A Coach at Heart by James R. Riffel (Amazon)
There are some great perks, I’m finding, to being a starving reviewer willing to consume anything put before him. I get to sample a wide variety of books and literary treats but sometimes I just need something solid. A good, straight-forward literary meal that won’t leave me in deep analysis, learning the rules of brave new worlds, or throwing up in the commode after a rightly stomach-churning book. A Coach at Heart is one of those kind of books.
Before we get at the heart of things, let’s recite our Starving Review guidelines:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre.
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible.
Let’s not mince words here: Mr. Riffel’s book is, indeed, solidly grounded in the world of American football. The sport and it’s behind the scenes workings play an important part in the book and, if you have zero interest in football, you may not be as attracted to this book as you might otherwise be. However, and this is an important however, football is not the dominating flavor of this dish. It’s important and vital but the core essence of the book is the story of the main character’s life as he progresses from high school, college, and on ward, his growth, his relationships with family, friends, and lovers. It is a finely crafted meal flavored by life, maturation, and a pinch of drama, with the sports providing just that extra kick.
There is no innovative writing styles here, no attempts to wow the diner with new artifice or crafty new word tricks, no sir. What A Coach at Heart is, above all things, is solid. It isn’t writing to push boundaries or writing to impress for writing’s sake but it is well crafted and well paced. Think of it’s writing style as comparable to a shepard’s pie. Nothing about it is fancy, but it is a wonderful and filling delight. Mr. Riffel plays by the rules, much like his protagonist, and in doing so hits all the right notes.
Does this mean it’s a perfect read? Well … no. There are a few flaws, mostly minor ones. While I grew to be invested strongly in the main cast of characters, there remained the base hurdle that, while American football is NOT the only story here, football and its culture are very important to the book. Some very specific genre books are so well-written, so perfect, that they transcend the genre and, while Mr. Riffel is a very good writer, he doesn’t quite make that transcendence. The only other flaw of note is one very out-of-place scene in the late book where the otherwise perfectly written first-person perspective suddenly shifts for about two pages to a third person point-of-view for one scene. It was so out of place I had to mention it, but I will say that even that odd deviation detracts almost nothing from the overall prose. It was that one pepper in your General Tso’s that you bite down on. It doesn’t ruin the dish, but it makes you realize that it’s there.
So, to wrap this all up, A Coach at Heart is a tasty and hearty American meal of steak and potatoes along side a long-neck Budweiser beer. It’s tasty, filling, and solidly constructed, but if you’re not a big fan of such a slice of Americana, you might not be that thrilled about it. Either way, though, you have to admire it for what it is and how it goes about it. If you like American football or just sports in general, I can highly recommend you take a bite out of Mr. Riffel’s offering. Even if you don’t but don’t mind the heavy inclusion of sports culture, you might still want to check this out for it’s solid and well-told tale of life in the 60s and 70s in the U.S.A.
FINAL VERDICT: **** (It’s cheeseburgers and beer at a Football game, but it’s Kobe beef and Sam Adam’s best brew.)