Have you read Jernigan? It’s a novel by David Gates, published in 1992. It was a finalist for that year’s Pulitzer Prize, and it is a great book that, according to a very informal poll I recently conducted, no one has read, and most people haven’t heard of. The only reason I have: when I worked at EPOCH magazine, the journal’s long-time and much-beloved editor-in-chief, Michael Koch, stumped for Jernigan as something of an already lost classic. Over the course of the ensuing few years, I kept remembering, then forgetting, to read it. Finally, a few months ago, I recalled its existence when I had nothing else to read and bought it on Kindle. It’s a strange book to e-read. It’s one of those novels that really wants to be read as a physical book. As I scrolled along, I felt I should own a dog-eared and coffee-stained copy that I’d already reread once or twice before. It is familiar, mostly in good ways and a few bad.
It feels anachronistically familiar, I think, partly because it is a reminder of a kind of book that used to be written and published all the time about unhappy white guys. A host of factors—among them, an increased awareness of systemic sexism and racism and privilege facilitated by the internet and social media—more or less put an end to this kind of book, or at least forced it to shape-shift into, say, the techno-fascism of a Michel Houellebecq or the neo-Victorian realism of Jonathan Franzen. Jernigan is one of the last pure versions of this kind of book, but a better version that deserves rediscovery, one that in some thematic ways anticipates the end of its era.
From around 1950 to 2000, books about unhappy white guys were written frequently enough to constitute a subgenre of literary fiction: call it, let’s say, Unhappy White Guys. Or UWG. Of course, one might argue that UWG has been a genre since time immemorial, since before Hamlet stalked the parapet being mad at his stepfather. This is generally true, but I’m thinking here of a certain very specific type of unhappy white guy: post-war American, middle to upper-middle class, suburban, straight, and usually WASP. In other words, more or less, the most racially, sexually, and economically privileged people ever to walk the face of the earth, a class of human who faced no threat on any front, except from themselves.
For the purpose of this essay I would exclude books that don’t meet these full criteria. Hemingway’s novels, for instance, very much feature unhappy white guys, but they are mostly pre-WWII and shouldering the burden of war, what we would probably describe now as PTSD. Jake Barnes, for instance, is unhappy, white, and a guy, but his ambiguous war wound complicates what would otherwise be aimless ennui.
Leonard Michaels’s characters are often unhappy white guys, but they are largely Jewish and urban, with a sense of the world extending past the emerald rectangles of their front yards, and a sense of history that reaches back past the pictures on their fraternity walls. Likewise, Philip Roth, whose characters were also often less unhappy than horny, or unhappy because they were horny, at any rate featuring horniness as the dominant note. Updike’s white guys are not generally unhappy; as with Roth’s characters, they are also monomaniacally obsessed with their own phalluses, often to the exclusion of the outside world and any meaningful sense of angst about it. Speaking of angst: yes, Rabbit Angstrom is an unhappy white guy, but just barely, with his lower-class provenance, his salesman job, his grotty hometown in the Pennsylvania hills.
A facile timeline of UWG might be roughly drawn between the two Richards—Yates and Ford—and their two great protagonists, both named Frank. From Revolutionary Road to Independence Day, this genre tends to take up as its work the definition of a specific variety of late-20th-century spiritual malaise, the sense that, despite having it all (perhaps even because of it), life is still somehow lacking. It is a particular brand of pure, distilled dissatisfaction only possible if you have almost nothing else to truly worry about. Yet the unhappy white guys at the center of these stories, in one way or another, feel deceived. The American dream, as defined by a big house and two cars and wife and kids, has failed to deliver the happiness it promised, and so the protagonist casts around with increasing desperation trying to find the thing that is missing. Whatever else its failings and blind spots, this genre performs a valuable—if at times unintentional—autopsy on the idea of orthodox capitalist happiness. Per Don Draper, our foremost televised unhappy white guy: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
Yates and Cheever were probably its foremost early post-war practitioners, although Cheever, at least in his short fiction, was weirder and more of a fabulist, interested in the suburbs as both a locus of stifling orthodoxy and as a liminal space of potential magic (something I discuss here). Yates’s Frank Wheeler is the archetype: successful, smart, handsome, and completely fucking miserable. Though his abusive marriage with April Wheeler is almost operatically unhappy, the true locus of his misery is the floating unease at not finding magical satisfaction on Revolutionary Road.
One can draw a straight line from Frank Wheeler to Frank Bascombe, the hero of Richard Ford’s trilogy The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and (the execrably titled) Let Me Be Frank With You. If Wheeler is the archetype, Independence Day’s Bascombe is more or less the type’s mature culmination, mellowed by the real and fictional decades separating Wheeler and himself. Bascombe, a gently restive real estate agent, cannot please anyone: his clients, his ex-wife, his new girlfriend, his struggling son, himself. The moments of respite in this (beautifully written, but to me, somewhat agonizingly dull book) are the quiet moments of zen-like joy in the little things that the Jersey suburbs can provide as well as anywhere else. Here, Ford borrows directly from Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, whose Binx Bolling, an unhappy white guy par excellence, genially harasses a procession of secretaries into unsatisfying affairs, while “spinning” up and down Biscayne Bay in a little red sportscar on what he calls “The Search.” The Search is hazily defined, but generally refers to a receptiveness to the ineffable moments of grace and sublime beauty that, if they could be constantly existed in, would make someone like Binx—or Frank Bascombe, or Frank Wheeler—stop being so unhappy, if not so white.
To return to Jernigan—it would, on appearances, seem to offer more or less textbook UWG. Peter Jernigan is a failing real estate agent and drinker; a pensive wanderer who falls into bed with a neighborhood woman he doesn’t especially like; a narcissistic man-child whose teenage son is more grown up than he is. But Jernigan’s narration, at turns both theatrically self-dramatizing and self-aware of his self-dramatization (the title itself winks at his habit of third-person self-reference), offers something beyond the customary portrait of suburban malaise.
The novel is, among other things, an anatomy of the alcoholic mind. Since losing his unstable wife a year earlier to a freak car accident (crucially, Jernigan begins with the spousal tragedy that ends Revolutionary Road), our hero has descended into a shadowland that finds him waking on his couch at odd hours, having nodded off while watching a baseball game or Star Trek reruns. But Gates smartly plays the alcoholic notes lightly, and the reader’s main attention is absorbed by Jernigan’s lacerating solipsism. His narration recalls the best unhappy white guys before him, while simultaneously acknowledging and undercutting the usual sense of stakesless ennui. Like Binx Bolling and Frank Bascombe, Peter Jernigan’s lassitude leads him into trouble and accounts for much of the novel’s plot, though Jernigan’s lassitude is not born so much of complacent spiritual unrest as it is of depression and subtly rendered near-constant intoxication. That it often reads like a standard-variety suburban comedy of errors is a testament to Gates’s supreme control of his subject and his subject’s illness. Jernigan views himself in a gently ironic light, a received self-image handed down from the likes of Frank Bascombe—that is, as a man of his time and place, committed to committing his mistakes, mostly harmless. Like many alcoholics (and the reader), Jernigan only becomes aware of the true immensity and horror of his situation when it’s too late; that is, when he’s practically frozen to death in an abandoned shack with alcoholic tremors.
Gates’s rendering of Jernigan’s alcoholic spiral feels spookily real. Not so much the outright delusions or denials, or the false moments of control—markers we’ve come to expect from addiction memoirs—as the steadily accretive fact of it in the background. A tossed-off mention of a beer with breakfast, a soda topped jauntily with a little gin to make the drive to New York more fun, and before we know it, Jernigan is once again waking in the half-light, trying to remember where he is. Although he is a self-dramatizing narrator (the form of the book is, as we find out later on, a kind of bravura confessional from the confines of a rehab facility) the rendering of drinking is the opposite of Fred Exley’s in A Fan’s Notes, one of Jernigan’s other UWG spiritual forebears. Exley is all wildness and braggadocio, the college kid who lines up liquor bottles on his dorm window; Jernigan’s drinking is the stealthy veteran drinking of middle age, an accounting that fudges the numbers as the tally climbs upward.
The overall effect is a book and narrator both firmly in the
UWG lineage, and also outside of it, in some ways commenting on it. The louche
sexual politics are of a piece with the genre, as is the anodyne feel of
Jernigan’s Reaganite Jersey suburbia. But despite the insularity of the locale,
and in contradistinction with the unhappy white guys before him, Jernigan faces
very real problems, and not just from himself. For instance, from the .22 rifle
in the basement that his girlfriend uses to kill farmed rabbits for supper; for
instance, from the ex-husband who shows up unannounced and in terrifying
fashion; for instance, from the son’s unstable, drug-taking girlfriend.
The tradition of UWG novels typically finds its Angstrom or Bascombe or Bolling or Wheeler at war with themselves, their own worst enemy. From the vantage of 2019, this seems beyond quaint, positively antique. While Jernigan, too, features this mode of contemplative self-destruction, there is also a prescient feeling of the world beginning to creep in at the edges, a sense of the white guy’s imminent fall from his placid, unhappy Eden.
During this hoops-rich period, the frenetic Madness of March having transitioned into the more austere months-long slog of the NBA Playoffs, I found myself fruitlessly poking around for a good basketball novel. I’m both a writer and great fan of the game — my podcast, Fan’s Notes, pairs the discussion of a novel with a discussion of basketball, usually the NBA. My podcasting partner and I tend to find no shortage of cultural and metaphorical linkage between the two art forms, yet modern literary fiction seems to harbor no special love for this great game.
Football has A Fan’s Notes, End Zone, The Throwback Special, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Baseball has The Natural, Shoeless Joe, Underworld, and more recently The Art of Fielding. For Christ’s sake, hockey yet has another Don DeLillo tome, the pseudonymously written Amazons. Where, I find myself wondering, is the great basketball novel?
