Michael Bradford is a sports anchor at a local TV station in Atlanta, having been a football player back in high school in Marshall, a small Mississippi town, and having failed to make the NFL due to an injury from football practice at Clemson. In 1995, the year of the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the year before Muhammad Ali would light the Olympic torch in Atlanta, Michael, who plans to return to his 25th-anniversary reunion at Marshall High School, is asked by his TV station to look into the case of Tyrone Bennett, his black high-school teammate who was sentenced to life for killing cheerleader Lucy May Watkins. Tyrone is now out on bail after the NAACP has gotten him a new trial. Michael resists, saying he barely knew Tyrone, largely because he’d rather avoid thorny issues concerning race; though not a bigot himself, he’s been running away from dealing with racism for much of his life.
When he returns to Marshall, Michael sees that racial animosities among some of his classmates still prevail. His cheerleader classmate Scarlett – named for the protagonist of Gone With the Wind – is running the reunion and has mostly kept black classmates out. The decorations celebrate the antebellum South and the Confederacy. It is here where Michael encounters Tyrone, still suspected of being Lucy May’s killer, and reunites with his onetime friend Josef Eckstein, a Jewish alumnus now living in Memphis and married to a black classmate, the former Naomi Justice. With Tyrone and Naomi being the only black classmates who show up, Michael finds it awkward reuniting with Josef, a friend he had failed to protect when Josef began to get beaten up for his relationship with Naomi. Michael also has to deal with Megan Whitestone, his high-school sweetheart. They had been king and queen at the senior prom, but Michael dissociated himself from Megan over a regrettable incident involving Tyrone’s girlfriend after he was found guilty of murdering Lucy May. But Michael remains convinced that Tyrone is innocent, and when he finally deals with the reality of the racism that permeated Marshall in the late sixties and endures in 1995, he gets the opportunity to help Tyrone prove his innocence.
J.P. Michaels’ GLORY DAYS is told in the present day of 1995 and in flashbacks to 1970 that revisit the Marshall High Class of 1970’s senior prom and Tyrone’s subsequent murder trial. The novel is a fascinating exploration of the darker side of growing up in the South in the late sixties and early seventies underneath the Archie Andrews-Riverdale High idyll that many alumni prefer to remember. It has shameful episodes involving a rape, sexual promiscuity and racial and anti-Semitic violence and antipathy, along with a riveting courtroom drama of Tyrone’s trial that exposes racial bias in the Mississippi court system. As Michaels takes us through Michael Bradford’s teenage years and depicts the man he has become, we see the former high-school football star come to terms with the mistakes of his past and develop a greater empathy for his black classmates. Not only does he confront his past failures at addressing bigotry, he channels his efforts to acknowledge it into helping Tyrone, ultimately proving his innocence even as he seeks to make peace with his white classmates.
The supporting cast of characters in GLORY DAYS adds a great deal of vividness and realism to the story, such as the bigoted football coach and history teacher Hunt Stackhouse, his more liberal wife Dawn, and the popular Doug Carter. The two most fascinating characters apart from Michael, however, are Josef and Naomi Eckstein. Given the minuscule population of Jews in Mississippi and the traditional hostility shown toward interracial and interfaith marriages in the state, the Ecksteins offer the possibility of a fascinating story of their own that Michaels might want to consider spinning off in to another novel.
J.P. Michaels’ GLORY DAYS is a fascinating examination of the racism and turmoil in small-town southern America and its hostility to racial justice, told through a protagonist who is destined to confront rather than escape his past dealings with race.
~Steven Maginnis for IndieReader