Peter Gent, who labored for several seasons as a Dallas Cowboy receiver, has undergone a startling metamorphosis: he appears now as Peter Gent, author of the best-selling novel North Dallas Forty (Morrow, $7.95). As fiction the book leaves a lot to be desired, but as a study of the lives pro football players lead it merits serious consideration.
One of the oddities of sports literature is that football has yet to produce any long fiction of genuine quality. Don Delillo's End Zone and James Whitehead's Joiner come close, but both get bogged down—exactly as North Dallas Forty does—in attempts to use Football as a metaphor for American violence. By comparison, there are some uncommonly tine baseball novels (notably those by Bernard Malamud, Mark Harris and Robert Coover). The question has never been given thoughtful critical scrutiny, but it may be simply that the pastoral nature of baseball lends itself more readily to workable metaphor than docs the violent confusion of football. There is plenty of both violence and confusion in North Dallas Forty. The violence is intentional. The confusion is not.
There is a seeming order to the novel's structure. Each of the seven chapters covers one day in the life of Phil Elliott, a (surprise!) wide receiver for a Dallas pro team. But Gent has made extensive use of the flashback technique, and a John P. Marquand he is not; his shifts from present to past are awkward, and the reader is frequently befuddled by them.
One must be charitable, however, not merely to apostate wide receivers but to first novelists in general, and structure may be the most difficult Active technique to master. Even though he wobbles back and forth between past and present, Gent does manage to draw up a credible plot and to build his novel steadily to its conclusion. He makes the obligatory author's disclaimer—"all the characters in this book are fictitious," and so forth—but it reads for all the world like a gridiron roman √† clef, and a number of people associated with the Cowboys are likely to read it with the shock of recognition. Chief among them would seem to be Clint Murchison, Tom Landry, Don Meredith and Bob Hayes; suffice it to say that the last two will enjoy the book considerably more than the first two.
For that matter, the only people in pro football who are going to like the novel much are the game's iconoclasts; if Dave Meggyesy had written a novel instead of Out of Their League it would have been like North Dallas Forty. Which is to say that the players in Gent's world are not the beefy humanitarians the NFL would like us to think them, but in secure, violence-prone hulks who get high for the game on drugs, who soothe postgame blues with booze, and who indulge themselves in an endless round of sexual satisfactions, some of them bizarre.
Phil Elliott is the veteran wide receiver who has fallen to the second string and feels strongly that his insouciant manner and hostility to football's various sacred cows have more to do with his demotion than his performance on the field. As the narrator, he is at once insider and outsider; he is a part of the team and detests being on the bench. But he is also a counter-culturite who reads books, smokes pot and views the world he inhabits with condescending detachment.
A good deal happens to Elliott in the 314 pages of North Dallas Forty, and a good deal of it cannot be described in the pages of a family magazine. This is not the sports book for grandma or for sonny, unless grandma or sonny happens to be unusually salty. But if much of what Gent describes is offensive, by and large it has the ring of authenticity. He has, after all, been there himself; he may be talking out of school, but there is no reason to think he is fibbing.
What Gent has to say is that the medicine chests of pro football locker rooms are filled with potent uppers and pain-killers: "I hopped up and sat on top of one of the equipment trunks and watched the eye-blinking, jaw-working and lip-licking that indicated several of my teammates were beginning to feel the effects of their amphetamines." He says that a player is forced to compete against both opponents and teammates: "There is no team, no loyalty, no camaraderie; there is only him alone." He says that fear is ever-present: '...the one thing that makes a professional football player [is] intense and constant fear." r,
Those are serious charges, and whether they have been satisfactorily answered by the pro football Establishment is very much open to question. It must be said, however, that they have been made before, ad nauseam, and things seem to go on as usual. Therefore North Dallas Forty is less interesting for its predictable muckraking than for its poignant attempt to tell us what it is really like to be a pro football player.
"Football players aren't people who leave home to try and play football," Gent writes. "They are football players who come home to try and play people." That is the novel's real theme. Football players are "not like other people" because the fierce pressures of the game, and the equally fierce joy of playing it, consume their existence.
It is too bad that Gent does not concentrate on that. Instead, he trots out a squad of themes—violence, homosexuality and the like—that clutter the book. Still, North Dallas Forty is a surprisingly good novel—for a wide receiver.