First of all, no, The Basketball Diaries is not a basketball novel. It is a memoir, and it is about heroin — it features precious little actual basketball. John Updike’s Rabbit and Richard Ford’s Bascombe books both involve hoops to varying degrees, but not as a central concern or dramatic focus. Under the Frog, by Tibor Fischer, is a very good book about basketball players, but it concerns 1950s Hungary, the titular frog being the regime of Marshal Tito. What else is there? Walter Dean Myers wrote several young adult books that revolved around basketball; there’s also Sherman Alexie’s YA novel Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and the Blacktop series by my friend L. J. Alonge — interestingly, most books about basketball that come to mind seem to be YA written by men of color, while Big Sports Lit is very, very white.
There is not, as far as I can tell, a big work of literary fiction for adults that is “about” basketball, in the same sense that Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding is “about” baseball.
Perhaps this has to do with the particular character of these sports. Baseball, with its mano-a-mano pitcher-hitter duels, is perfectly congenial to narrative — is itself comprised of a series of mini-narratives involving protagonists and antagonists (one way or the other depending on your rooting interests). There is really no moment of solo heroism in any other major sport comparable to the walk-off home run (or strike out) to end a game; there is likewise no greater sporting scapegoat than Bill Buckner and his ilk. In less dramatic terms, a baseball game is comprised of hundreds of discrete individual plays: someone throws a ball, someone hits it, someone fields and throws it, and it is caught again by the first baseman for an out. This is how traditional narrative is structured, a series of explicable interactions between a cast of characters that mount in importance and conflict until a crucial, deciding act that resolves the plot. Even the structure of baseball’s gameplay is writerly, with its nine innings constituting nine tidy chapters inside the larger dramatic arc.
Football, too, though tritely metaphorized as violent, armed combat — marching up the field, a war of attrition, a massacre, etc. –is constituted by many clean moments of contest, various plot points interspersed between the interminable commercial breaks. American football is American in character, pairing a love of mayhem with an equal love of bureaucratic fussiness. The game’s horrifying ultraviolence is committed within the parameters of a rulebook thicker than a Cheesecake Factory menu, meted out in orderly skirmishes, and broken up by five minute replays to determine the spotting of the ball within a nanometer or two. We want war, but we want a safe war, a manageable war in which the actors stay within their prescribed roles — in which no one, in effect, goes rogue (few things are more pleasurably disconcerting than a broken play and the ensuing spectacle of a four-hundred-pound lineman hurtling toward the end zone). Again, this is very compatible with traditional storytelling, placing maximum visceral conflict and chaos within neat scene and a hyperrationalized narrative structure.
In contrast, the narrative possibilities of basketball seem somehow European in character, closer to futból than football (or as a British student of mine liked to call it, handegg). Inbounds are approximate, as are jump balls. Except in certain key situations, there are no replays and refereeing occurs on the fly. Mistakes are routinely made, lamented, forgotten.
Superstar players — the protagonists of the game, so to speak — are coveted, but the play itself is supremely team-oriented. Unlike baseball and football, in which individual statistics are iron-clad and fetishized, basketball stats are the subject of endless arguments regarding context. It is curiously difficult to disentangle the individual moments that contribute to an orange ball falling into a hole. Yes, someone shoots it, and yes, often someone assists on the shot, but a hundred other smaller actions, essentially unquantifiable — screens, shooting gravity, secondary assists, etc. — go into it as well. And even the countable stats are the subject of debate. Scoring twenty-eight points in a game sounds good until you look at how they were scored, with what efficiency, and giving up how much on the defensive end. Quants — that is, stat nerds — regularly put forth the case that a player like Andrew Bogut, a low-scoring defensive bruiser who sets vicious picks, is as valuable than a shooting threat like Isaiah Thomas. There is no comparable ambivalence in the record books of, say, baseball: a homerun is a homerun is a homerun.
All of which is to say that there is, inherent to basketball’s play, an indeterminacy that may not lend itself to conventional narrative. Moby-Dick versus Heart of Darkness, to throw a strange but perhaps productive analogy at the fridge (and thereby further mix metaphors), are like baseball versus basketball. One is about a majestic, doomed assertion of individual will; one is about ambiguous forces clashing in a mist of doubt and dread. Occasionally a basketball player comes along who is great enough to totally clarify the terms of the game: LeBron James, for example. But these players are surpassingly rare, generational.
If the orderliness of baseball and football lends itself generally to narrative, it lends itself specifically to retrospective narrative. In much the same way that we often imagine our lives as a series of cruxes (and model that imagining in our fictions), a football game can be broken down into a series of botched or successful plays, good or bad calls. These sports are almost built to be post-mortemed, in their perfect state only when finished. It seems consonant, then, that big literary sports novels are typically about a character looking back at former greatness and lost innocence — either personally or culturally, or both.
And this type of literary sentimentality, in turn, pervades the cultures of football and baseball, which are forever backward-looking, enshrining and nostalgiazing moments, sometimes as they still happen. Memorable plays are almost immediately assigned names as historically pungent as World War II battles: “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Shot Heard Round the World,” “The Catch.” Even the bungled plays have immortal names: “The Fail Mary,” “The Butt Fumble.”
There aren’t really similarly fetishized moments in basketball. Its fluid and complex play does not invite the same kind of nostalgic retrospection, and indeed, it is unsentimental about its history to a degree that routinely enrages former greats. Basketball could never serve as a good metaphor for America’s glorious past, or even its fallen present (football still serves admirably here: see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) but it might be just the sport for a more skeptical and circumspect twenty-first century, an era when we need a literature of certainty less than ever.
Last weekend, my local library hosted a “bag sale” in its basement, one of its occasional fundraisers in which eight dollars gets you a paper shopping bag and free, manic rein to fill it with used books. I look forward to these sales with the childish excitement that once accompanied major holidays, despite the glaring fact that I don’t need any books. Given my hoarder’s mania for gathering them — from give-a-book/take-a-book racks, curbside boxes, friends both generous and easily stolen from, and bookstores new and secondhand — one could make a convincing argument that a sack of secondhand books is one of the last things I need. My house is filled with books, and though I try to get rid of those I no longer care about, such efforts are largely futile. The things gather like autumn leaves at the corners of a fence; no sooner do I rake them away then another heap blows in. I’m running out of places to stash them. Unless I live to 140, I’ll never read them all.
But still: eight dollars.
So on Sunday morning, I descended the library’s rear staircase like a man eager to be condemned, and entered its long, low, yellow-lit cellar, lined with tables, carts, and boxes of books. Thousands and thousands of books. I gave a grandmotherly, white-haired volunteer — is there any other kind? — my eight bucks; she wrote “PAID” on a Trader Joe’s bag and handed it to me. I thanked her, turned around, and waded into the stacks, joining 30 or so others, brows knit in concentration, in pursuit of more books.
It was 11:55.
At noon, in the hardcover fiction section, I made my first pull of the day: T.C. Boyle’s 2006 story collection, Tooth & Claw. I’m not a huge short-story fan, and I had no real intention of taking Tooth & Claw home. But it was fairly new — at such a sale, anything published within the last decade qualifies as “fairly new” — and I love Boyle. So I just held it for a second, looking at its black-and-grey cover, before sliding it back on the shelf. There was a strange tenderness to the act; the impulse seemed to come from the same place that leads me to absently ruffle my son’s hair whenever he passes by.
Two minutes later, crouching above a shallow box of paperbacks, I brought up Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve only read one Russo novel, Empire Falls, and although I enjoyed it, I’ve also lazily assumed that I don’t need to read any other Russos; his work strikes me — rightly or not — as a minor series of variations on a familiar theme. What attracted me to The Risk Pool was its cover; it was an old Vintage Contemporary, a fine time capsule of late ‘80s art direction. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve read in the Vintage line — Yates, Portis, Doyle, Carver — and I’ve never been disappointed by the books’ surreal, pastel covers. The Risk Pool’s was a pleasingly nostalgic painting of a man and a boy resting beside a country road. I took it in, as if standing in a gallery, then nestled it back in its box, needing to move on.
At 12:03, I dropped my first book of the day into the bag: Boyle’s East is East, an early-ish novel of his that I’d never gotten around to. I felt an inane sense of accomplishment, as if I were a St. Bernard who had just discovered a lost cross-country skier. I looked down at East is East in the bottom of the sack; it seemed tragically small and lonesome, and I resolved to find it some friends.
At 12:05, as I again ran my eyes across the hardcover fiction titles, I heard a woman say to a volunteer: “Shoot me if I come back again.” They laughed, and although I didn’t look up, I pictured the joker struggling with a book-overflowing bag, preparing to drag it back to her book-overflowing house. I haven’t reached the point where I need to tell strangers that they may murder me if I try to buy any more books, but I’ll probably get there soon.
I checked my watch. I’d been there for twelve minutes. After East is East, I had tossed a couple more books in my bag (Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Joe Meno’s Office Girl), and I was feeling fairly content until I spotted an old, weathered copy of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. I had no particular problem with or interest in the novel; the issue was that it reminded me that my mother had given me James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird two Christmases ago. That, in turn, reminded me that I hadn’t read The Good Lord Bird — or The Imperfectionists, or Ender’s Game, or A Fan’s Notes, or any other of the dozens of other novels that I’ve picked up over the years, each time thinking, “I can’t wait to read this,” before making the purchase. It was another reminder that I will surely die before I read all of my books, that my descendants will one day be forced to shovel through it all, skeptically asking one another, “Did he actually read all these?” Then, with a Homer Simpson “Ooh,” I spotted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, dropped it in my bag, and forgot about my eventual demise. I can’t wait to read The Plot Against America.
At 12:10, I saw the fourth copy of Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants since I arrived at the sale just fifteen minutes before. It brought me back to a college-era bull-session question I used to pose: Which album do you see more than any other at used-CD stores? (I always went with R.E.M.’s Monster, which, it seemed, everybody bought and nobody really liked.) So was Water for Elephants the new Monster? I didn’t think so. For one thing, between Freakonomics and Eat, Pray, Love, the competition was fairly stiff. Perhaps Water for Elephants is the new Zooropa.
These are what pass for thoughts at a library bag sale.
