Taking a short cut home from Fritz’s Grill, Joe noticed that the path through the woods had been cleared and sanded. The air was cold but bright sun burst through the bare, skeletal trees and here and there were moist patches on the flagstone steps that led down to the next level of the path. It put him in mind of New England in March or early April, when the gray had left the sky and fallen snow didn’t stand a chance against the early afternoon sun. W. Royal Stokes has published his trilogy of novels Backwards Over. Two decades in the writing, the work chronicles the restless journey through America of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s of its protagonist Joseph Edwards Lewis. (To order the books go to Amazon.com/W.-Royal-Stokes/e/B001HD17MY. They are available in both paperback and Kindle.)
Caught midway between the “greatest generation” and its boomer offspring, Joe Lewis straddles two disparate cultures and embodies a variety of contradictory roles: a professor who finds he has more in common with war-protesting students than his buttoned-down colleagues; an over-thirty countercultural convert who hips his young friends to jazz and blues; a Ph.D. working as a dishwasher; and a hedonist who becomes a devoted family man.
Scenes range from a cotton-field juke joint in rural Texas to a fiery Harvard Square riot, with stops along the way in Ontario, Austin, Boulder, rural Maine, Washington, D.C., and Naples, Italy.
By the third book, Joe’s odyssey seems to have reached a satisfying conclusion: he’s parlayed his lifelong love of jazz and blues into a rewarding career; his wife Jane, who grew up on a farm in Central Canada, runs her own successful bookstore; and their twin daughters are bright and well-adjusted teens. But when a figure from his past suddenly, and threateningly, surfaces, Joe is cast into a sea of colorful and painful circumstances and memories, all while struggling to maintain stability in his current life and relationships.
America’s great musical forms, particularly jazz and blues, are a constant theme, as is Joe’s commitment to the life of the mind, whether in a formal setting or in the free-form life he builds for himself.
Crossing paths with Joe in the course of the trilogy are Jim Harsh, rebuilder of VWs, and master mechanic Boz; Joe’s ex-wives, MacKenzie and Jyll; and musicians Messalina, Papa John Brophy, Lulu White, Flossie, Boo Shook, Bear, Buffie Pee, G.W. (The Carver) Simpson, and The Feather Merchant.
Throughout it all, Joe is an inveterate observer, taking in and recalling many details of the variety of human experience.
W. Royal Stokes was the recipient of the 2014 Lifetime Achievement Award of the Jazz Journalists Association. He is the author of Swing Era New York, The Jazz Scene, Growing Up With Jazz, and Living the Jazz Life. Backwards Over is his first work of fiction.