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."
Admitting that his project is manipulative, the man can be sly. After his high school literature teacher claims to recall the younger Hemley's impressive deconstruction of Faulkner's The Unvanquished 32 years earlier, the modern Hemley marvels that "the only thing that would make the moment more perfect would be if I'd ever read The Unvanquished."
Do Hemley's do-overs do him any good? Occasionally he doubts the feasibility of the entire enterprise. "When I put down my bag in my old room," he reports, "a wave of nostalgia doesn't wash over me." But after mowing his old lawn and dining with his parents' old friends, he is touched—especially when the current owner of his childhood home finds him a fragment of a familiar '70s orange shag carpet. "But sometimes the simple fact (that I am a grown-up) momentarily escapes me," Hemley observes. "Or maybe I let it escape and happily watch it float off like a lost balloon in the sky."
The key to Hemley's fulfillment, it appears, is finally receiving the praise deferred lo these many decades. A modern-day junior-high coach admires his grit for getting out there with the boys on the touch-football field. He basks in applause from the audience attending the children's Christmas play, for which he traveled hundreds of miles to re-deliver the line he had flubbed as a 7-year-old.
"There's something about failing in public in front of your parents at an early age that doesn't wash out easily," Hemley writes. "Receiving their compliments is the next best thing to receiving the belated congratulations of my own parents."
Thanks to his antic exercise in physical retrospection, Hemley manages to leave his dreaded junior high school where it belongs—in the past—once and for all. From now on, he will take comfort in the knowledge that "the hall where I was almost beat up is just a hall."
Thus does Do-Over! emerge as a serious quest: "It's the little patches we use to cover our mistakes," Hemley concludes, "that define us for the good."
Washington writer Charlie Clark is the author of a coming-of-age novel, Finish High School at Home. Other than that, he can’t recall ever having done anything embarrassing. He previously reviewed Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There on AARP The Magazine Online.