At 12:18, I found a paperback copy of Steven King’s Lisey’s Story, and pondered its possibilities. I wasn’t wondering whether or not I might want to read it; I had already made that determination at a church rummage sale in July, when I bought the book in hardcover. That version of Lisey’s Story was the approximate weight of an Oldsmobile, and the questions before me now were: 1) Should I take this paperback and, once home, swap it out for the hardcover? 2) Would I actually get rid of the massive thing, or would I just keep them both? And 3) Was I really in the business of buying books that I already owned?
Lisey’s Story went back on the shelf.
At around 12:25, with two more books in the bag (E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother), I realized that I needed to get back home. There were chores to be done, errands to be run, kids to be corralled. I buzzed the children’s section and chose a quick nine or ten titles — Clifford’s Kitten and a Tom and Jerry Golden Book among them — that looked to be in decent shape. Then a peculiar Black Friday anxiety washed over me as I forced myself towards the exit: what was I missing? There was so much still to see! Christ, I barely browsed Nonfiction! My eyesight grew twitchy and granular as I tried to take it all in: every sci-fi novel, every mystery, every moldering Penguin Classic. I picked up something by Arthur Koestler, as if grabbing at a bobbing life preserver, while I moved slowly from the room. Then, with a sigh, I put Darkness at Noon back in its box and walked into the day, struck by the freshness of the air outside. The bag felt heavy in my hand, but not oppressively so. All in all, the previous half-hour had been a success: six more books to add to the top of the teetering mountain. I wouldn’t be back that day; I could survive until the next bag sale, whenever that might be. Nobody would have to shoot me for buying things I didn’t need.
“We tether ourselves to others as a path not taken, a dream unfulfilled. A lesson unlearned, a responsibility unmet. We mourn idols as ourselves because even that unachieved road must end.” Paul Taunton has written a heartfelt Hazlitt essay on Frederick Exley, Frank Gifford, and passionate idolatry. Exley’s cult favorite A Fan’s Notes, published in 1988, is a fictional memoir that centers on a quasi-obsession with Gifford, who passed away earlier this week at the age of eighty-four.
1. A Killer Business Model
So tonight it’ll be Oregon vs. Ohio State for the college football championship. I’m going to pass. A big part of the reason is that I just watched Amir Bar-Lev’s sickening and fascinating new documentary, Happy Valley. Early in the movie we meet a Pennsylvania State University student named Tyler Estright who’s being interviewed in his dorm room, dressed in a Penn State t-shirt and a Penn State cap turned backward. The wall behind him is adorned with pictures of Joe Paterno, the university’s legendary football coach who, shortly before this interview, was fired amid revelations that one of his long-time assistants, Jerry Sandusky, was a serial sexual abuser of young boys.
“How could they do this to Joe?” Estright cries, echoing a common refrain in State College, Pa. — known as Happy Valley — that Paterno was unfairly punished for another man’s sins. “Look,” Estright continues, “I feel bad for the victims, okay? I have to say that so people don’t think I’m an idiot. But the thing that made me maddest was that the NCAA took away Joe’s wins.”
Though Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison, Estright derides an on-campus candlelight vigil for the victims as “fake.” Later, watching television as Penn State and Nebraska players kneel together on the field for a prayer before the kickoff of the first game in the post-Paterno era, Estright barks, “Get up off your knees and let’s play football! That’s what we do here!”
Eventually, Estright’s disgust with the unfairness of Paterno’s treatment and the ensuing National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions shades into fury when the Penn State players start wearing their names above the numerals on the backs of their jerseys. This seemingly minor change is, for Estright, an unpardonable contravention of everything Penn State football supposedly stood for under Paterno: selfless devotion to the notion that the game of football, if played correctly, builds better people and a better world.
Also buying into this questionable notion is an artist named Michael Polito, who painted a brazenly religious mural of Penn State football worthies on the wall of a downtown building. A God-like (and haloed) Paterno is at the center, with a Christ-like Sandusky at his right hand, both of them surrounded by angelic coaches and players. After the convictions and the firings and the sanctions, we watch Polito paint over the image of the disgraced Sandusky. Then, after much soul searching, Polito paints over Paterno’s halo but leaves the rest of beloved Joe Pa intact. Painting over that halo, says Polito, is “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” There is also much lamentation when the statue of Paterno is removed from its hallowed spot in front of the football stadium and unceremoniously hauled away. Such events pass for traumas inside a bubble like Happy Valley, Pa.
It’s sickening and fascinating to watch Tyler Estright and Michael Polito and other Penn State football supporters not because they’re unusual but because, as Happy Valley makes clear, so many other people in Pennsylvania and the rest of America feel exactly the way they feel. In the end, this movie is not really about a sexual predator and his enabler. It’s about what their downfall illuminates: a nation so drunk on sports, especially on big-time college football, that it has lost the ability to think and feel. America has become a nation, as one reviewer of Happy Valley wrote, “put under a spell, even reduced to grateful infantilism, by the game of football.”
How did this come to pass? To arrive at an answer, do what you always do in America: follow the money. In 2010, the Southeastern Conference, which has produced the last seven national champions in college football, became the first conference to make $1 billion in revenue. This year’s three playoff games and associated bowl games are part of a new 12-year TV contract worth $7.3 billion. Baseball, once known as America’s national pastime, has been thoroughly eclipsed by college (and pro) football. Game 1 of last year’s baseball World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals drew half as many viewers as a mid-season college football game between Florida State and Notre Dame. Some 28 million people tuned in to each of the Jan. 1 playoff games. Football generates about two-thirds of the revenue at major college athletic programs. Yes, big-time college football has turned its stratospheric popularity into one highly productive cash cow.
But the game’s current success is built on a pair of unpretty pillars: the grateful infantilism of millions of fans like Tyler Estright; and the fact that the players who generate the billions of dollars in revenue do not receive a dime in compensation. That’s what you might call a killer business model.
2. A Secular Religion
College football’s recent tsunami of popularity caught me by surprise, even though I’ve known for years that big-time college football is virtually a secular religion across the South and in such select Yankee hotbeds as State College, Pa.; Columbus, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; and Ann Arbor, Mich. Now you can add Eugene, Oregon to the list. I attended a few University of Michigan games as a kid — spectacles that drew upwards of 100,000 fans into the university’s colossal bowl of a stadium. In my memory, there was something distinctly gladiatorial about those games.
The South’s passion for college football dates back at least to 1926, when Alabama became the first school from the region to play in the Rose Bowl. Three years after that red-letter date, my late father, then aged 7, snuck under a fence to witness the first game ever played in Sanford Stadium in his hometown of Athens, Ga. — a 15-0 victory for Georgia over mighty Yale. In the 1960s, coach Bear Bryant, a sort of piney-woods Joe Paterno, turned Alabama into a national powerhouse.
In 1982, I landed a job as a Top 40 disc jockey at a Savannah, Ga., radio station that also broadcast the University of Georgia Bulldogs’s football games. One of my side duties was to put together each Saturday’s taped pre-game show, which required me to travel up to the campus in Athens for the annual pre-season Media Day.
It was an experience I’ll never forget. Georgia had won the national championship in 1980, and Bulldog running back Herschel Walker was a heavy favorite for the Heisman Trophy in 1982. With the faithful drooling in anticipation of another national title, radios droned the state’s unofficial anthem: “Give Herschel Walker the ball…”
When I arrived on the Athens campus for Media Day, there was an armada of TV trucks parked outside the athletic complex, bristling like giant insects. Inside, an army of broadcasters, sportswriters, and nobodies like myself bustled around, interviewing coaches and players. It was an astonishing dance. The interviewers approached their subjects with great deference, especially the star players and the coach, Vince Dooley, who struck me as the biggest gas bag who ever wore pants. All pronouncements were written down or tape-recorded or videotaped as though they were holy writ, soon to be disseminated to the waiting multitudes. It was amazing to watch grown men kowtow to mumbling teenage boys, even if those boys happened to be chiseled, 250-pound slabs of beef.
Eventually I broke away from the breathless clots of interviewers crowding around the players, and I noticed…the girls. They were impossibly beautiful, impossibly blonde, impossibly tan, as though they’d all been force-fed a diet of peaches and yogurt and sunshine. The black girls were every bit as luscious. Co-eds don’t look like this up North, I thought. The girls were lurking along the walls in sundresses, and I soon realized they were actually jiggling with impatience for all the old men with the microphones and notebooks to get out of the way so they could get a shot at those beautiful slabs of boy beef, prime boyfriend material, maybe husband material, maybe even N.F.L. meal-ticket material.
The air in that room was a hormonal cocktail, so potent, so thick, so musky that I was surprised those girls hadn’t already come out of their sundresses. All in due time, I told myself. As I drove back home to Savannah that evening, I realized I had gotten my first glimpse of the big-time college football business model. It was built on an infantile news media feeding pap to infantile fans, who treated teenage boys like princes while the university raked in millions of dollars off the unpaid labor of those pampered princes. The equation had it all: big money, big media, celebrity, and sex. The only thing missing was academics. More on that in a moment.
Alas, the Georgia faithful were to suffer unimaginable heartbreak at the end of that season. Herschel Walker won the Heisman Trophy and the Bulldogs won the Southeastern Conference championship and finished the regular season ranked #1. But in the Sugar Bowl they lost the national championship to the #2 team in the land, the Nittany Lions from Happy Valley, Pa., coached by a doomed god named Joe Paterno.
3. The “Student-Athlete”
Which brings us to the NCAA’s most cynical and lucrative myth, the “student-athlete.” Four years after I attended that Media Day in Athens, the president of the University of Georgia resigned when the board of regents implicated him and Vince Dooley, who was athletic director as well as football coach, in a pattern of academic abuse in the admission and advancement of student-athletes. The abuse was brought to light by Jan Kemp, an English professor who had the temerity to complain when higher-ups intervened to give nine football players a passing grade for a remedial English course they had failed. The passing grades enabled the players to compete in that year’s Sugar Bowl. For her trouble, Kemp was demoted, then fired. She sued. At trial, one of the university’s attorneys justified the favorable treatment of a hypothetical football player this way: “We may not make a university student out of him, but if we can teach him to read and write, maybe he can work at the post office rather than as a garbage man when he gets through with his athletic career.” Despite such shrewd lawyering, Kemp won the case and was awarded more than $1 million in damages and lost wages.
