A 48-year-old writer chronicles his goofball quest to correct the perceived failures of his youth.
Hemley (Nonfiction Writing/Univ. of Iowa; Invented Eden: The Elusive, Disputed History of the Tasaday, 2003, etc.) undertakes a dubious immersion-journalism project in the form of “do-overs.” These attempts to repair the major emotional traumas of his childhood and adolescence involve revisiting the sites of his worst failures, from kindergarten to high school, summer camp to standardized testing. He couldn’t even scrounge up a prom date. But you’d think his privileged adult existence—published author, father of three, university professor—might snuff out memories of botched grade-school plays and junior-high bullies. Hemley, however, insists that he’s still bothered by these trivialities. Too bad, then, that the book’s conceptual gimmickry yields little more than the occasional entertaining anecdote, the obvious fish-out-of-water comedy inherent in someone pushing 50 trying to pass for a five-year-old, and a fitfully amusing travelogue, as the author lumbers from Sewanee, Tenn., to Osaka, Japan, trying to enlist unfortunate souls from his past in his geeky time-travel fantasies. Of course, Hemley’s had real traumas that hang like a mist over this revisionist endeavor: an ugly divorce, his late sister Nola’s schizophrenia and his father’s death at 51. A few relevant observations cut through the “gee, they sure did things differently in my day!” remarks, as when Hemley contrasts contemporary kids’ structured, monitored and medicated lives with the dog-eat-dog anarchism that characterized his own youthful social experiences. But the do-over with the most potential for dramatic tension—going to the senior prom with his high-school crush—falls flat.
Far from generating epiphanies, these “renovations” merely reinforce how nice it is to be an adult.