Never Back Down by Ernest Hebert

Never Back Down is a growing up story of a man who continues to grow and change into his later years.  Jack Landry is a child of French Canadian parents and has a burning desire to play baseball.  A chance encounter in childhood lands him Elphege Beaupre as a best friend for life.  Beaupre is a hard-talking kid who will stand up to the worst of them.  The town bigwig, Cormac MacDonald, takes the pair of them under his wing as pitcher and catcher for the local high school baseball team.  Jack, the quieter and more introspective of the two, shows promise for a career on the diamond and pursues the opportunity of the training camps for the Red Sox. 

Jack lets his shot at fame slide due to an overwhelming belief that he abandoned the love of his life, and atones for his transgression deeply.  A self-professed doubting Catholic, he still has the need for confession at key points in his life.  His confessor is the wildly individualistic Father Gonzaga, who changes through the times even more radically than Jack.  At first, Jack is warned away from Gonzaga by his father, who brands him “the communist priest” and a troublemaker.  Gonzaga develops into a pivotal and sometimes puzzling figure to Jack, a recurring bearer of wisdom who urges Jack to follow the life of a common laborer and to see this life as a service to others.

Jack tackles all sorts of manual vocations – telephone systems installer, woodsman, taxi driver, and toward the end, volunteer for a post-Katrina cleanup.  He reinvents himself for each era of employment.  For long stretches of time, Jack isolates himself from the people closest to him.  Eventually, all or most of his friends/family/lovers reappear to him, often greatly changed or damaged, including Beaupre, irreparably wounded by war injuries but as fiery as ever.

Ernest Hebert is a new author to me, but he’s has been at his craft for years.  He’s a regional writer – almost all of his previous works are novels with a strong emphasis on his native New Hampshire.  As such, it was somewhat of a fluke that we got Never Back Down at all, other than it got reasonably good reviews.  I am glad to have read this one – Hebert’s depiction of small town New England is lively, and his characters deeply flawed yet redeemable.   

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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