Cut to the present. The University of North Carolina, which has long prided itself on “the Carolina Way” — athletic excellence and academic rigor — is now reeling from revelations that for 18 years a “shadow curriculum” funneled student-athletes into courses that required no class attendance and no course work other than a single paper, which teachers often didn’t read. For such scholarship, more than 1,000 “student-athletes” received high enough grades to be able to continue to compete.
Defenders of Joe Paterno never tire of pointing out that 80-plus percent of his football players earned their degrees, compared with a national average of about 50 percent. But as a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette study revealed, players on the top 25 football and basketball teams tend to get “clustered” into majors where accommodating professors and less rigorous work loads are more likely to result in grades that allow the athletes to remain eligible to play. At Baylor, the student-athlete’s major of choice is General Studies; at Texas A&M, it’s Agricultural Leadership and Development; at Oregon, it’s Social Science, and so forth. This is not a knock on the student-athletes. Competing on a big-time college football or basketball team — with its time-consuming practices, training and travel — is a full-time job, and it leaves players with far less time and energy for academics than non-athletes enjoy. “The Carolina Way,” it turns out, is a fantasy, little more than a hollow PR stunt.
Sandwiched between the academic scandals at Georgia and North Carolina is a long and dreary litany of cash payouts, rape charges, shoe scandals, drug busts, the Penn State horror show, and my personal favorite, student-athletes who are unable to read their own contracts when they turn pro.
But rococo scandals are just the beginning of the woes now bedeviling the NCAA’s killer business model. The National Labor Relations Board ruled in March that Northwestern University football players are school employees and thus eligible to form a union. In August, a federal judge ruled that the NCAA violates antitrust laws by limiting what college athletes can receive from their “names, images and likenesses.” The ruling stopped short of allowing students to receive money from commercial endorsements while still in school. It also failed to address the elephant in the room: Given the revenues they generate, shouldn’t athletes in big-time college sports, specifically football and basketball, get paid for their services?
The answer to that and other vexing questions might come from, of all places, Capitol Hill, where there’s a movement under way to form a presidential commission to look into the numerous problems facing big-time college sports. The NCAA, meanwhile, is already angling to shore up its crumbling business model. In the first half of 2014, the NCAA paid almost a quarter of a million dollars to lobbyists to press the case on Capitol Hill that it deserves an antitrust exemption. Yes indeed, always follow the money.
4. Football as Metaphor
How do you explain football’s rampaging popularity? Take your pick.
On the most superficial level, the game’s violence has a built-in appeal in a bellicose country like America. The parallels between football and war are almost too patent: the trench warfare at the line of scrimmage, the aerial combat (with occasional bursts of ballet) of the passing game, the bone-crushing contact, the martial precision of the marching bands. Increasingly, there is also the presence of the U.S. military at games — uniformed personnel participating in on-field ceremonies, fighter planes screaming overhead, game broadcasts peppered with recruiting ads urging members of the underclass to volunteer for the armed services so they can take part in our forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Hollywood, big-time college football has been thoroughly infiltrated by the U.S. military.
There’s a much subtler link between football and the military: the ways players and soldiers get treated. First they’re seduced, then they’re worshiped, then they’re discarded. This link is beautifully captured by Steve Almond in his new book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto:
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.
Another source of football’s popularity is that it’s ideally suited to television — short bursts of violent action separated by downtime that can be used to over-analyze the action or sell things. Compare this to baseball’s unhurried, relatively seamless pacing (and lack of a game clock), or with soccer’s two halves of 45 uninterrupted minutes of action when no one tries to sell the viewer anything. Baseball and soccer can’t hope to surpass football’s appeal to a populace with a wide violent streak, a short attention span, and an innate impatience with narratives that unfold at a leisurely pace. Americans detest longueurs almost as much as they love their shock and their awe. If baseball belongs to the pastoral 19th century, football is a perfect fit with the frenzied, fragmented 21st.
Isn’t professional football, with its stratospheric salaries, concussions, and domestic-violence scandals, even worse than big-time college football? I think not. The billionaires who own NFL franchises may enjoy unconscionable tax breaks because the IRS regards NFL teams as “non-profit” operations, and the owners may stage their untaxed extravaganzas in stadiums funded by taxpayers, but at least those rich owners pay their players, and pay them well. There’s a certain sleazy integrity to the NFL that’s absent from the NCAA. And the NFL, for all its many faults, has inspired at least two very fine novels — Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. That’s not nothing.
So feel free to take your pick as to why big-time college and pro football are so popular. Much more interesting to me, in the end, is what football means. I see it as nothing less than a metaphor for America. The game and the nation were built on a shared impulse: the drive to acquire an enemy’s territory through violence. Is this overly simplistic? I don’t think so, because games reveal character, both of individuals and of groups (teams and fans, even nations). I believe that a football team’s drive down the field is an echo of one of the central narratives of our national history — the drive west through the forceful subjugation of the native populace. If you buy this equation, you begin to see just how deeply football is threaded into America’s DNA. It’s nothing less than a crystallization of our national character. No wonder so many millions of Americans are drunk on the game. And as we become increasingly infantilized by sports and celebrity worship, technology and consumer goods, no wonder a fan like Tyler Estright becomes outraged that more than 100 of Penn State’s football victories were vacated, yet he remains virtually indifferent that dozens of boys were sexually abused by one of the school’s assistant coaches. After a while, it starts to make perfect sense.
5. The Pure Joy of Play
I love to play sports, especially pick-up basketball, and I enjoy watching sports in small doses, especially minor-league baseball, and basketball at the high school and small-time college levels. (Though as Friday Night Lights reminded us, high school sports are not immune to many of the ills that have perverted big-time college sports.)
So, a few nights ago, I went up to the Bronx to watch a basketball game between two mid-level NCAA Division I schools, Fordham University and Siena College. There were barely 1,000 spectators in Fordham’s lovely old gym, there was not a single NBA prospect on the floor, and both teams have at best a modest chance of winning their respective conference tournaments and qualifying for the big-money NCAA tournament in March. Despite all this — or, rather, because of it — the game was a thing of beauty, a tight, well played tussle between two groups of talented young men who play for the love of a game that has given them a chance to get a free college education.
The true beauty of that game in the Bronx was that it was not about making money. It was about something much bigger, the thing that sports are supposed to be about but too rarely are in America today.
It was about the pure joy of play.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
As usual, my job as a book critic dictated much of my reading this year. My favorite book of the year — the best book of the year, I think — is Hilton Als’s White Girls, which I reviewed for the Chicago Tribune. The following are some of the best books — there were also sundry poems, comics, essays, and horror novels — I managed to read for free:
I first read Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes in my mid-twenties, sitting on the floor beside a bookshelf in Borders because I couldn’t afford to buy the book. I’d picked it up with the intention of leafing through it a bit, having heard it referred to here and there in reverential tones. I started reading and, astounded, didn’t get up again for two hours. This there-but-for-grace loser’s manifesto, this perfectly sane cry. Someone called it the best novel written in English since The Great Gatsby, but it seemed to me much better than that. Rereading it fifteen years later, without overlooking its flaws, I’d place it above every American novel except Moby-Dick, Light in August, and Absalom, Absalom!
Hobbes’s Leviathan is not nearly as funny as A Fan’s Notes, but I can now almost agree with William H. Gass that Hobbes was one of “the three greatest masters of English prose” (in case you were wondering where my obnoxious impulse to rank works of literature comes from). More arduous were Fredric Jameson’s Hegel Variations: On The Phenomenology of Spirit and Hubert Dreyfus’s Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division 1. And no matter what you believe or think you believe, Denys Turner’s Thomas Aquinas is well worth your time.
I reread some favorite books this year — Thoreau’s Walden, Freud and Breuer’s Studies in Hysteria, Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading, Samuel Beckett’s Murphy — and added some new ones to the category: Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, and Confucius’s Analects (in both the D.C. Lau and Burton Watson translations). It’s a pity Weil and Cioran never met.
Scary fun: David Quammen, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic; Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer; Michel Houellebecq, The Map and the Territory; George V. Higgins, The Friends of Eddie Coyle; Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open; Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels.
Finally, two books I’m reading at the moment: T. M. Luhrmann’s When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism. As a sort of free-floating Kierkegaardian becoming-Christian on the Way or whatever, I’ve spent a lot of time loathing conservative American Protestants — people who believe in the Rapture, or that the earth is six thousand years old, or that homosexuals are going to hell, or, um, that there is a hell. People who take the Bible literally except for the part about selling your shit and giving the money to the poor. I grew up around such folk. But of course my condescension and hostility are beside the point, forms of cultural capital that — oh, you know the drill. Luhrmann’s and Worthen’s books cut through all that by attempting to understand evangelicalism from within, critically but sympathetically and without easy irony. Worthen’s is the more scholarly study, tracing the variety of evangelical movements, complicating received wisdom about their anti-intellectualism. Luhrmann reads like good journalism. Embedded in an evangelical church, she tells real people’s real stories. She occasionally betrays a lack of theological grounding, referring to God as “a powerful invisible being” and assuming a dualism of soul and body (Turner’s Aquinas would help her on both points). And she frames much of her discussion in terms of an opposition between science and religion that rather begs the question. But I’m learning things on almost every page (and, again, I’m still reading these books, so perhaps my concerns are addressed at some point in the text): the evangelical practice of speaking in tongues seems to have arisen, after lying almost completely dormant since the Acts of the Apostles, in my birthplace of Topeka, Kansas, in the late nineteenth century; the path of the religious right was blazed by the hippies. I still think conservative evangelicalism is wrong about almost everything — society, theology, politics, Christianity, people, love, God, sex, family, economics. And I still believe, with Reinhold Niebuhr, that the rabid intransigence of fundamentalism is a clear sign of its own doubt and insecurity (which makes it quite dangerous). But that’s precisely why I’m grateful for these books, which deepen our understanding and broaden our empathy.
