The narrator of Westchester Bull, a new novel by Sam Koperwas (Simon and Schuster, $7.95), is a celebrated football player whom we know only as "Ace." He is a football stud from the word go. "There's drive and ambition boiling inside me," he says. "Nobody stands in my way, I'm a tank with a head just full of steam."
But one of the story's several morals is that drive and ambition aren't always enough. You have to have talent, too, and in large quantities, to make the quantum leap from college ball to the pros. Ace doesn't have quite enough talent; he is "a 5.1 running back just like all the scouts say, no running back at all."
The novel is impressive because Koperwas has done a lot more than tell the story of a running back who has everything except speed. Ace is Jewish, and as a result the novel is opened up to a broad variety of thematic considerations. In part, it's a story about the futility of "running into brick walls for a lifetime." It's also about understanding one's own limitations and making the best of them.
Ace starred at the University of Minnesota ("...the top Jew in the state since Dylan") and beat Ohio State almost singlehandedly. Yet his headlines don't get him a wink in the pro draft, and he ends up toiling for the Westchester Bulls, a tatterdemalion minor-league club that plays in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The coach, Vanamee, is a former pro lineman who inexplicably hates Ace and refuses to let him play.
Finally Ace forces his way into the lineup and performs brilliantly. But Vanamee, who controls his fate, tells him he has gone as far as he can go. Ace knows he is right, but he closes his narrative with a prayer: "Ace of Aces. Make me fast. In the end zone I will sing your praises. I swear it."
It would be easy to conclude that Ace's failure is a consequence of discrimination, and indeed there is an element of that—especially when Vanamee tells him, "You'll never get chosen." It seems to me, however, that Koperwas is saying that one makes it, or fails to make it, on one's own. Ace's final prayer is not that discrimination be ended; it is that he be made fast enough to run with the pros.
If the ending is poignant, it should be said that the novel is not: it is raucous, funny, irreverent. It is proof that football offers the novelist rich metaphoric possibilities.