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Veteran journalist Bill Lancaster has produced a coming-of-age novel set in the glory days of the Arkansas Razorbacks' football wars in the old Southwest Conference.
“Benchwarmer” (Phoenix International, $19.95) is fast-paced, moving quickly from the piney woods of Grant County to a Game of the Century in Fayetteville. It tells the story of Taylor Prescott, who becomes the state's most beloved columnist by covering the Razorbacks. The characters include childhood friends and practical jokers Winky Day and Mack Johnson. They wangle free tickets to Arkansas Traveler baseball games with cards identifying them as State Hospital patients, play a pivotal role in a tragedy that befalls Prescott and witness that rite of Arkansas passage — the moment when Prescott's son Jason kills his first deer.
Razorback fever will be stoked by the hard-charging football team, coached into contention for a national title game with the Texas Longhorns by Billy Jack Wimberly. Lancaster does himself proud in delving into the pains of personal loss, the struggle to right one's personal life and finding love.
Readers will find familiar touchstones, such as the Little Rock newspaper war and the important sports columnist — here Prescott subs for the late Orville Henry — with close ties to a Razorback coach. Names familiar and fanciful will keep readers entertained.
Lancaster is down-home Arkansas, yes, but he can turn on the emotions. His mythical Razorback team will leave fans cheering.
Readers will inevitably wonder how much of the book portrays Lancaster's own life. He's been a sports reporter, columnist and editor. He entered politics in 1977 as a congressional staff member, then returned to Little Rock where he was the Senate's chief of staff for a quarter century. After his retirement from the Senate, Lancaster returned home to Sheridan to become the first director of the Grant County Museum.