Monday, February 02, 2009

Football novels

The heart-pounding finish of the Super Bowl yesterday (the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals by 27 to 23) led me to wonder why there are not more American football novels. Joiner (1971) is the most promising, and not because James Whitehead played football at Vanderbilt before an injury reduced him to literature. Eugene (Sonny) Joiner, narrator and protagonist, is an offensive lineman rather than a glamor player; he squints up at the game from an unusual position. (The Tex Maule novels that I started to read as a schoolkid, before “outgrowing” them, are entitled Quarterback, Linebacker, Running Back, Cornerback, and Receiver.) Ultimately, though, the novel falls victim to post-1968 nonsense. Styling himself a “radical historian,” Joiner teaches calculus and spelling to underprivileged children at a progressive school after he quits pro football, and becomes the disciple of a fifteenth-century Hussite.

Another ex-player, Peter Gent ran routes and caught passes for the Dallas Cowboys for five seasons in the sixties, then wrote North Dallas Forty (1973), a novel that was more distinguished for its rage at the professional sport than for its scenes of action on the field. Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough (1972) displayed a raw satiric talent, but was nearly as angry in tone as Gent’s novel, filled with gall. Don DeLillo’s End Zone (1972) has great fun with the language of the game (“Monsoon sweep, string-in-left, ready right, cradle out, drill-9 shiver, ends chuff”), but to adapt what Philip Roth wrote about The Natural, it is not about football as the game is played at Kyle Field, but a wild, wacky football which is more metaphor than reality.

Much the same is true of Howard Nemerov’s far less ambitious novel The Homecoming Game (1957), which does not even try to describe what occurs on the field. Here a professor’s F, leaving the star ineligible for the big game, serves merely as a pretext for an exploration of moral ambiguity. John R. Tunis, the greatest sports novelist of all time, wrote only one book about football. All-American (1942) is the best of a bad harvest—understanding that it is a boys’ book and that, like all of Tunis’s books, it has more to do with a boy’s fumbling for values than handling a ball. No one is better at describing the action on the field, but many readers will find Tunis dated, and his moral concerns inartistic and unliterary.

Perhaps the problem is that football is understood (wrongly) as the least individual of sports, where ignorant coaching systems clash by night; or perhaps the problem is that Tom Buchanan cast the mold for football players in American literature, condemning them for all time to being represented as careless brutes. The truth is that it is the most masculine of sports, more so even than boxing, not merely because it requires manliness, which Harvey Mansfield defines as confidence in a situation of risk (boxing takes that too), but because it demands the masculine virtues—patience, patrimony, moral courage, physical strength, loyalty to friends, submission to legitimate authority, service to others.


dan visel said...

Does Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes count? Can't remember off the top of my head if football's actually played in that book, but it's certainly a novel about football.

D. G. Myers said...

Excellent. Yes. I forgot all about A Fan’s Notes. As I recall, Exley’s father played semipro ball with a team in Watertown called the Red and Black. It has been years since I read the book, though.

Jonathan said...

Have you forgotten the exploits of Chip Hilton: Boy Athlete? [Pause for snorts of derision and the ducking of rotten fruit] I can't remember where I found them as a boy, but even then they struck me as highly improbable.

On a more serious, and unrelated, note. Your enthusiasm for Gilead pushed me to finally purchase a copy last month. What a novel! Thanks.

D. G. Myers said...

Why deride Claire Bee? As a boy, I devoured the Chip Hilton books. (I particularly liked Soapy Smith, since my own talent level was closer to his.) You are a better critic if you found them improbable; I found them exciting and instructive. Before the birth of my twin sons, I purchased nine or ten of the titles in their original format. (The reprint version has been Christianized. Not that I have anything against Christianity, but I am a fundamentalist when it comes to meddling with a writer’s original book.)

Jonathan said...

No slight meant against Claire Bee. I only intended to show that I was making the suggestion in a playful manner.

As far as being a better critic, I too devoured them. I just suspected that, like the Hardy Boy novels, there was a degree of the fantastic about them.

At the time I enjoyed them, and am saddened to hear that they have been 'updated'. During the mid 80s when I was reading them, they were relatively pleantiful in used bookstores. I imagine that a quick foray online would allow me to purchase the original hardback versions.

Chrees said...

Maybe not in the sense of novel that you meant, but I really enjoyed George Plimpton's Paper Tiger. (Not to mention it's a reminder that the Lions had a decent football team at one time.)

Manolo said...

Ayyyy! Apologies for coming to this most late.... however, Professor Myers, you have neglected one of the greatest and most influential football novels of all, Stover At Yale.