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I can’t put my finger on why I read so few books this year … Oh, fuck it, of course I can. I had a kid — my first — but I won’t blame this on him. Sure, I got a lot less sleep, but when I was awake, I played a lot of videogames windows 10 product key on my iPhone. I read a lot of articles on the internet. I wrote a lot of Tumblr posts. A whole, miserable baseball season happened. And occasionally pixelartshop they’d be showing one of the Oceans movies on TV and I’d watch half of it. And did I mention the videogames? I tried to read more. Really, I did. I started and abandoned no fewer than 20 books. I’d pick something up, read 150 pages, and then leave it to molder while I read something in The New Yorker (okay, on The New Yorker’s blog). Nothing could hold my interest long enough to propel 100-105 me to the end.
I’m proud of none of this, but I bring it up to emphasize how much of a joy it was to get Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron in the mail and to finish it the very next day. Here was the reading 648-244 experience I was looking for! I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I read it over breakfast, over lunch. I voluntarily took the bus to work (the bus!), just so I’d have extra time to read. It was the book that reminded me what a pleasure a great book can be.
Raab, born and raised in Cleveland, that most buy Windows 10 Professional product Key accursed of sports towns, has written not only the definitive book on LeBron James, but in my opinion, the greatest treatise on fandom since Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes. Raab follows LeBron through his final season in Cleveland, his ESPN-fueled ego-fest “The Decision,” and his first season with the Miami Heat. The results are a mellifluously written screed windows10explained.com the likes of which I’ve never before encountered.
There’s a singular pleasure in reading a really good insult, and The Whore of Akron delivers that, again and again. Raab excels at excoriation, and James is hardly his only target. Take, for example, that arch villain of Cleveland sports, former Browns owner Art Modell. Every time his name appears in the book it is followed by an ever-changing string of invective, such as “may he be buried naked in a pigsty with a corncob wedged in every orifice.” But it’s James who bears the brunt of 210-060 this book. Raab takes pleasure in pointing out the many instances — on and off the court — that show LeBron to be at best a spoiled, immature kid, and at worst an egomaniac microsoft10.com whose insecurities would make a teenage anorexic blush.
Of course, if you’re going to flay someone to the extent that Raab does, you’d better be ready to look within, as well. Raab is unflinchingly honest about his life as an addict, his divorce, his weight-gain, and his frankly 300-101 grotesque health issues (at one point, his feet swell so much that he must wrap them in bandages). And to be fair, there are moments when Raab crosses the line, writing about LeBron’s penis and wishing for James to suffer a serious injury. It’s his consistent honesty 200-355 that makes those moments seem not only forgivable but understandable — he’s just an ardent fan.
And it’s an odd time to be a fan. Sure you can watch any game you want on TV, and you can even get up close and quasi-personal with your favorite playersmoncler black friday on Twitter. But you’re also forced to watch as your favorite player weasels his way onto another team so he can play with the guy who owns the beach house next to his. You’ve had to endure labor SY0-401 battles in two of the three major American sports at a time when regular citizens are out in the streets protesting inequality. And you have to watch ESPN, probably the worst insult of them all. If ever there SK0-004 was a time for some anger, this is it. And The Whore of Akron is the angriest book on the shelf. Read it.
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James Ross published just one novel in his lifetime. This is a rare thing because of a paradox that lies at the heart of novel writing: it demands such sustained focus, such persistence, so much raw pig-headed stubbornness that anyone who does it once almost invariably does it again, and again, and again. Once is almost never enough. The agony is just too delicious. Yet after his debut novel, They Don’t Dance Much, appeared in 1940, James Ross published a dozen short stories but no more novels. When he died in 1990 at the age of 79, he could have been a poster boy for that rarest and most tortured breed of novelist: the one-hit wonder.
Truth to tell, They Don’t Dance Much was not a very big hit. When Ross met Flannery O’Connor at the Yaddo artists’ retreat in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the late 1940s, O’Connor wrote to her agent: “James Ross, a writer who is here, is looking for an agent. He wrote a very fine book called They Don’t Dance Much. It didn’t sell much.”
Yet Ross has always had a fiercely devoted, if small, band of acolytes. I count myself among them. So did Raymond Chandler, who called Ross’s novel “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story.” Another fan is Newsweek critic Malcolm Jones, who last year picked They Don’t Dance Much as one of his 10 favorite crime novels. In his New York Times review of a 1994 novel called Mucho Mojo by Joe R. Lansdale, the gifted novelist Daniel Woodrell listed some of Lansdale’s “country-noir” predecessors, including James M. Cain, Erskine Caldwell and Jim Thompson. “James Ross is scarcely ever mentioned,” Woodrell wrote, “though his one novel, They Don’t Dance Much (1940), might be the finest of the lot. He is the forebear Mr. Lansdale most strongly brings to mind. They share a total trust in the straightforward power of a man’s voice speaking when he has a witch’s brew of a tale to tell. No tricks, no stylish ennui, no somnambulant remoteness or pointless savagery are required…”
True on every count. There is abundant savagery in Ross’s novel, including a graphic description of a man getting tortured, beaten to death, dumped into a vat off bootleg beer, then burned. But the savagery has a point – it is almost always a by-product of greed – which is a very different thing from saying it points toward some sort of moral, or even some species of authorial judgment. Ross was too cold-eyed, too much of a realist to care about such niceties. As he put it himself: “Some reviewer said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My…aim was merely to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.”
The “straightforward power of a man’s voice” in this case belongs to the novel’s narrator, Jack McDonald, a down-on-his-luck North Carolina farmer who is about to lose his exhausted 45 acres for non-payment of back taxes. Jack jumps at the chance to go to work as cashier for a roughneck named Smut Milligan, who’s about to expand his filling station into the biggest, noisiest, nastiest roadhouse for miles around, a bona fide knife-and-gun club that attracts a barely literate, frequently drunk, occasionally violent and largely worthless clientele. With this crew – and a ringleader like Smut Milligan – it’s inevitable that there will be blood.
The straightforward power of Jack’s voice is established in the book’s opening sentences: “I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn.”
Ross needs fewer than 50 words to tell us many valuable things: that his narrator is the shiftless type who hangs around filling stations; that Charles Fisher is so rich he can afford the very best, including a purring new Cadillac that drinks high-test gas; and that Fisher isn’t the sort of rich man who lords it over the hired help.
Ross continues: “Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.”
In addition to being straightforward, this writing has the great virtue of compression, which means its seeming simplicity is both a mask for and the source of its deep complexity. Writing this way might look easy, but it’s not. Writers as diverse as Hemingway, Joan Didion and Elmore Leonard are proof, as are their legions of tin-eared imitators.
Another of the novel’s many pleasures is the way Ross uses money to do something all successful novelists must do – bring his story to life in a particular place at a particular time. In this he’s reminiscent of Balzac, who managed to mention money at least once on every page he ever wrote. To cite just a few examples from Cousin Bette: “It cost me two thousand francs a year, simply to cultivate her talents as a singer” … “At the age of fifty-two years, love costs at least thirty thousand francs a year” … “Tell me, are you worth the six hundred thousand francs that this hotel and its furnishing cost?”
Money is every bit as important, though not nearly as plentiful, in Ross’s fictional North Carolina mill town called Corinth, a stand-in for the hamlet of Norwood where he grew up. The time is the late 1930s, when the Depression is ending and the Second World War is beginning. In that place at that time, Ross tells us, a bottle of beer cost 10 cents, a steak sandwich cost 40 cents and a pint of “Breath of Spring” corn liquor cost a dollar. A cotton mill worker earned $40 a month while the more skilled hosiery mill worker earned that much in a week, though the work frequently drove him blind by the age of 30. All this is a shorthand way of establishing the thing that is not supposed to exist in America but always has and always will: a class system. Another tool Ross uses to expose it is his characters’ speech.
Here’s a bit of social analysis from one of the roadhouse regulars: “Oh, Yankees is got the money… They’s a few folks in Corinth got money too. Henry Fisher is got plenty of money. But folks like that go to the beach and to Californy, and to Charlotte, and up Nawth to spend it. They ain’t comin out here for no amusement.” And here’s Charles Fisher pontificating to a visitor from the North about the South’s troublesome white trash: “The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things… I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning.”
Jack, who lost his farm and can’t afford to pay for his mother’s burial, has a low opinion of the higher-ups: “They were the people that are supposed to be nice folks, but like a dram now and then. And when nobody is looking like to kiss somebody else’s wife and pinch her on the behind and let their hands drop on her thigh, always accidentally, of course.” That accidentally, of course establishes Ross’s kinship with all true storytellers since Homer, his understanding that all classes – that is, the whole human race – is essentially unimprovable, an eternal mix of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion, horror and humor.
Which brings us to Ross’s greatest gift of all, his sly wit. Here’s Jack describing the woods around the roadhouse: “It was still down there toward the river. You could hear the mosquitoes singing, ‘Cousin, Cousin,’ just before they bit you. When they got their beaks full of blood they’d fly off singing, ‘No kin, No kin,’ just like humans.”
And here’s Jack asking Smut about a gift he gave the sheriff:
“What was that you gave him in the paper sack?” I asked.
“A quart of my own private Scotch. Confound his time, he ought to appreciate that. I paid four bucks a quart for that stuff.”
“I didn’t know the sheriff drank,” I said.
“He don’t drink much. Just takes a little for medicine when he has a cold.”
“You think he’s got a cold now?” I asked.
“I understand he keeps a little cold all the time,” Smut said.
Even such wonderfully wry writing couldn’t keep the book from slipping into obscurity. Then in 1975, 35 years after its original publication, the novel was re-issued in hard-cover by Southern Illinois University Press as part of the Lost American Fiction series edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Ross was about to retire after 20 years as a political reporter and editorial writer at the Greensboro Daily News, which followed stints as a semi-pro baseball player, farmer and IRS clerk. A few years after his retirement, I took a newspaper job in Greensboro and happened to rent an apartment a few blocks from where Jim and his wife, Marnie Polk Ross, lived. I was still in my twenties, still more than a dozen years from publishing my own first novel, and so naturally I was in awe of a writer who’d hob-nobbed with Flannery O’Connor and written a novel that had just been anointed a classic. Beyond that, Jim Ross became a friend to me and many other young writers in town because he never offered false praise and yet he had a way of making us believe in ourselves. He showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression – that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time – and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery. It was the sort of encouragement and inspiration only the luckiest aspiring writers get. Coming from Jim Ross, it meant the world.
