Wednesday, 26 January 2011
Mr B's 2011 Reading Journey Book 3 (Texas) - End Zone by Don DeLillo
As Chris Rea once said, "Warm winds blowing, Heating blue sky, And a road that goes on forever, I'm going to Texas". Aaah. What warming thoughts for a January evening with a violent and chilly wind blowing into Wiltshire fresh from the Russian steppe.
Fans of high literature will be delighted to learn that I opted to go beyond the Road to Hell liner notes for my Texan read, instead going for an early novel by American literary behemoth Don DeLillo. End-zone is a novel set at a West Texas college - the side of Texas characterised by colossal skies and military bases and test-grounds. The story is narrated by (American) football player Gary Harkness who has started and abandoned studies at various other colleges before attempting to settle down at the r
emote and comparatively minor Logos College. Gary's life consists of playing football, having somewhat bizarre pseudo-intellectual conversations with his teammates and worrying about his obsession with nuclear conflict. Sound like a bizarre and slightly impenetrable basis for a story? You betcha.
Here's what I liked about End Zone. First, I liked the dark and often oddball humour, particularly through the gradual development of the peculiarities and neuroses of Gary's team-members (one of whom wets the bed, another of whom is named after a fridge).
Secondly, I liked it as a piece of sports-writing (a genre I like and which I think is often under-rated and wrongly regarded as incompatible with great literature) . Most of the novel could be enjoyed by anyone with no knowledge of American Football whatsoever (other than the basic idea that the team dynamic is crucial and that, at its messiest, its brutal and warlike) and it's certainly not about sport per se. However the 35-page "Part 2" consists of a description of the team's crunch match and would be tough to endure if you had absolutely no knowledge of or interest in the sport.
But for me the downsides of End-zone outweigh the upsides. The characters seem subordinated to the wider game of drawing endless parallels between on-field and on-battlefield combat, which culminates in teacher Zapalac's damning conclusion "I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don't need substitutes because we've got the real thing".
In the latter stages of the novel the conversations between the characters become too oblique and filled with subtext that even they don't seem to have any handle on - at least for simple me with my preference for at least one of plot or compelling characters. Much of the overly intellectual chatter is no doubt intended to be amusing, but it bored me and took away from a novel that in any event doesn't head towards any great plot climax.
End Zone is an interesting novel and will be enjoyed by the more philosophically and militarily minded, but it says something of DeLillo's monolithic later works that this is considered one of his most accessible. Nearly everything he has written sounds great in summary and I really want to like his writing. I'd love to know which others of his people have enjoyed so I can give another one a go.
Cover Notes: End Zone is published by Macmillan and a new edition comes out in March. That's the lovely new nuclear-football yellow and black cover. I read the first cover on this post which is the outgoing edition now out of stock at the publisher. I found a copy in Foyles on a rare treat to myself - a genuine browse as a book-buyer in someone else's bookshop.
Soundtrack: I've mostly been listening to Paul Heaton's brilliant "Acid Country" album whilst reading End Zone. Highly recommend it.