IF I DON'T SIX
By Elwood Reid
259 pages, $22.95
America has a proud tradition of sports literature, memorable examples when the grace of writing well and the nobility of values elevate the work and its reader above the mathematics of who won the game.
Despite its haughty pretensions, Elwood Reid's fictional account of the dehumanizing and violent world of big-time college football fails to come close to this hallowed ground. This crass, ham-handed, almost grotesque novel is the literary equivalent of a bad rap song. It deadens the senses in a cacophony of sensory overload and generates apathy instead of the raw emotions of real feelings.
Reid recently played the caliber of football he writes about. So the implication is that his caricatures of the oversized Neanderthals who gang-bang football groupies and bust holes in walls with their fists for fun are based in fact. (Elwood Reid's main character is named Elwood Riley.) But the parade of subhuman behavior never rises above cartoon.
If his portrayal is factual (he uses the University of Michigan as his setting), the world of college football should be broken up with a high-powered fire hose. Its degrading society should be dismantled with the dispatch of riot police. If a few innocent people get swept up in the cleansing flood, the general good will still be served.
But Reid's account seems too much like a steroid-infected sophomoric vision to be real. The players are too inhuman, the coaches too tyrannical, the behavior too outrageous. One outburst on Rose Bowl weekend involving a player and Snow White certainly would have been a well-publicized national scandal.
Former NFL linebacker Dave Meggysey wrote "Out of Their League" in the '70s about the glorification of violence inherent in the glory years of Ben Schwartzwalder's Syracuse University football teams. It had half the violence and profane intensity of Reid's book. But it was non-fiction, and the ring of truth gave it a power and weight Reid never approaches.
If Reid intends his book to stand on its own as fiction, he fails here, too. The book reads lightning fast, not because of the polish of the prose but because predictable passage turns into predictable chapter. His images are out of some cracked-mirror superhero comic book. His characters are hopelessly cardboard thin. His descriptions ("this mousy-looking girl who looks as if she's been attacked by the mascara wand") are too often weak.
The book's failings have nothing to do with its point of view. The penchant for football players -- both college and professional -- to turn violent is well-documented. The problem is the bad writing often becomes offensive. The saturation of four-letter words and crude bodily functions, included to give the story a gritty realism, feels like someone yelling obscenities from a bullhorn. After awhile, the reader just turns it off, dismissing the attacks as irrelevant. "Profanity is a crutch for the conversational cripple," read a sign our old high school coach hung in our locker room. The same could be said for the author without enough literary imagination.
Reid obviously wanted to write a book of fierce honesty to indict the win-at-all-costs mentality of college football. (It had nothing to do with the movie options, of course.) His acknowledgment mentions countless rewrites. Taken at his word, Reid's conviction and commitment to the true ugly force of that venerable American institution are misguided. He's written a book that lacks the ring of truth to stand as journalism and the literary tools to make it work as fiction.
There's an easy call. The book can be found in the trash, right next to the other junk mail that arrives unwelcomed and reduces the level of discourse and the power of the written word.