While visiting Greensboro recently, I pulled up to the house where Jim spent his last years. To my surprise, Marnie was out in the front yard in lemony sunshine, raking leaves. Though I was uninvited and unannounced and hadn’t seen her since Jim’s funeral 20 years ago, she invited me in, gave me a glass of ice water, and started telling me stories, which is something Southerners of a certain age still tend to do.
Right off, she stunned me. She told me a college professor named Anthony Hatcher had visited her a while back, expressing an interest in writing some sort of scholarly article about Jim. She’d given Hatcher all of Jim’s papers, including the 318-page manuscript of a novel called In the Red. I remembered Jim mentioning something about a second novel when I first met him, back in the 1970s. When I’d asked him if he planned to try to publish it, he’d said, “It’s no damn good.” Then his voice had trailed off. I assumed it was unfinished, or unpolished, and that he had never showed the novel to anyone. Marnie set me straight.
“Jim tried very hard to get it published,” she said. “He sent it to (the agent) Knox Burger, but nobody wanted to publish it. I think that rejection had a lot to do with Jim’s declining health. I think Jim was kind of a pessimist and he didn’t really expect it to sell. He hoped it would sell – writers are always hoping their work will sell. They want it more than anything, but it doesn’t always happen.”
Knox Burger, I learned later, was the fiction editor at Collier’s when the magazine published two of Jim’s short stories in 1949, “Zone of the Interior” and “How To Swap Horses.” (Jim also published short stories in the Partisan Review, Cosmopolitan, the Sewanee Review and Argosy.) Burger went on to become a book editor and then, beginning in 1970, a celebrated literary agent. If he couldn’t sell your novel, your novel was in serious trouble.
So Jim Ross, it turns out, was something even more tortured than a conventional one-hit wonder. He was an unwilling one-hit wonder, a writer who went back to the well and wrote a second novel and then gave up because nobody bought it and he convinced himself it was no damn good. There can’t possibly be anything delicious about that kind of agony.
Rosemary Yardley, a former newspaper colleague of mine and a good friend of the Ross’s, remembers visiting Jim in Health Haven Nursing Home, where he was frequently admitted in his later years due to debilitating osteoarthritis. Jim called the place “Hell’s Haven.”
“I asked him about that novel,” Rosemary told me, “and he said, ‘I tried to sell it but they don’t like the way I write anymore. I don’t write what they look for today.’ He was probably right. He wrote old-fashioned stories in the sense that they always had a good plot.”
Finally I reached Anthony Hatcher, who lives in Durham, N.C., and teaches journalism and media history at nearby Elon University, which Jim Ross attended for one year. “I re-read They Don’t Dance Much last year,” Hatcher said, “and when I learned that he left the college under mysterious circumstances, I became extremely interested. I decided I would dive into the life of Jim Ross. I tracked down Marnie, some of Jim’s former newspaper colleagues, his sister Jean Ross Justice (a short story writer and widow of the poet Donald Justice) and his sister Eleanor Ross Taylor (a poet and widow of the fiction writer Peter Taylor). I’m still collecting archival material. In addition to the In the Red manuscript, which is based on political figures in Raleigh, there’s a 113-page fragment of a novel called Sunshine In the Soul. My initial thinking is that I would write about Jim Ross the fiction writer – his published novel and short stories – and then tackle the unpublished work. I would love to do an in-depth treatment of Jim Ross and his place in the Greensboro literary scene, going back to the days of John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 1930s.” Hatcher plans to take an eight-month sabbatical next year to work on the book.
So Jim Ross was an unwilling one-hit wonder who might yet have another day in the sunshine. This unlikely twist of fate got me thinking about other writers who stopped publishing after they sold their first novels, for reasons that range from rejection to writer’s block to drink, drugs, depression, shyness, madness, a loss of interest or a loss of nerve, or the simple realization that they said all they had to say in their one and only book. The most famous are Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Margaret Mitchell (Gone With the Wind) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man). Less well known was Anna Sewell, who was not a professional writer but scored a major hit with Black Beauty in 1877. A few months after the book was published she died of hepatitis. That is just plain wrong. (Ellison and Henry Roth, who published his second novel 60 years after his debut, Call It Sleep, have recently joined Vladimir Nabokov and Roberto Bolaño in publishing novels after they died, which can’t be an easy thing to do.)
And then there is the group I think of as Mislabeled One-Hit Wonders – writers who actually published more than one novel but will forever be identified with the one that made their names. J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), Malcolm Lowry (Under the Volcano), Frederick Exley (A Fan’s Notes), Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) come immediately to mind. Those books dwarfed everything else their creators wrote, which is a both a tribute to those books and an unfair slap at their sometimes very fine but terminally overshadowed brethren.
And finally there’s the curious case of Dow Mossman, who published a novel called The Stones of Summer in 1972, then evaporated. Thirty years later, a fan named Mark Moskowitz made a documentary film called Stone Reader, about his love for the novel and his quest to find its mysterious author, who, it turned out, was hiding in plain sight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the house he grew up in. Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio was so taken by the movie that he invested $200,000 in its distribution and paid Mossman $100,000 for the right to re-issue the novel in hard-cover. The reclusive Mossman suddenly found himself on one of the most improbable book tours in the history of American publishing.
Moskowitz’s motivation for making the documentary was simple: “I can’t believe a guy could write a book this good and just disappear and never do anything again.”
Well, believe it. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. It sort of happened to Jim Ross and Ralph Ellison. Many people wrongly think it happened to J.D. Salinger. It definitely happened to Harper Lee. And it almost never ends as it ended for Dow Mossman, whose book tour took him to Boston, where one day in the fall of 2003 he found himself puffing a cigar while gazing out at the Charles River and talking to a newspaper reporter. “I don’t think I’ve caught up with the reality of it yet,” Mossman said. “It’s pretty unreal.”
What happened to Mossman is way beyond unreal. It’s just about impossible.
At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied fiction, Tom McAllister became known as “the ultimate Philly guy.” No wonder, considering he grew up in a row house, attended La Salle University, teaches at Temple, and even worked in a cheesesteak shop. But a person cannot be so reduced, as McAllister explores in his new memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. His book is a look at how his relationship with two of the major forces in his life — his father and the Philadelphia Eagles — have shaped him as a man and as a writer. As Justin Cronin says, “Within these unflinchingly honest pages lies a profound and personal meditation on manhood itself—on fathers and sons, on the inheritance of place, on the customs of a tribe and finding one’s place within it.” A moving and very funny memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey transcends mere sports writing to form a portrait of an individual through the prism of the team and city he loves.
The Millions: I’m curious about the structure of this book. It opens with the Eagles in the Super Bowl and you in your friend’s basement, watching the game. From there, we move forward and backward in time before eventually arriving back in that basement. Was this always how the book opened? How did you decide that the Super Bowl had to be the opening?
Tom McAllister: I had originally considered starting with the eventual second chapter, which had been published as an essay in Black Warrior Review. I still think that’s probably the best written chapter in the book, and one that presents a good overview of all the issues in the book: the football obsession, the message boards, my dad’s death, my relationship with my wife, and so on. Pretty much the only major theme it doesn’t cover is the stuff about growing up in Philly.
I decided to start with Super Bowl XXXIX, though, for two reasons. First, it was very pivotal time for me, both personally and as a fan: the Eagles, obviously, were at their peak, but I was at one of my lowest points, as I was drowning in grad school, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, and still struggling with my dad’s death, among other things. In hindsight, I realized how much I’d pinned my hopes on the Eagles, as if a Super Bowl win would somehow save me, which, of course, is short-sighted, but which is a pretty common trope in sports (think of all the stories about how the Saints Super Bowl last year made post-Katrina New Orleans all better). Second reason: once I started writing that scene, I came up with the eventual first line (“This book, like so many other stories in this city, begins and ends in the same place.”) and right away, I knew that line was exactly how I wanted to open the book. It hit the exact voice and tone I wanted to establish.
Okay, one more reason: I was very focused on organization in this book, and was determined to avoid a chronological retelling of my life as a fan. That seemed a) boring, and b) not conducive to good storytelling, because I didn’t want to have to go season-by-season. That would have killed any narrative drive I tried to establish.
TM: Considering that this is a deeply personal story and one that couldn’t have been easy to tell, were you ever tempted to make it a work of fiction, to try to process your relationship with your father through the veil of a story or novel?
McAllister: I was most tempted to make it fictional when the real-life details were inconvenient to the narrative. There’s a chapter that’s focused entirely on a winter night I spent camping outside Veterans Stadium for Eagles tickets, along with 5000 other drunk Philadelphians. People were wild, starting fights, breaking into the bowels of the stadium, setting everything on fire to stay warm, and even then my friends and I were sure we were on the verge of a riot. And if the book were a novel, it absolutely would have escalated to bloodshed. But what happened in real life is that everyone inexplicably stopped being crazy and in the morning stood in a single file line to quietly buy their tickets and go home. So I had to write a sad disclaimer within the chapter saying, essentially, “I know this is disappointing, but that’s what happened.”
When it came to the personal stuff, that wasn’t as big an issue for me. Initially, I had to clear the hurdle of revealing myself, but I really enjoyed the level of self-analysis required by this project. If I’d gone with some sort of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, I think I would have been too tempted to go easy on myself, to be less revealing and less emotionally honest. I can see how the fictional approach would be important for some writers, but for me, the only way I felt like I could do this story justice was to just lay all the facts on the line and let them speak for themselves.
TM: I’ve written about my own internet message board obsession here before, and an Eagles message board plays a pretty significant role in this book (it’s the first memoir I’ve read in which a message board is a prominent setting). How do you think the internet has changed sports fandom? What has it offered you as a fan that you can’t get from your friends – many of whom are also Eagles fans?
