In his semi-triumphant movie The Best of Times, Robin Williams played a 31-year-old man who reconvenes his high school football team—along with their biggest rivals—and re-enacts the championship game. In the replay, however, Williams' character avoids repeating his infamous screw-up of dropping what would have been the winning touchdown pass.
In his semi-triumphant book Do-Over!, middle-aged English professor Robin Hemley presents a wry, heart-rending account of the year he spent making arrangements and re-enacting the humiliations of his youth in a bid to exorcise the toxins that had long festered inside him.
In nimble but sometimes cloying prose, Hemley gives us a blow-by-blow redo of his school-daze curriculum of degradations, including fresh but familiar summer-camp bullies, the anguish of rushing a long-admired fraternity, the nightmare of retaking college boards, and a contemplative re-entry to his boyhood bedroom.
One may well ask: why?
Are the satisfactions of an adult career and family really so vacant? As he watched children at play demand "do-overs," Hemley explains, he decided that adults, too, should be entitled to "this simple perk of childhood." His unique (if fringy) project was undertaken not to correct "a karmic imbalance," he writes, but to clarify "the roadblocks in my life I’d never really negotiated."
Hence we get a ringside seat for Hemley's return to Jefferson Junior High School in Columbia, Missouri, where he confronts his dark memories of eighth grade—the "worst year of my life." To smite that long-departed girl who only pretended to sign his yearbook, he seeks out a second round of yearbook autographs. "A do-over," he declares, "is like facing a real-life dream monster and attacking it instead of running away."
Give Hemley credit for journalistic chutzpah. Your average Walter Mitty nursing a few regrets probably lacks the gumption to act out and invade strangers' lives with requests to re-create the past. Indeed, in order to escort his old crush to a modern-day prom, Hemley first must reassure her dubious husband. And while applying to re-enroll in kindergarten, he must undergo a background check just when news reports are breaking of a grown pedophile in Arizona who had impersonated a schoolboy.
"It's not as if I blend in here," Hemley worries during his valedictory return to a sixth-grade class with kids half his size. "It's as if I'm wearing my pajamas to school. Or naked."
Some readers may wince. Though Hemley is the award-winning author of seven books, when it comes to the insecurities sweepstakes he is a regular George Costanza: when he was 20, he reveals, his mother sent a complete stranger into a public restroom to make sure things were coming out all right.
Other incidentals of the narrator's life are far from typical as well. Alongside Hemley's trademark witticisms, we get details of his divorce, the death of his parents, and his sister's mental illness. Indeed, so dispersed was Hemley's upbringing that his do-overs require travel to places as far-flung as Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Marietta, Georgia; and Osaka, Japan. (Given the opportunity of a "do-over" on this book, he might want to trim some autobiography, sparing us the deets on delayed flights, lost luggage, and intrusions from his present-day family.)
But Hemley would ask that we be supportive. The pain and yearning the lad braved during his formative years became the makings of a creative writer. "If I wasn't having a mid-life crisis before," he muses while towering over his temporary new kindergarten classmates, "I am now. And my classmates are having a beginning-life crisis."