Strong Boy, Weak Man
by Earl Robert Key
Readers Magnet, LLC

"Mike felt that all the hard times he had encountered in life were just tests and some of life’s lessons. He was no different from any other normal human being, in that he also felt like giving up at times."

In mid-1960s Mississippi, thirteen-year-old Mike DeAngelo dreams of becoming a prizefighter. He trains himself under the “big gum tree” nearby his family’s rented farmhouse on the county line. His other aspiration is to be a barber, whereupon he finds a pair of clippers and practices on friends’ hair and a stray dog. He is also befriended by a stranger named Dr. Melvin Gray, who secretly writes about the “potential dropout,” a revelation that changes Mike for the better years later.

Mike’s home life impacts and shapes everything else in his world. Key attentively depicts Mike’s vulnerabilities in his struggles with school and his father’s affair while being uplifted by hard-won success as a star football player. Meanwhile, Mike perseveres with the unyielding farm life, and in his father’s absence, becomes the head of the house, caring for his mother and family. At age nineteen, Memphis presents opportunities to escape Batesville, but Mike is burdened by physical complications, hidden rage, and personal turmoil that nearly derails everything. At the onset of manhood, Mike deeply evaluates his life, searching for the good, seeking happiness, and his true self.

Key’s immensely detailed novel highlights the limitations and traumas of an underprivileged boy facing uncertainties of adulthood amid a changing American landscape. Here, Key fondly recalls the glory days of high school football and youthful yearnings that are juxtaposed with family hardships, personal relationships, and political and social strife. Although fictional, Key’s novel feels somewhat autobiographical as he wrestles with themes of fathers and sons, inaccessible dreams, and the pressures of a rural coming-of-age. While, at times, the wordy narrative and sparse dialogue can elicit neutrality toward the self-destructive Mike, the reader still celebrates and roots for Key’s protagonist by the end of this sympathetic and tenderhearted tale.

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