McAllister: As I see it, Internet sports coverage makes us more cynical. The relentlessness of the news cycle means there’s a constant pressure to expose us to every bit of corruption and stupidity in sports, the kinds of things that may have been overlooked in the past are now front page news (i.e.- a philandering athlete now somehow necessitates the use of live helicopter footage of his home, whereas it was just kind of okay for guys like DiMaggio and Mantle). Every time someone accomplishes something remarkable, there’s suspicion of performance enhancing drugs. It’s harder to be a fan who just watches the game and loves what they’re seeing, because when you look out on the field, you see a quarterback with two DUIs, a halfback who cheated his way through college, a tight end with seven children in six different states, an offensive lineman who’s been accused of steroid use, etc.
Not that it’s bad to expose corruption. It’s just very different.
TM: There are a couple of moments in the book when you have a chance to meet one of the Eagles in person. You chase [Eagles defensive back] Sheldon Brown on the freeway and run into [Eagles tackle] Tra Thomas at a Whole Foods. But you don’t actually talk to either of them. Do you think in the pre-internet era you might have acted differently?
McAllister: I think I may have been even more reluctant to approach them, pre-internet. There was a greater distance between player and fan then, and it was harder to view these guys as regular people. But now you have access to all the information you could possibly want– including athletes’ Twitter and Facebook pages– so it’s not entirely unreasonable to convince yourself that you’re already friends with each other, in a way.
By the time I saw Tra at Whole Foods, I knew pretty much everything one could reasonably know about him: hometown, college, the size of his family, marital status, health status, religious views, and so on. So it became easier to fall into the delusion that maybe, if I just followed along, he might want to talk to me or be my friend or something.
Same deal with Sheldon– he was my favorite player for years, so I knew even more about him than I did about Tra. I doubt I would have been able to “know” him so well if not for all the online access. The Internet, in this case, served to deepen my obsession and to fuel my desire to meet these guys.
The only thing that held me back from actually speaking to them was my own social awkwardness, which is sometimes powerful enough to keep me from even saying hello to my neighbors when they’re waving to me from across the street.
TM: So has the web improved sports at all or just created this veneer of companionship?
McAllister: There is a positive angle to sports coverage on the internet, because one of the big promises of the web is that you can always find a community of like-minded people. No matter what crazy thing you’re interested in, you can find someone out there who is just as interested, and who can help you to deepen your appreciation. You can know that there’s someone else out there who cares about the things you do, and who feels the same way you do when your team blows a big game. There’s an enormous comfort in that kind of knowledge. For as lonely as it can be to be reading a message board at 2 AM, at least you’ve still got an outlet to talk to someone. At least you know you’re not completely alone.
TM: You say that at Iowa you felt that writing didn’t offer the catharsis you hoped it would. Do you feel any differently now that you’ve written this book and it’s out there in the world?
McAllister: Surprisingly, yes. Not so much re: my dad’s death. I think it was just time that softened the blow on that one—we’re 7 years removed from his death now, and after a while, wounds will heal themselves, even if they do leave a scar.
But the act of writing this book has been tremendously cathartic as far as my fandom goes. I used to do everything I could to fit the obnoxious Philly fan stereotype. I was proud of myself for hurling beer at opposing fans and generally having no regard for human decency on gameday. I thought everyone else was crazy for not flying into a rage when the team lost, and I had no qualms about breaking bottles, punching holes in walls, sulking for weeks after a playoff loss. But writing about it all from a distance, forcing myself to confront the reality of my behavior, I felt like I was getting that all out of my system. I like to think I’m a rational, reasonably intelligent person, and there’s no way I could continue to think of myself like that if I wrote this book and then immediately went back to acting like a lunatic on Sundays.
I finished working on it in early summer 2008, a few months before the start of football season. I didn’t watch any preseason games or read any articles online; I detached myself almost completely, as if going into detox. It got to the point that my wife asked what was wrong with me, and I had to explain that I was just trying to distance myself a bit.
For the record, I still watch every game and still read about the team just about every day, but I do feel like I’ve found a happy medium. It’s been a long time, for example, since I woke up on Monday morning with a football hangover, still dwelling on yesterday’s loss.
TM: You talk about the inherent bias against sports in the book, and it seems to me that football is especially victimized in this regard. It’s always been acceptable to be a baseball fan, and recently, more and more intellectuals seem comfortable with basketball, but football remains the sport of cretins in the minds of many so-called intellectuals. How do you view the book – as a writer and as a fan – in light of what you know will be a bias? Do you even consider this book to be a work of sports writing?
McAllister: Sometimes when people ask me for a synopsis, I see them losing interest as soon as I say the word “football.” They say, “I’m not really into football. But my brother is!” as if that’s somehow a consolation for me. One thing I try to do is emphasize that while football is the driving force in the book, the real heart of the memoir is about relationships and maturation. Often, they don’t believe me, and they patronize me for a bit before moving on.
Despite its amazingly complex play designs and intricate strategies, football bears the stigma of being a sport for dumb brutes to run into each other arbitrarily. Of course, football does little to combat this notion: when a player expresses outside interests, he’s mocked and his priorities are questioned. Myron Rolle probably lost out on about $5 million because he was a Rhodes Scholar, and NFL coaches didn’t trust someone who seemed a little too smart.
So with this stigma in mind, I’ve tried to be very clear with the publisher that I don’t want this memoir marketed as “just a sports book.” I worried that it would be relegated to the ghetto of the sports section in the bookstore, which many serious readers avoid assiduously. There’s a perception that sports writing equals bad writing. It’s not a totally unfair perception either; things sure have changed in the world of popular sports writing since the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck writing for Sports Illustrated.
Do I consider this book sports writing? On one hand, sure of course it is sports writing. On the other, it seems different from the most popular sports books on the market, which are almost entirely focused on reporting stats and facts, with little room for introspection.
If pushed to categorize this book, maybe I would go with literary sportswriting? Is that a category? Maybe it should be.
TM: Agreed, it should be. I actually think it’s a great contribution to what might be called the literature of the fan (as distinct from the whiskey-infused, good-old-boy sports writing that professionals do). I’m thinking here of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (to which you refer in the book), and even some of Bill Simmons’ early work, before he went all Hollywood. It’s a book about the way we actual live with sports, about what it does to us and how it shapes us as people. Where should they shelve that?
McAllister: Where would they put it or where should they put it? Sometimes shelving decisions are mystifying to me. I went to a local Barnes & Noble on my release date to see what my book looked like on an actual shelf, and I found it in the Pennsylvania section (which I didn’t know existed) filed next to something about the history of rivers in PA. About 15 feet away, there was a big display table with a sign that said “Vampire Books!”
Anyway, I think the place to put something like that would be, ideally, between the Fiction/Literature section and the Non-fiction section, as kind of a bridge. Actually, I wouldn’t mind an overall revision of the way we categorize fiction and non-fiction anyway. Not to horn in on David Shields’ territory, but it seems to me that they’re much more similar than we often like to admit. Maybe I’m thinking like this because I recently read Geoff Dyer’s amazing Out of Sheer Rage, which has no regard at all for traditional distinctions of fiction vs. non-fiction. But that’s all a bit ambitious, perhaps.
TM: I can’t let you go without getting your take on the Donovan McNabb situation (I realize I’m now pinning you into that role of “go-to guy for Philly sports takes” that you found yourself playing in Iowa). In the book, you argue that much of the criticism of McNabb is tinged with racism – that he’s too “uppity,” etc. At this point, do you think he’s done? Too banged up to win? Did the Eagles make the right choice going with Kevin Kolb as their quarterback? (Full disclosure: I’m both a Redskins fan and a Syracuse football fan, from back when they still played D1 football and McNabb was their star quarterback.)
McAllister: I thought it was time for a change in Philly. I was ready for the change about halfway through the ’08 season, but then they went on a totally unexpected hot streak to get to the conference championship. When they blew it again, it should have been clear the old core wasn’t good enough to win a championship. So last year was just more of the same, and they finally had to make a move. I don’t know if Kolb is the right replacement, or if the trade will work out in the long run, but I do think the concept of moving McNabb made sense, because it was time to close the book on that era. He’s not as good as he was– too inconsistent, too streaky– but still a solid NFL quarterback; definitely an upgrade for the Redskins, but not someone I think is capable of winning a championship at this point.
But I don’t hate McNabb like some in Philly do– a local sports anchor went to a Philly bar after the trade for people’s reactions, and about ninety percent of the people he spoke to were giddy about the Eagles having just traded one of the best players in franchise history. The next morning, a sports talk radio show counted down the top 10 reasons they hated McNabb as a person. He never seemed as funny as some people said he was, and I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to meet him for happy hour, but I never got why so many people here truly despised him. If he weren’t a Redskin I would wish him well. But since he is a Redskin, I hope he never wins again, and I get to see hundreds of shots of [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder clenching his tiny fists in impotent rage.
This was my year of reading alcoholically. I didn’t plan it that way. But in book after book, the disease flourished and triumphed, not a recovery in sight.
In Gerard Woodward’s remarkable trilogy (August, I’ll go to Bed at Noon and A Curious Earth) alcoholism (and some maternal glue sniffing) is not the unacknowledged elephant in the Jones family’s living room, it’s the unacknowledged elephant rampaging throughout their house and generations, not to mention the homes of near relations, and all the nearby pubs. Woodward’s depiction of a middleclass family riddled by unmitigated addiction is horrifying and hilarious, unsentimental and virtually untouched by medical or recovery jargon.
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy surely has one of the most astonishing first chapters in literature: Michael Henchard with his young wife and daughter come to a fair in a small town and decide to have a kind of milk drink. Michael pays extra to have his spiked, and proceeds in short order to get drunk and belligerent and then to sell his wife and child to the highest bidder! Sold! The next morning, the remorseful Henchard takes an oath not to drink for twenty-one years, but even abstinent he is the epitome of the dry drunk white-knuckling his way through life: he’s paranoid, self-important, has a terrible need to control; inwardly fragile, outwardly he’s a tyrant and a vengeful bully.
