When I was in college, I became excited about some poets, Frank O’Hara, Tennyson, C.K. Williams, and some others. This interest stemmed from a poetry class and from hanging around too much in the local used book store. But I’ve never been grasped by poetry, there’s something too arbitrary about it for me. Still, Some poems by Williams in the New Yorker piqued my interest and I picked up his collection, The Singing, which went on to win the National Book Award. There are handful of very moving poems in this collection. Williams’ best poems are grounded by concrete imagery, and they are engagingly anecdotal. But there are too many poems in this book that aren’t tethered to earthly things at all, and it is difficult for the reader to reach them. He writes engagingly about growing old and about war. The best in the collection is called “The Hearth.” It can be found here.
Football is the most popular sport in America. Baseball, basketball, hockey, and even sometimes that suspect endeavor known as soccer all have their adherents. But when it comes to true rallying power, no other athletic contest outside of the Olympics can reliably achieve critical mass like professional and college football.
This is a truth rarely acknowledged. Football knocked baseball, that lazy and pastoral game of grass diamonds and poetic sinkers, off the perch sometime after the Second World War. Baseball is still referred to as the national game. But a glance at how the country comes to a nacho-sated halt on Super Bowl Sunday but barely misses a beat during the World Series tells the true story. Maybe that’s because Americans know there is something intrinsically negative about the institution of football itself. Maybe we as a country would rather think of ourselves as fans of baseball than football. Spectators at the Roman Coliseum, after all, knew there was something untoward about watching one gladiator sever another’s limbs, no matter how lustily they egged him on. Ken Burns will never make an 11-part PBS documentary on football.
If popular sports constitute a feedback loop with society, each reflecting and influencing the other, it’s difficult to argue that football’s dominance is a positive thing. With the steady drip of grim news about crooked stadium deals, domestic violence, and the ever-mutating and worsening concussion scandals — and that’s without even getting into college players who read at a 5th-grade level and the various high school team mass-rape outrages — what’s a football lover supposed to do? How much should they care? What’s the ethical thing to do? Is it possible to simply watch and yet not be complicit? What, if any, are a fan’s responsibilities?
Steve Almond wrestles with a swarm of similar quandaries in his short, lacerating new bar-argument of a book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It isn’t an argument he was itching to have. Almond is a bone-deep fan of the game: “I am one of you.” This is a crucial bona fide for somebody churning up this kind of imbroglio. To describe with any authority what is truly awful about football, it helps to love it and to know it.
In the first place, for all its seeming simplicity of quadrilateral lines and battle formations, football is a wildly complicated game studded with arcane rules that take some time to appreciate. Secondly, since football discourse’s tenor trends toward tribal defensiveness and instantaneous fury, any negative opinion about the game from a non-fan is dismissed even quicker than if said by a true believer.
Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray.
In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny:”
I assumed, in other words, a posture of ironic distance, which is what we Americans do to avoid the corruption of our spiritual entanglements. Ironic distance allows us to separate ourselves from the big, complicated moral systems around us (political, religious, familial), to sit in judgment of others rather than ourselves. It’s the reason, as we zoom into the twilight years of our imperial reign, that Reality TV has become our designated guilty pleasure.
But here’s the thing. You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves. The whores we hide from public view.
Almond is disturbed by what he sees as a pernicious blend of unthinking brutality and fooling-ourselves mass consumption. There is the hypocrisy that leads thousands of fans in stadiums and TV rooms to first shout at their guy to take the other guy’s head off, then sit quietly once the poleaxed player is crumpled comatose on the turf, and then applaud in self-congratulatory fashion when he limps off the field.
Wisely, Almond doesn’t spend much time on proving the concussion crisis; which is less a new crisis than an inherent part of the game that is only now considered a crisis because it is being recognized. After years of long-form newspaper investigations to Frontline’s damning “League of Denial” excoriation from last year, there is little left to argue about, even as the National Football League’s minions fold, mutilate, and spin the truth like those Big Tobacco lawyers and lobbyists of old. The evidence gathered points to the average football player being, because they spend so much of their time slamming into large powerful men (who, thanks to specialized training and all those drugs the teams don’t know anything about, get larger and more powerful every year), more likely to die younger and have some kind of brain damage than the average citizen. Suicides, mental illness, depression, violence; it’s all the legacy of that slam-bang contest we fans cheer for.
