The Great American (Sports) Novel

D.G. Myers recently published a thoughtful blog post about the dearth of great novels about football. Mentioning some of the better-known examples of the genre—Don DeLillo‘s End Zone, Peter Gent‘s North Dallas Forty—as well as a few I haven’t heard of (including John R. TunisAll-American), he suspects that the reason there aren’t more examples to choose from may be because “football is understood (wrongly) as the least individual of sports” or that players are forever doomed to be “represented as careless brutes.”

At the risk of overgeneralizing, novels about all sports tend to have a rough go of it. For all the great nonfiction that’s been written about boxing, fine novels about the sport are rare (Leonard Gardner‘s Fat City and Nelson Algren‘s Never Come Morning spring to mind as exceptions). Baseball fares better (W.P. Kinsella‘s Shoeless Joe, Bernard Malamud‘s The Natural) but also worse: Among Philip Roth’s weakest novels is The Great American Novel, an overstuffed attempt to satirize much of the mythology that surrounds the game. Hockey? It may be meaningful that while DeLillo did try his hand at writing a hockey novel, he didn’t put his own name on it.

Part of the problem, it seems, is that most sports are too defined by their mythologies—it takes a diligent and attentive novelist to collapse their cliches and find something new to say about the subject. (Novels about rock bands suffer from much the same issue.) Which, actually, brings us back to DeLillo one more time: Yesterday Maud Newton pointed to “Total Loss Weekend,” a short story by DeLillo that ran in Sports Illustrated in 1972. It’s not his most muscular work, but it uses the lingo and myth-making that surrounds professional sports to advantage, not to satirize or celebrate but to show how it feeds an obsessive-compulsive personality. The hero of the story, CJ, bets on games, and DeLillo, in his very DeLillo-like way, shows how the surging tide of sports narratives drives him. The familiar phrases of scores and other sports talk offers a deep comfort:

The Reds trail 5-1. Michigan State trails 6-0 but seems to be doing things right as the second quarter progresses. With perfect timing CJ switches (radio) from Columbia-Princeton (no score) to the re-creation of the second race at Belmont. With 70 yards to go a horse named Siberian Native threatens to take the lead from CJ’s selection, Early Judgement, but the 3-horse holds on to win by a head, and CJ has his double—a sign, an omen, an early-warning signal. He clenches his fist, nods his head firmly and then gets up and switches to baseball on the color set, football on the black and white. “I gamble because when I don’t gamble I feel sick,” he says.

There’s lots more to be said on this—there are plenty of sports novels I’m forgetting, I’m sure, and I’m not quite sure how to fit Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland into this—I did think that the book’s passages on cricket are beautifully turned, but perhaps I was just giving them more of a pass because cricket is an unfamiliar sport to me. Would I (or other Yankee critics) have tolerated O’Neill’s rhapsodizing about the sport if we were discussing a baseball diamond or a football field?

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