Henchard, though tragic, is a mild case compared to Frederick Exley, whose A Fan’s Notes is perhaps the first novelistic addiction memoir and remains a masterpiece of the genre. Exley’s book is a gorgeously written drunken quagmire; booze—and the New York Giants—are his only allegiances; his sense of entitlement, grandiosity and chronic lying are breathtaking. Incapable of keeping a job, he mooches off family and friends, abandons a wife, lives on his mother’s sofa, and rotates in and out of mental institutions. His courses of electric shock and insulin therapies, described in excruciating detail, don’t even begin to mitigate his alcoholism or wildly disordered personality. This book gave Exley some measure of what he thought all along was rightfully his: literary stature.
I chased Exley with Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend, a slim and almost perfect novel whose alcoholic narrator, Don Birnam, goes on a weekend bender of such epic proportions and degradations, this reader was exhausted a quarter way through. It’s a laborious full time job to drink the way Birnam does. He must come up with money—the maid’s pay is easy pickings, it’s harder to cadge cash from the uptight neighbor, and pawning his brother’s heirlooms proves impossible (the pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur). Birnam also jungle swings between grandiosity and despair, lies continuously, blacks out, passes out, falls down a flight stairs, spends a few hours in the alcoholism ward, breaks everyone’s heart. Yet, come Monday morning, he’s eager to start the whole cycle again.
It’s excessive, I admit, but I capped off this literary binge with Under the Volcano in all its lush, hellbent, whirlybending glory. Lowry—like Exley and Jackson—knew whereof he wrote. But this chronicle of the last days of Geoffrey Firman, a former British consul in Quauhnahac Mexico, is more interior, with a strangely hallucinogenic verisimilitude—the reader at times resides so deeply in the Consul’s consciousness, she feels drunk.
Enough! In all these books, alcoholism is the nightmare from which nobody wakes up. It wears a reader down. And incites some year-end gratitude for—knock wood—the tenuous, fleeting gift of a clear mind.
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many former (and current) booksellers in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks recommended by GarthIt’s been a long time since I read this 1984 coming-of-age novel, but its indelible images – the green glass of Mello Yello bottles, the soggy crackers used to make home-ec mock-apple pie, the railroad lantern by whose light the protagonists play night games of pickup basketball – remain seared into my memory. Author Bruce Brooks, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, combines descriptive mastery with the kind of compassion that can’t be taught. His story of an unlikely friendship also complicates some of our cherished myths about race and privilege. Though The Moves Make the Man, a Newbery Honor winner, might be slotted into young adult and sportswriting and Southern lit categories, it is no more a niche work than The Bluest Eye, or A Fan’s Notes, or To Kill a Mockingbird, in whose illustrious company it belongs.Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler recommended by AndrewRichler’s final novel, Barney’s Version is a savagely funny piece of satire. It’s also quite moving as it sweeps you through one man’s life. Frank and cantankerous, Barney Panofsky lays bare his failed marriages, his work, and his possible crimes and misdemeanors. Somewhat unreliable as a narrator, Barney’s memories are annotated by his son Michael, who provides clarification and correction to his father’s version of events. Whenever I hear that a film adaptation of a beloved novel is in the works, I usually brace myself for disappointment, but with Paul Giamatti and Dustin Hoffman signed on to play the principal roles, I’m actually looking forward to this one.The Strangers and Brothers series by C. P. Snow recommended by LydiaThis sequence of novels, beginning with A Time of Hope, takes place in England from World War One to the sixties. I haven’t actually finished the series; I’ve only gotten through four out of a possible eleven. I’m a finisher, though, with the exception of Moby Dick on tape, The Alexandria Quartet, and Ulysses (fucking Ulysses, actually), so I am hoping for a completion date sometime before the autumn of my years.I was overjoyed to learn of the existence of these books. I love novel series, and it is my dream to find another Dance to the Music of Time. Or at least a Forsyte Saga. Or at the absolute least, the one with the cave bears. As it happens, C. P. Snow sits somewhere on the spectrum between Powell and Auel. The books are not nearly so delightful as Dance to the Music of Time, but I am nevertheless enjoying them quite a bit. They relate the life of a middle-class man of limited means, who rises to great heights in several professions. It’s a good chronicle of several English epochs and the attitudes found therein. The subject matter is not always riveting, but the books are quite readable. I realize that this doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, but most of the books I love have already been ringing-ly endorsed by someone else, and these are a step or two off the beaten path. So this is me, endorsing.The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu recommended by AnneDada wisdom, divined by Andrei Codrescu and dispersed throughout this guide includes: take a pseudonym (or many); embrace spam email as a form of cut-up poetry; and remember that “the only viable Dada is the banished Dada.” Codrescu posits with wit that as creatures of the digital age, whose lives are beholden to IMs, email, iPhones, Google, and Facebook, we have entered a posthuman era where employing Dada’s nonsense actually makes sense. Beginning with an imagined chess game in 1916 Zurich between Dada founder and poet Tristan Tzara and revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, Codrescu traces Dada from its nascence to show how Tzara and his rabble-rousers usurped and altered the course of twentieth-century thought. Dada resists meaning and revels in absurdity, and Codrescu would be the first to acknowledge this book doesn’t provide a list of how-to’s but rather resembles a nautical map that charts the currents of our times. “It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life,” Codrescu warns. And for that reason alone, you just might want to try it.The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant by David Waller recommended by EmilyHow delightful to find a learned book that wears its scholarliness lightly: David Waller’s lovely new biography of the Victorian grande dame and salonniere Gertrude Tennant is such a book. Because the magnificent subject of Waller’s book lived from the end of the age of Jane Austen through the First World War, and lived both in France and in England, her biography offers a sort of intimate history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – its personalities and intellectual and cultural history. The famous and controversial explorer Henry Morton Stanley attended Mrs. Tennant’s salons (the horrors of his expeditions to Africa are thought to have been among Conrad’s models for Heart of Darkness), as did Labor Prime Minister William Gladstone, the famous Victorian painter John Everett Millais, and literary luminaries like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Henry James, Robert Browning, and Ivan Turgenev.Her acquaintance was a motley of all the aesthetic and intellectual trends of the age: Imperialist explorers, socialists, anarchists, ex-emperors, Romantic and realist novelists, mediums and experts in telepathy all passed through Mrs. Tennant’s drawing room. Her allure as a biographical subject, however, is not limited to her extensive acquaintance: Tennant’s ability to balance her absolute commitments to her husband and children with her gifts for friendship and graciousness and her interest in social and cultural life reveal a more nuanced view of the age, and of the possibilities available to Victorian women. Tennant was a cosmopolitan, a woman of the world, and “an angel in the house” (as the Victorian ideal of wifely and motherly virtue came to be known). Waller trusts Tennant to express herself; he quotes extensively from her diaries and letters. Her voice is earnest, warm, unpretentious, intelligent, loving. You will be glad to have met her. And you will see, through her life, a more refined view of English nineteenth century social and intellectual history.
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.
Come the new year, Ben will be joining us as a regular contributor. I’ll leave formal introductions until then, but in the meantime, he decided to get a jump on things by sharing the best books he read in 2006:Since reading The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll several years ago in a back alley, flea trap of a hotel in Nadi, Fiji, I’ve been lending myself to a series of flawed and inherently hopeless business schemes in the hope of not just getting rich quick, but adding to my life even one iota of the melancholic romance the book so neatly distilled. For better or worse, my ventures have amounted to nothing more than a series of lessons in humility, and, in the process, they consumed a large part of my free time. Which is a long way of saying that I didn’t have much time to read this year.Of the books I did read, I will unequivocally recommend three, none of which were written in 2006. (Life is short, books are many and often long, so I prefer to wait a few years until a book has received some kind of critical imprimatur before digging in.)My first recommendation is Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy. It’s a coming of age story that deals with a young boy’s relationship with a malevolent, gender ambiguous tooth fairy (the age old story), and the resulting consequences for his family and friends. The tooth fairy’s presence is (much to my pleasure) never really explained, but her (?) antics serve as a catalyst for a long and engaging series of seemingly unrelated incidents that come together in the last few chapters with an extremely satisfying snap. The writing and humor are sharp enough to make your eyes bleed, and the characters are so well developed that by the end you won’t know if you’re crying because of the resolution’s poignancy or just because it’s time to say goodbye.Book number two, The Orchid Thief, gained some notoriety when Charlie Kauffman “cinematized” it several years ago, ending up with a film not so much based on the book as about the book. His film, Adaptation (IMDb), which dwelled on the Sisyphean process of wringing a screenplay from a story that is, for all intents and purposes, unfilmable (at least by Hollywood standards), piqued my interest in the book, and when I found it on my grandmother’s coffee table, I immediately dove in. I am pleased to say that while the word “unfilmable” might be the stuff of screenwriter’s nightmares, it’s a compliment when used here. Susan Orlean’s tale of a man and his orchids spins off into a fascinating and sometimes surreal account of passion – what it is, what it isn’t, why some people have it, and why some people (namely Susan herself) don’t. On the way she introduces us to alligator wrestlers, Victorian explorers, and real estate scam artists, drawing from these disparate characters’ lives the threads of a tapestry that when woven together makes you realize why people still bother to write books in this age of moving pictures.Last but not least, book number three is one that I’ve read at least once a year every year since I first read it several years ago. Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes was a Christmas present that spent many lonely years on my bookshelf before I finally picked it up and realized what I’d been missing. If any book has so neatly captured the essence of the long malaise that we call life in these United States, I have yet to read it. Exley’s book is in turns appalling and laugh out loud funny, but it is always brutally, unflinchingly honest. Billed as fiction, the story follows Exley, as himself, as he wanders across the country, working odd jobs, getting married, going insane, reading Lolita, drinking himself to death, and pursuing an unhealthy obsession with the New York Giants. If suffering has ever created art, then this it. For my money, it’s as close as anyone has yet gotten to the “Great American Novel.”Thanks Ben!