Cleo Birdwell, the name that adorns the jacket of Amazons (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $12.95), is a pseudonym for Don DeLillo, author of the novels End Zone and Ratner's Star, and a "friend" of DeLillo's whose identity has been carefully concealed. DeLillo's identity had been concealed at first, too, and I can think of at least one good reason why: acute embarrassment.
Amazons is a dandy idea that bombed. Subtitled "An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League," the novel has a lot of potential for amusement, little of which is realized. It is at least 100 pages too long, its structure has neither rhyme nor reason, and its attempts at satire too often lapse into flat one-liners.
In her introductory note Birdwell advises the reader: "It is probably safe to say that except for homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals, no athlete has discussed the intimate details of his or her life with the kind of refreshing candor I plan to use in the pages ahead." Well, there's plenty of candor, but "refreshing" is hardly the word for it. Would you believe "monotonous"?
By the time she gets the New York Rangers into (and out of) the NHL playoffs, Birdwell has had amorous face-offs with a tennis player, a hockey player, a general manager, a head coach, an agent, a reporter and a fencer—and no doubt one or two others in several passages where my eyes glazed over. Cleo gets more exercise off the rink than on.
In fact, there's little hockey in this novel about hockey. With the exceptions of a few brief locker room scenes and some snippets of skating action, the game itself—and thus the potential it offers for humorous episodes—is almost entirely ignored. Birdwell keeps saying, "All I want to do is play hockey," but she doesn't play much of it.
That, no doubt, is because the author is mainly interested in using the conceit of a woman hockey player to explore the satiric potential of phenomena on the fringes of big-time sports: agents, TV commercials, pop psychology, pop philosophy, Hollywood, sports-writing, sportscasting. From time to time a deft line appears, but the good ones are few and far between; in 390 pages, I counted one chuckle and two snickers.
Commercially, Amazons has a lot going for it: a big first printing, a couple of bookclub deals, a generous advertising budget. It may well become a bestseller. To which I can only say: caveat emptor.