This barbarousness is allowed to continue in a civilized society, Almond argues, because of how the NFL has stage-managed the sport. Having the help of a lamprey-like “bloated media cult” certainly helps. To Almond, the spectacle of modern football means watching “aggression granted a coherent, even heroic, context.” That line will ring true to anybody enthralled as a child by the exploits of those gigantic, larger-than-life combatants. We are not meant to see mere athletes out there, but warriors.
This sleight of hand is helped along by a few factors: the sport’s militaristic nature (coordinated units, tactics, maneuvers, lines of assault, blitzkriegs); those gorgeously snow-speckled and slow-motion Homeric epics churned out by the league’s “ministry of propaganda,” NFL Films; and actual military involvement. Fewer football games today are absent a visit from one branch of the armed services, not to mention the fluttering of flags on the giant display screens and even flyovers. Some games are so thick with patriotic militarism that it wouldn’t shock to see a procession of portable missile launchers being saluted, Soviet premier-like, by the good commissioner Roger Goodell.
For an illustrative example of what Almond terms our “imperial decadence,” witness the scene from the 2010 de Tocqueville-lite BBC series Stephen Fry in America. The British wit is happily taking in the Iron Bowl (Auburn University vs. University of Alabama), only to drop in fright at the sound of jets screaming overhead. Being British, Fry didn’t understand that an American college sporting event couldn’t be properly enjoyed without a display of military might.
Almond threads his critique of the Pentagon-NFL axis into a broader appraisal of how the American citizenry simultaneously valorizes and dehumanizes its heroes, whether on the football field or the field of battle:
The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind.
It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level…But it turns out that our adulation…is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable.
Almond stalks through his arguments against the modern state of football at a pace that is both clipped and highly personal. There is a lot of shame here, a discomfort with being complicit in that “system” lying at the root of his angry screed. Like many a blue-state fan, his liberal nature is offended by being complicit in the advertorial-spewing, money-mad agglomeration of celebrity and cruelty that is the NFL and its media courtiers.
Some of Almond’s arguments tip toward a to-hell-with-all-that disgust. That sense is heightened in his vitriol against the league’s anti-labor practices and corporate welfare-piggery, which makes it all the more difficult to ever enjoy sitting in a stadium mostly built by public funds but the profits of which mostly go to whichever billionaire owns the local franchise. He doesn’t quite take it to the level of Noam Chomsky arguing in Manufacturing Consent that professional sports being just another way of “building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion…it’s training in irrational jingoism.” But he’s not far off.
The book’s tenor becomes so heated, in fact, that when Almond executes a deft spin into a “what do we do with football?” epilogue that tries to address what fans can do to humanize the corporate monster of football, the whiplash is severe.
There is something rushed in this book, as though it were powered out in a few heated marathon sessions. It leaves some of the book feeling thin. But this is a manifesto. It’s a broadsheet in book form meant to be powered by heat and what Almond refers to as his “obnoxious opinions.” As such, Against Football doesn’t have a strong and satisfying conclusion. No such piece written by a true fan likely could. Short of calling for abolition, there’s no easy way to resolve the issues raised here. Football is wired too deep into the national identity for it to be yanked out or wholly reworked without some pain.
In 1947, E.B. White published a playfully predictive New Yorker two-pager called “The Decline of Sport.” He imagined a future in which “sport gripped the nation in an ever-tightening grip” and the workweek was reduced to three days, “to give everyone a better chance to memorize the scores.” The mania builds and builds until, at a game with 954,000 spectators, a deranged man shoots one of his team’s receivers dead after the player dropped a scoring pass. The bubble bursts:
From that day on, sport waned. Through long, noncompetitive Saturday afternoons, the stadia slumbered…the parkways fell into disuse as motorists rediscovered the charms of old, twisty roads that led through main streets and past barnyards, with their mild congestions and pleasant smells.
Against Football is a book that kicks and prods and fights with itself and ourselves. Almond is asking himself and us to drop the ironic distance, open our eyes, and truly look at the dangerous, vile, beautiful, fun, highly corrupted, and horrifically corrupting corporate behemoth we spend so much of our money and leisure time enraptured by, and know what it is that we are doing, and what we are supporting. Part of that process might be just taking a couple steps back, shaking off the spell.
Maybe a few more drives down old, twisty roads would do us all some good.
Amy Sackville’s magnificent Orkney, as slippery as the shape-shifting figure at its core, is the worst beach read I can imagine. It is set on the “loneliest, the rockiest, the most desolate island that has yet been mapped,” where the waves “rush in iron-grey and unforgiving, like the cavalry of old wars.” (Sackville’s previous novel, The Still Point, explored even more inhospitable, Arctic climes.) Everything on the island — its rocky beach, promontories, caves, cottages, inhabitants — is suffused with menace; even the seals frolicking just offshore come to pose a hazy threat, at least to the narrator’s besieged psyche.
