Fred Phillips’s time-travel, Coaching Dad, takes us from 2010 San Diego, to 1948, Hamptonville, a small town not far from Long Island.
When we first meet the main character, Charles, his life is in shambles. His ex-wife divorces him for a car salesman, he loses his house in the divorce, his teen-aged kids are disrespectful and he’s near-crippled by depression. As he puts it, I, Charles Behrens, possessor of a relatively stable and functional mind for most of my life, had hit the proverbial wall at full throttle, had fallen headfirst into deep dank well, and was primed for a reservation in the windowless, corner-less room at the Rubber Walled Hotel.
Without a word to anyone, he disappears for three days. On his return, his ex-wife suggests that he see a psychiatrist recommended by her Porsche-selling boyfriend. This psychiatrist puts him in a paid experimental trial for a medication for depression and anxiety that has the side-effect of inducing vivid dreams – initially about his childhood, but as time passes, his dreams take him back to a time before he was born.
He tells his psychiatrist, ‘I’ve had the same dream for over a week now. And they are the most intense, the most real. You know the ones where I go back to the 1940’s or somewhere like that. I am a stranger walking the streets of my hometown. I saw my grandfather’s hardware store. I saw my dad, you know, as a kid, messing around with a few of his friends. I think one of them was my Uncle Bernie.’
A train derailment on his way to visit his mom, turns these vivid dreams into reality and the author’s narrative is so well told, I was immediately transported. I looked around and saw both an alien and a familiar world – my dream world… Men with hats, suits and ties. Women with long dresses and buttoned up blouses. Antique emergency vehicles were parked haphazardly at the railroad crossing. I saw two paramedics dressed in white costumes, resembling ice cream truck drivers, loading a stretcher… An old Ford coupe served as a police vehicle…
Charles is faced with the dilemma of navigating this 1948 existence. He finds a job as a painter with relative ease, meets his dad as a teenager and has the opportunity to coach him and the rest of the basketball team at the high school he also attended in the 1970’s. And to make things even more interesting, he falls in love.
I would like to see Charles face a little more conflict when he first reaches Hamptonville. A place to live falls into his lap a little too easily during the housing shortage that followed WWII, but the narrative and time/space continuum are so beautifully written that I could overlook just about anything and there’s plenty of conflict to go around as the story progresses. Charles has difficulty dealing with the racial prejudices of the time and not everyone is happy with his modern, fast-paced style of coaching basketball. And one dark night, he’s faced with the dilemma of doing the right thing and changing history for the worse, or remaining silent and letting life continue as it was. The story flows well and the ending had me searching for a tissue.
I normally don’t care for novels that have a lot of narrative, but I was so grounded in Charles Behrens’s character, and the look and feel of this post-war era that I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. Fred Phillips manages to rock the 1940’s like he’s lived it. (He hasn’t.) It’s a remarkable accomplishment for this first-time author. And the good news is… he has another time-travel in the works.