked time and time again.

–Daniel Brown