At Logos College in West Texas, huge young men, vacuum-packed into shoulder pads and shiny helmets, play football with intense passion. During an uncharacteristic winning season, the perplexed and distracted running back Gary Harkness has periodic fits of nuclear glee; he is fueled and shielded by his fear of and fascination with nuclear conflict. Among oddly afflicted and recognizable players, the terminologies of football and nuclear war - the language of end zones - become interchangeable, and their meaning deteriorates as the collegiate year runs its course. In this triumphantly funny, deeply searching novel, Don DeLillo explores the metaphor of football as war with rich, original zeal.
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Gary Harkness was a standout New York State high school football player living his father's dream until he squandered full scholarships at big football universities like Penn State and ended up as one of the "outcasts or exiles" on the unknown team of Logos College in the neglected West Texas desert. Gary is the team’s starting full back. Introducing himself, he says, "Football players are simple folk. Whatever complexities, whatever dark politics of the human mind, the heart--these are noted only within the chalked borders of the playing field. At times strange visions ripple across that turf; madness leaks out. But wherever else he goes, the football player travels the straightest of lines. His thoughts are wholesomely commonplace, his actions uncomplicated by history, enigma, holocaust or dream." Perhaps he protests too much. Anyone who says something like "We were in the middle of the middle of nowhere, that terrain so flat and bare, suggestive of the end of recorded time, a splendid sense of remoteness firing my soul" is anything but simple. And despite his love of football (practicing, playing, sweating, hitting, hurting, fighting, bonding), he may be too drawn to the desert, too disturbed by silence, too thoughtful and idiosyncratic to confine himself for long to chalked borders and straight lines. Will he sabotage his football career a final time?
Also starting over at Logos is the new head coach, Emmett Creed, a two-time national champion who has been in scandalous exile after breaking the jaw of a back-up quarterback. Creed, "a land-locked Ahab who paced and raged," "part Satan, part Saint Francis," "a warlock and avenging patriarch," keeps a painting of Saint Teresa of Avila (who ate her food out of a human skull) and is determined to teach his players all about pain and sacrifice and character. He's also changed the team name from the Desert Wrens to the Screaming Eagles and gotten from Columbia Taft Robinson, a gifted and speedy running back--the first black student to attend Logos.
Don DeLillo's second novel End Zone (1972), then, is Gary's first person account of a season of football at Logos, but in addition to depictions of coaches, players, practices, and a climactic game, it's about much more than football. Logos means the Word of God, or the principle of reason. After getting gang-tackled, Gary places football in a cosmic context: "Directly above were the stars, elucidations in time, old clocks sounding their chimes down the bending universe." Throughout the novel, characters discuss things behind or above football, like language, body identity, and history.
Above all, Gary is obsessed with nuclear war, reading countless books about it, picturing the holocaust of cities, and auditing ROTC classes about it. The Air Force Major teacher speaks hypnotically about nuclear weapons and warfare and their "theology of fear." Gary's girlfriend Myna wears a dress featuring a white mushroom cloud. When Gary and his teammates do things like cite the "psychomythical," "ancient warriorship" of football or play bare bones football in a snowstorm, we sense that DeLillo is contrasting the different violences in football (intimate, archaic, limited) and thermonuclear war (simulated, computerized, killing the unborn more than the living). Yes, End Zone is a cold war novel.
Mind you, DeLillo's vision is complex. Gary's exobiology teacher says, "I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don't need substitutes because we've got the real thing." And when Gary says, "The universe was born in violence," a teammate reminds him, "Gary, this is football." But when the team plays a "Bang You're Dead" game ("We killed with impunity, to die in the celebration of ancient ways") and the Major and Gary play a thermonuclear war simulation, it's clear that the same species who plays such games also wages real wars, and the title of the novel becomes a darkly ironic pun.
One of the funny (and unsettling) things about the novel is that while some players speak like jocks ("Fug. That's the only word in my head right now. Fug, fug, fug"), some speak like philosophers ("What brought us forth from the slime? Whence are we headed? What is the grand design?"). DeLillo's language is idiosyncratic and natural, entertaining. He writes witty dialogue: "What is it like to be 300 pounds?" "It's like being an overwritten paragraph."
He writes pithy lines: -"War brings out the best in technology." -"Death is the best soil for a cliche." -"Much of the appeal of sport derives from its dependence on elegant gibberish." -"A nation is never more ridiculous than in its patriotic manifestations."
He writes atmospheric descriptions: "Day after day my eyes scanned in all directions a stunned earth, unchangingly dull, a land silenced by its own beginnings in the roaring heat, born dead, flat stones burying the memory."
He writes verbs like "macadamized" and adjectives like "unsyllabled."
He embarks on unpredictable riffs on things like excrement, the best way to narrate a football game, patriotic displays, and love and salvation.
But what does it all add up to? Isn't the ending too abrupt and enigmatic? Hmmm.
Audiobook reader Fleet Cooper does great voices: the terse jocks, the insulting assistant coaches, the slimy PR guy, the hyper and paranoid biology teacher, Texas native Myna, up-state New York exile Gary. His reading is just right.
Though DeLillo knows football and writes things like "The chains came out. First down. Hobbs overthrew Jessup, then Steeples. Taft went wide for two. Centrex returned the punt to their 33," fans of football who want a detailed, straightforward, and exciting narrative of the sport might be disturbed by End Zone. Fans of DeLillo or of richly-styled, ironic, and philosophical satires of contemporary American culture and human nature would probably enjoy it (but find it less substantial than DeLillo's epic Underworld).
"The language game is so to say something unpredictable. I mean, it is not based on grounds. It is not reasonable (or unreasonable). It is there—like our life" - Wittgenstein
Once in Jr. High, I was playing a game of rugby (or as close to a game of rugby as you can get weighing 95lbs at a small private school in Provo, UT) and was totally blindsided during the 'game'. There was a moment after I pulled my face out of the dirt where I tasted both blood and clarity. Everything seemed at once to possess a pure obviousness and explode at the same time. Yes. That is the same feeling I got after I put down 'End Zone'. I shouldn't be surprised. I've been nailed by DeLillo before. Many times before. 'Mao II' and 'Libra' both laid me flat. 'White Noise' and 'Underworld' both hinted at, promised some grand apotheosis about life or the world.
'End Zone' is about language and war and men and death. It is about football. But don't get confused because war is not football, only football is football and only war is war. DeLillo wants to play linguistic games at Logos College. He wants to push language across the field. He wants blood in the syntax and grass in the prose. He wants his gladiators speaking prose poems, taking courses in "the untellable", discussing Wittgenstein, or screaming in German. DeLillo wants a university separated from the world. Isolated in Texas. In a space that exists separate from almost everything but football and fat girls. He wants to explore the chants of men. The dialogue of competition. The book could have easily slipped into a silly farce, a parade of prose, an onanistic literary game, but DeLillo comes at it with such subversive energy that he makes you forget who is holding the ball, or why the game even matters.