I begin by confessing my state of relative ignorance about Don Delillo, or the fact that he is a new acquaintance (take your pick). Up to reading End Zone, I had only read the collection The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. Actually, that’s probably not a bad way to start, representing works of fiction from 1979 – 2011. End Zone is Delillo’s second novel; the year of publication is 1972 and the world is the midst of the Cold War. It’s a bleak intellectual landscape; the overall tone is a comic take on nihilism and apocalyptic expectations. Or, maybe that’s just my reading on hot January days in Sydney in the age of climate change.
Delillo makes a few unusual choices in writing this book which give it startling originality. First, he writes in the first person as a footballer (American Football, that is, in the voice of Gary Harkness, a troubled but evidently talented blocking back). The setting is a small Texas college named ‘Logos’; much of the book concerns the ‘logic behind the argument’ of not only football, but the strategies of nuclear war. The second choice, then (and this is not to cast any aspersions over football players) is that not only Gary, but every team member he represents through remembered conversations, speaks like a learned professor who has mastered his discipline. The characters, in other words, all live up to Logos, even if the football team itself is rather minor by the country’s standards. Some of these logicians are, indeed, fairly illogical, like Billy Mast who takes a course whereby he has the job of memorizing a long poem in German but must avoid understanding its meaning (or indeed, the meaning of any German words if he can manage that feat). Gary records many conversations – with his hulking room-mate, with a girlfriend-of-sorts, Myna (an idealist who wants to escape to Mexico and puts on weight to avoid the responsibilities of beauty). The intricacies of football logic are captured in a stop-start play-by-play chapter (much like the game?) at the centre of the book, which includes pages of football discourse described from Gary’s point of view in the key game against the only really worthy opponent in the relatively lowly competition. For example, ‘Hobbs faked a trigger pitch to Taft, then handed to me, a variation of the KC draw’ (p.113).
From his lecturers, Gary also befriends Major Stanley, who speaks to him about the steps of and to nuclear war, something that inspires Gary’s (unusual) passions. Like the football chapter, Stanley’s logic is reproduced in paragraph fragments, with sometimes the shortest having the longest half-life; like this: ‘The average lethal mutation in an autosome persists for twenty-two generations’ (p.81). Then there is the wonderful planetary biologist, the understandably paranoid Alan Zapalac, who in a different way speaks to the end times signified by the title ‘End Zone’ (also, of course, a part of the football ground):
‘As I smoke my pipe and play a quiet game of chess with my lovely wife, the mother of three fine boys by a previous marriage, I like to ruminate on the nature of man. What brought us forth from the primordial slime? Whence are we headed? What is the grand design? And pondering these vast questions over cheese and port, I come to the realization that one terminal bomb more or less makes small difference in this ever-expanding universe of ours’ (p.204).
In the penultimate chapter, Gary plays a winter war game with Major Stanley during which the two players take on the positions of two superpowers as minor cold war skirmishes escalate with terrifying and simple logical steps to ultimate likely annihilation. The final chapter is almost as disturbing (spoiler alert, if you can have one for a book published so many years ago). The titanic Coach Creed is confined mysteriously to a wheel chair; the expanding Myna has decided to become a beauty with responsibility after all; Taft, the mysterious Black back finally speaks in typically unexpected ways (‘maybe I crave the languid smoky dream’ p.223; ‘I believe in the static forms of beauty’ p.228). This is hard to describe quickly, but let’s say simply that Gary has just been made a captain by Creed for the next season and seems set to take on the grounded responsibilities that this requires. But the team’s structure and success has been built entirely around Taft and at the moment of his likely success, Taft has decided to give up football and concentrate on his studies. Gary is off-balance and novel ends with a clear indication of his impending mental illness (unless you consider some sort of hunger strike as being logical with this mixed-up world).
I was impressed by this book. The (at the time) young writer appears quite fearless. The comic and yet bleak writing cheered me up, too, in a strange sort of way. It’s the listening to weird logic, cleverly put into the mouths of the everyman, that brings a strange sort of hope. That is, at least from 1972 until today, we’ve hung on, despite the logic that things aren’t going well. The final word to Zapalac:
‘Science fiction is just beginning to catch up with the Old Testament. See artificial nitrates run off into rivers and oceans. See carbon dioxide melt the ice caps. See the world’s mineral reserves dwindle. See war, famine and plague. See barbaric hordes defile the temple of the virgins … I said science fiction but I get I meant science. Anyway, there’s some kind of mythical and/or historical circle-thing being completed here. But I keep smiling. I keep telling myself there’s nothing to worry about as long as the youth of America knows what’s going on. Brains, brawn, good teeth, tallness’ (p.154).
Terrific, isn’t it? It’s the teacher’s dilemma – knowing what’s ahead, when you admit it to yourself, but remembering the need to inspire your students at the same time. To balance knowledge with hope. These little asides, captured by Delillo, in a book about football. Only an American writer could do this, I think, and that’s why American fiction matters so much, in the final analysis.