"It's Only A Game, But It's the Only Game"
End Zone, by Don DeLillo Houghton Mifflin, $5.95, 242 pp.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
Not with a bang, but a whimper. --T.S. Eliot
NONE OF THE characters escapes neurosis in End Zone. Just about all of them are occasionally crazy. Which, given the stock assumptions about the monomania of football players in the southern college conferences, shouldn't be too surprising: it's easy to think of such men as single-minded brutes. But Don DeLillo's novel tries to avoid the stock assumptions about football: it doesn't assume that you have to be mad to want to play football in Texas, instead attempting to deal with the game from the inside. So the reasons for this unsettling prevalence of neurosis are a little more mysterious than they could be.
Gary Harkness narrates the story; he's a ringer, a piece of valuable material who, for one mild-mannered act of discontent or another, hasn't made it through the season at his four previous almac matres. Logos College (a small liberal arts and football school in the dusty wastes of West Texas) is the end of the line for Gary's football career. After Syracuse, Penn State, Miami, and Michigan State, Logos is the only place that will take this player, who loves the physical and mental pleasure of the game while remaining indifferent to the many kinds of psychological contests played in training. So Gary sends himself from upstate New York into Texan exile, for a last chance to play the game.
HE BUNKS down in the team dorm, and soon finds that his peculiar intellectual fascination with the details of large-scale war--missiles, megatons, pre-emptive strikes, typhoid, tidal waves, firestorms--is not so out of place. For one thing, nearly all the players at Logos have equally strange obsessions outside of football. For another, Gary's own is shared by Major Staley, who teaches "Aspects of Modern War" in the Air ROTC program. And as Gary tells the story of the team's season (which peaks at the big game with West Centrex Biotechnical), it becomes evident that the Logos College football team--and the entire school--is dogged by encroaching madness and violent death. All of which makes the sophisticated and calm Gary Harkness, even with his oddities, one of the more stable guys on the team.
At Logos, people grasp for symbols of personal identify and some form of order for their lives. Several are pathetically familiar. One health-faddist coed wears a button proclaiming "CARROTS:" a liberal professor nervously skitters around the barren campus with an armband that reads "TREES." A studious team-mate of Gary's furiously memorizes the words to a long poem in a language he doesn't understand, for a course in "The Untellable." ("Knowledge of German was a prerequisite for being refused admission.")
The team, with lacome coach Emmet Creed looking over them from his watchtower, works to master a pattern of behavior in which words break down into animal sounds while separate actions are ordered into a working whole. Their game is not mock warfare. Though the players find a timeless ecstasy under the lights on Saturday nights, their satisfaction is all too brief, all too fleeting. As one observer complains. "I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don't need substitutes because we have the real thing."
With almost catatonic coolness, Gary recalls the season mainly in brief episodes, told without emotion as though he does not understand their significance. As he tells the history of that year, it seems as though one of the nuclear board-games he plays with Lieutenant Staley may come to life and flash the whole struggling crew to atoms in the puff of a mushroom cloud.
DELILLO'S NOVEL operates through deadpan-absurdist humor, and brute suspense. Names, conversations, non-sequitur events become progressively more other-worldly (sub-rather than sur-real) and the concatenations of bewildering vignettes are glued together only by the reader's curiosity. But all the while, DeLillo demonstrates his golden ear for the tin and tinsel of Americanese, and many of his dialogues skewer perfectly the soft spots in academic double-talk, adolescent vagueness, the jargon of nuclear warfare (as in Herman Kahn's own book of the dead. On Thermonuclear War), public relations yes-speak, and the excruciatingly serious military-religious language of dedicated football coaches. Take, for example, the language of a shouted psyching bout before the second half of the game with Centrex:
"How to go, little Billy."
"They're out to get us. They'll bleach our skulls with hydrosulfite."
"They'll rip our clothes off and piss on our bare feet."
"Yawaba, yawaba, yawaba."
"How to go, Gary boy. How to jump, how to jump."
"They'll twist our fingers back."
"They'll kill us and eat us."
Or the words of the Logos sports information director, a publicist hired by Coach Creed to work up a good press after the loss to Centrex:
"We get the vital stats. We get action photos. We get background and stuff. The T and G Backfield. We release to newspapers, to sports pubs, to local radio and TV, to the networks. The whole enchilada. Taft Robinson and Gary Harkness. I like the sound of those names. Some names produce a negative reaction in my mind. Cyd Charisse, Mohandas K. Gandhi, Xerxes. But Taft-and-Gary has a cute little ring to it. I know I like it, and I may even love it."
BUT EVEN isolated good satire can't hold together a disappointingly anticlimactic novel. DeLillo's buildup of suspense finally dissipates totally; many ominous hints are lost or forgotten by the end. End Zone is neither a thriller nor a mystery, and it shouldn't matter if I tell you that Gary, inspired to heights of asceticism by Coach Creed's commendation of humiliation of the flesh, comes very close to death by self-starvation at season's end. And there the novel ends, an enticing, finely ironic, but unfinished gloss to Eliot's lines on the end of the world.
I tried to get a friend who is, like Gary, a football player and an intellectual in his own way, to read End Zone. I suggested he start with the thirty-one page chapter that renders the entire Centrex game play-by-play--an honest and entertaining chunk of fiction, probably the best extended account of a football game ever written. But my friend wouldn't bite, because DeLillo hasn't quite got all the way inside football in this novel, and hasn't got all the way inside the novel form. The tasks aren't mutually exclusive but the novel, after all, has to hold its own above the parts it's made out of, and this one seems to die whimpering before they're all brought together. A season in the chaotic life of Gary Harkness, interesting as he is, does not suffice to make a satisfying whole. DeLillo, for all his diverse talents, hasn't organized his efforts well.