The main source of entertainment is “naming the grey,” a challenge of how best to describe the island’s monochromatic palate. (“Cinereal” wins out.) Sleep provides no respite from the novel’s relentless intensity; each “submarine” dream is “washed through with seawater,” lurid tales of drowning and sea beasts from which one awakes “drunk in the sodden aftermath of…nightmare.” The action is filtered “through the dark brown fug of a whisky hangover,” not the enlivening glow of an afternoon daiquiri.
Orkney’s plot is as elemental as the surroundings. Richard, a longtime bachelor and professor of 19th-century literature marries his former student, a pale, strange thing with silver hair and webbed hands and feet. “Take me north,” the unnamed woman resolutely tells her new husband, and so they honeymoon to an unnamed island in the Orkneys where she was born. Once there, Richard works on his magnum opus, a book on enchantment narratives: “Transformations, obsessions, seductions; succubi and incubi, entrapments and escapes…and all the attendant uncertainties, anxieties and aporia.” Or tries to work. Rather, he spends all of his time sitting at his desk and obsessively observing his young wife — through a large glass window, through a makeshift telescope, through the lens of his mythic imagination: “All those subtle serpents and slippery fishtailed maidens I have been trying to get hold of; for now it seems foolish to labour over fairy-tales when out there on the shore I have one of my own.”
His wife, in turn, spends most of her days observing the sea, to which she is irresistibly drawn despite her fear of drowning. She is forever at risk of being dragged under, by the sea, mermen, perhaps by her husband, even by her oversized cardigan, in which “it seemed she was being ingested by a seaweed-green monster with toggled buttons, against which she had long since given up struggling…” Fashion nightmare indeed.
Haunted though she may be, she is also a native creature of the island, unafraid to venture outside in all weather, effortlessly establishing conspiratorial relationships with its inhabitants (or so it appears to her suspicious husband), and occasionally pouring forth its “ancient language that she half-knows or understands.” As their roughly two-week stay unfolds, she hovers at the “edge of visibility,” more often than not a “smear” on the grey horizon for her sentry husband trying desperately to keep the insubstantial vision in view. “I’m sorry I moved beyond your frame, Richard,” she sarcastically remarks after he reprimands her for having wandered beyond her usual perch.
Richard is always trying to “prise” his elusive young wife open — her smile, her legs, her history. He compiles instead an “endless index” of his wife, which I’ve collected and will reproduce here lest anyone be looking for a new pet name for his or her significant other: little half-breed; Melusine; Thetis; daughter of the sea; shape-shifting goddess; barefoot urchin; frog princess; Queen Rose of the rosebud garden of girls; red-mouthed Virgin Lamia; faery queen; nymph; northern girl; Niviane; tricky capricious Ariel; clamped little clamshell; modern-day Venus borne in on the foam; Calypso; Circe; frond of pallid wrack; spined and spiky urchin; storm-witch; and little limpet. And yet despite Richard’s exhaustive inventory, she remains stubbornly indefinable, “a broken pile of tesserae that refuse to tessellate.” (In their erudition and grace, John Banville and Sackville strike me as comparable prose stylists.)
There is one charged scene in which, at his wife’s request, Richard forcefully holds her underwater to conquer her fear of drowning before “pulling her back into the world.” Exhilarated, she then pulls him down under into her “mysterious submerged” universe. The couple’s mutual abandon, violence, and desire get to the central ambiguity of the novel: who is enchanting or imprisoning whom? “So will you…bewitch me…? Will you leave your old teacher imprisoned, lost to life and use and name and fame?” Richard asks. To which his wife coyly responds: “Well…will you yield?”
If his wife is a kind of enchantress, Richard is something of an enchanter as well. She is initially drawn to him through the stories he tells in a literature class, and he goes on to essentially ensorcel himself, unconsciously embroidering their courtship tale with details that make her more elfin than she already is. This storytelling power explains the depth of his jealousy. Richard is democratically suspicious of any male, whether a vacationing teenager or a reeking hermit who drops in straight from a Wordsworth poem, but his real rival is his wife’s long since vanished father, who first awoke her sense of wonder with spell-binding tales of finfolk and selkies: “Nothing can replace those first tales, which have coloured the cast of her thought, which have filled her nights with the sea, and which are at least as real as she’s learned of the world since…Nothing I can tell her will ever sound in her so deep.” It is no accident that Richard is a scholar of the Victorians, those poets preoccupied with their own belatedness. Their dilemma was how to create enchantment in an industrial age, Richard’s how to counter the spells of his young wife’s more enchanting forbears.
