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Tom Figel
Hands Down
Tom Figel, author
Hands Down, a Vietnam era coming of age novel, follows ambitious Dennis Spuhn as he completes military service and goes after the success he has anticipated since adolescence. Hands down, as he leaves Davenport, IA for the US Marine Corps in 1964, Dennis Spuhn means to have it all: a millionaire by age 30, his own restaurant chain, house on the bluff, Jenny Adamski. Along the way, avoiding jealous Greg Benson, he is going to need the help of others: a wrestler turned holy man and a likable Louisiana Army veteran who can walk on his hands, maybe all the way across Iowa.
Set among Iowa’s vividly evoked “flat farms and lines of windbreak trees” and “corn-rich fields and warm grassy smells,” Figel’s rangy, engaging 1960s-set debut novel centers on an ambitious Hawkeye named Dennis Spuhn, a young Marine fresh out of Vietnam and determined to open his own restaurant chain in his home state, but boasts an expansive cast of compelling local color. That includes a high-school wrestling champion turned holy man with divine healing powers; an artist desperate to escape her sister’s shadow; a copy editor discovering her ill health; and a womanizing vagabond with a penchant for traveling on his hands. Remarkably, Figel’s pleasantly paced story connects the lot of them, tying everything together by the time the story reaches its final pages—and the Missouri River dividing Iowa from Nebraska.

Hands Down pairs its story of coming-of-age in a time of societal upheaval with a series of character-rich vignettes worthy of Donald Harrington, all with a healthy dose of history thrown in as the tale unspools. As the war in Vietnam escalates, a group of draft dodgers has taken up residence on the outskirts of a small Iowa town; local politics complicate everything, of course, as does a bullying powerhouse of a lawyer and a developer’s plan for “small and shabby” housing.

Figel’s style is fast-paced and to the point, though the point, here, is usually his desire to catch the full blush of a moment, the drift of characters’ minds, the comic tenor of their talk, the ways things truly work, and how the sky on a sunny afternoon eventually yields a “great horizon of pink and orange.” Those moments and characters are the key to this journey of a novel, as Figel, adept at arcs and human surprises, brings rare empathy and understanding to the trials and triumphs of his people. The connections between them, when revealed, may elicit a-ha!s from readers.

Takeaway: This vivid novel of Iowa in the tumultuous 1960s bursts with empathy and character.

Great for fans of: Ken Babbs’s Cronies, Donald Harington.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: B