Will Richard ultimately be left alone and palely loitering? The enchanted logic of the tale seems to demand as much, though the real mystery surrounding Richard’s wife begins at novel’s end: determining who or what she is — mermaid, enchantress, victim, figment — when “there is nothing left of her but an old man’s sigh.”
In 1998, Knopf published Schwartz’s debut collection of stories, A German Picturesque. It’s a thin volume of 21 stories told through a series of oddly skewed yet intimate voices. The book does away with virtually every literary convention: there are themes instead of plots, atmospheres instead of straightforward stories, thoughts instead of dialog, and objects instead of characters. The objects include minutely observed postage stamps, flowers, birds, coins, insects, fabrics, furniture. The result is a relentless microscopic emphasis on individual words and the way they work together to make sentences. The effect is unsettling and disorienting at first. On a second reading, as you settle into the logic of Schwartz’s illogic, you begin to swim in a new way.
This is not so much a book of unreliable narrators as it is a book of unreliable narratives. Things slide, tilt, move sideways. There is ruin in these atmospheres, the ruin of families, armies, architecture, afternoons, civilizations, and the monuments to them. Here’s a typically slippery snippet of family history: “The nephew died first. All the suitors were poor. The sisters were not intimate. Well. There was something on a Sunday, as it happens. She had asked for an ash casket. Evidently the husband arrived, this time, in the afternoon, late in the afternoon. Early in the evening, really.”
The bravura opening of the story called “Ox” tells of a boy riding a train with his family, from the West toward Chicago. It is as close as Schwartz comes to writing a conventional narrative, and it is a revelation:
So the train ride down. Slyo, Blokes, Varn, Neel, Sir, Hels, Helding, Harm, Bonelawn, and Starvation Peak. Bolts, flaps, lorns, tanks, steens, bears, knife ties — the slag on the roadbed, a boy in a berth. Passing: bullrings, the gate route, the buttress, the light. On the platform are pumps, a fellow selling food, a priest next to a post. In history: men would shoot game from the moving windows. Grasshoppers would cover the track. The family had top East and family ancestors. The root in the caboose was the crummy. A cripple was bad. In the berth: the curtain blows, all right. You can see behind me how the house goes. He holds my hand. The berts, spinks, spears — and you bark your shin! Troutville has mountains named for the suffering of the settlers. Nosaje has mines and the largest graveyard in America. All the kinsmen were killed by red Indians. Or all the children had the croup. (Or a train got stuck in the mud under the water.)…
And now, 15 long years after that debut, Schwartz is out with his second book, John the Posthumous, which his new publisher, OR Books, calls “a novella in objects.” o call this book a novella is a bit like calling a spaceship a motor vehicle: while the label might be factually true, it’s also wildly inaccurate and inadequate.
This book, like its predecessor, is immaculately plotless, a whirlwind of objects, etymologies, histories (including a history of the American bed), Biblical citations, sisters, adultery, insects, murder. Again, there is an air of ruin, and of relentless unreliability. Here’s how the book got its title: “The foregoing ignores — or mistakes — several details. Cuckold’s Point, according to the map I have in hand, is closer to Evelyn than to Deptford. And Brockwell, strictly speaking, does not exist — in London, anyway. Furthermore, the horned figure — now gone — was not a gallows, in fact, but a simple post. It had been exhibited at a fair — the Horn Fair — in celebration of a king’s cuckolding. Which king? King Richard or King Edward. (John the Posthumous — usually rendered in red — was a French king, alive for five days.)”
Rambunctious, nearly ferocious, wordplay abounds, as in: “The word adultery derives from cry — which calls to mind, certainly, the way the blanket folded back — and from alter, rather than altar, via reave. But I flatter myself that this provides a correct measure of evidence.” And: “The word cuckold also refers to certain insects. Take the cuckold fly — which is actually a beetle, which feigns death quite gracefully.” And: “Hoddypoll, which also means fool, I believe, derives from dod — as in snail and small hill — and from koll — which is Norweigian for head or crown, and is the root of kill.”
You will meet words you have never imagined, including “bistoury” (a long, narrow surgical knife), “rood” (a quarter acre) and “rale” (an abnormal respiratory sound characterized by fine crackles). You will meet words that exist, as far as I can tell, only in Schwartz’s imagination, including “catlin” and “bule.” You will emerge from these books shaken and changed, attuned to possibilities you had never imagined before.
So, is Jason Schwartz a genius? To be honest, the question did not occur to me until I read an astonishing gust of praise that appears on the first page of my paperback edition of John the Posthumous. It was written by Gordon Lish, author, teacher, and editor, who is perhaps most famous for carving up — and quite possibly improving — Raymond Carver’s early prose. Lish’s encomium for Schwartz is worth quoting in its entirety:
Do I not, in speaking as I must, exploit, for my own purpose, the uncanny beauty another man has made? They’re spangled feathers — the lives, the achievements, the properties of others. Who among us does not have a nest to keep stewarded with all the glitter gatherable in reach? Let me tell you something: if the act of the profiteer is what we are talking about, then living better, for my part, couldn’t be any better than my having lived long enough for me to enrich myself by dint of realizing the least proximity to the insuperably forged sentences of Jason Schwartz. As for the author, the mandarin heretofore hidden among us, there is positively nothing I can usefully say to you for him or of him or to him. He is complete, as genius agonizingly is. Can there be a more ghastly occupation? It is no guess that it had to have been terrible for Schwartz to have contained John the Posthumous and its equally uncontainable antecedent, the 1998 collection of sinuousities brought out as A German Picturesque. How reckless of Jason Schwartz for him to have recommended himself for the test of turning a totalized form of attention over such a quality of suffering. Yes, the folly of it, declares your opportunistic intercessor. Oh, but how lucky the forerunner is! — how thrillingly, how terrifically, how unimprovably lucky.
So much gas! — those “spangled feathers,” that “glitter gatherable,” the twee enrichment “by dint of realizing,” the “collection of sinuousities,” and Lish’s labeling of himself as “your opportunistic intercessor.” Rather than dwell on the obvious — that Lish is more amazed by his own amazing ability to be amazed than by Schwartz’s ability to amaze — let’s take a closer look at praiser and praised.
After working as fiction editor at Esquire magazine from 1969 to 1977, Lish worked as a senior editor at the publishing house of Alfred A. Knopf until 1995. In 1987 he founded the literary magazine The Quarterly, which he edited until its last issue in 1995. Jason Schwartz’s fiction first appeared in The Quarterly, and Lish bought the manuscript of A German Picturesque in 1995, though it didn’t appear until three years later, after Lish had left Knopf. (It is also worth noting that OR Books, publisher of John the Posthumous, brought out an edition of Lish’s collected fiction in 2010 and will publish a collection of his new stories called Goings next year.)
More muted, but still lofty, praise for Schwartz has come from other quarters. Ben Marcus, a former student of Lish’s whose early work also appeared in The Quarterly, has called Schwartz’s writing “haunting, original prose by a writer unlike any other on the planet. Jason Schwartz is a master.”
Another former Lish student, the smart and deadly funny Sam Lipsyte, offered praise of his own: “After reading Jason Schwartz, it’s difficult to talk about any other writer’s originality or unique relation to the language. John the Posthumous is a work of astounding power and distinction, beautifully strange, masterful.”
None of the above is to suggest that there’s a Lishian cabal out there engaged in sinister acts of literary log-rolling. There’s nothing wrong with praising a writer you admire, and I believe Lish, Marcus and Lipsyte’s praise is sincere. But their praise for Schwartz is a reminder that it is always worthwhile to examine praise’s provenance. Subtexts matter. In the end, of course, every reader must make up his or her own mind on the true stature of Jason Schwartz — and every other writer. Blurbs matter, but only so much.
So again, is Jason Schwartz a genius? It’s impossible to answer the question without questioning the meaning of the word “genius.” My dictionary (American Heritage, fifth edition) defines it as “extraordinary intellectual and creative power” or “a person of extraordinary intellect and talent.” I think the word is so over-used today that it has become nearly meaningless. Genuine genius is a rare thing, reserved for such towering figures as Mozart, Proust, Joyce, Einstein, Picasso, Nabokov, Faulkner, and maybe Charlie Parker and Michael Jordan and Elvis. A writer who has produced two thin volumes and a handful of stories simply hasn’t amassed sufficient credentials to gain entry to the pantheon.
That said, I recommend Jason Schwartz to any reader searching for a writer with the chops and the daring to bend language to his own unique purposes. To read these books is to enter a fugue state, in both senses of the word. Schwartz’s writing is, like a musical fugue, a mesmerizing series of themes stated successively in different voices; it is also, in the psychiatric sense, a state marked by wandering and an inability to remember one’s past accurately. It is a state unlike any other, an exalted state. Don’t take my word for it.