Guest Review by Ben Fountain
Ben Fountain is the author of, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. He has received the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, a Whiting Writers Award, an O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and two Texas Institute of Letters Short Story Awards, among other honors and awards. His fiction has been published in Harper's, The Paris Review, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Stories from the South: The Year's Best, and his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, among other publications. His reportage on post-earthquake Haiti was nationally broadcasted on the radio show This American Life. He and his family live in Dallas, Texas.
Welcome to “the Muck,” aka Belle Glade, Florida, an impoverished farming town of 17,000 surrounded by seas of sugar cane and vegetable fields. A mere forty-minute drive from the tony streets of Palm Beach, Belle Glade is the home of Glades Central, a 99% minority high school that’s the poorest in the state. Pretty much every ill that you can imagine afflicting children in 21st-century America, Glades Central’s got it: gang violence, drugs, murder, teen pregnancy, broken homes; that the school has historically abysmal test scores and dropout rates should surprise no one, and yet Glades also happens to boast one of the highest-ranked football programs in the country, one that sends an average of eight players a year to NCAA Division I programs, and has had over thirty players reach the NFL in recent years.
“This place, they got speed like nowhere else,” says a college coach in town on a recruiting trip. What Katherine Boo did for Mumbai in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Bryan Mealer does right here in our own backyard with Muck City. Mealer dives headfirst into the history and culture of the muck to show not only why it’s one of the greatest concentrations of raw football talent in the world, but also what the sport does to the school, the community, the families, and most of all to the children who actually go to Glades Central and play the games.
Because for all their mind-boggling physical talent, that’s what they are, children searching for a way out of a town that offers too little opportunity, too much temptation, and the daily prospect of violent death. “I’m looking to get as far away from this place as possible,” says one player. “My dad lived until he was twenty-one years old. If I stick around here, I probably won’t even make it that long.”
For generations, football has been seen as the ticket out, and over the course of the 2010 season, Mealer gives us intimate portraits of a rich cross-section of students, parents, and coaches. We get to know “the beautiful freak” Kelvin Benjamin, a blue-chip prospect with ungodly natural talent; Jamarious Rowley, the undersized quarterback who goes the entire season with a torn ligament in his shoulder, playing through concussions, self-doubt, and the vicious criticism of the town; and head coach Jessie Hester, ex-Glade Central star and NFL veteran who says “I’m not here to win championships, I’m here to win kids.” But what about the 96% of the student body that doesn’t play football? Mealer explores this side of it too in the story of Jonteria Williams, a girl of superhuman drive whose day starts at 6 a.m. and doesn’t end until midnight, all in the service of realizing her dream of becoming a doctor.
Even for the supremely talented and lucky players who “make it” thanks to a football scholarship, one wonders how far they’ll get. Football seems a slender reed on which to pin one’s hopes, and Mealer’s narrative is filled with players who washed out because of injury, ego, bad luck, immaturity, or simply having more obstacles in their way than any human could reasonably hope to overcome. Once, while regarding a classroom full of elementary school students, James Baldwin wondered, “What will become of all this beauty?” Reading Muck City, you marvel at the beauty, and despair over its prospects in an unnaturally harsh world.
“This is another version of Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights (1990), and since both are less about football than they are about family, community, and the horrific struggle to rise above poverty, each boasts a unique set of characters who are well worth knowing. A heartbreaking look at poverty in America, with some football on the side.” - Booklist (starred review)
“Muck City is like Friday Night Lights as imagined by Richard Price. It's a sad, powerful, and evocative portrait of a benighted place--and an accidental indictment of our nation's strange cultural priorities, to say the least. The people of Belle Glade have their ideal chronicler in Bryan Mealer. Go Raiders!” – Tom Bissell
“Beautifully written and expertly reported by Bryan Mealer, Muck City is like nothing I’ve ever read. Set against the backdrop of Big Sugar, in a region of muck, this is the endless story of desperation, betrayal and the will to win. Muck City turned out a legion of great football players. How they got there shatters all myths, and will shake your senses.” - Jim Dent, author of The Junction Boys and Courage Beyond The Game
“Like all great writing about football, Muck City takes the nuances of sport and succeeds in illuminating the larger life lessons. This book casts a well-trained eye on what goes on beyond the Friday night lights. Bryan Mealer is a major talent, and Muck City a tremendous accomplishment.” - Gary Myers, author of The Catch and Coaching Confidential
“Muck City takes the reader deep into the experience of football, poverty and hope.” - Gregg Easterbrook, football columnist, ESPN
“Superbly reported and deftly told, Muck City is much more than a narrative about high school football. It's an utterly compelling story that careens between triumph and tragedy, good and evil, hope and despair, a richly evocative account of the people and the culture of Belle Glade, Florida, a place of silt and sorrow and a very special football field.” - Wayne Coffey, co-author of the New York Times bestseller, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball
"Mealer recounts Belle Glade’s colorful history, reports from living rooms and locker rooms, and perfectly captures the area’s distinct dialect." - Publisher's Weekly
“A multi-layered immersion tale that is a lot more ambitious than simply following the Glades Central High School football Raiders….Belle Glade is a notoriously tough town for journalists and outsiders to penetrate, but Mealer largely succeeded in winning over enough of the locals — starting with Hester, his besieged coaching staff and players, plus school administrators and key members of the community — to bring Muck City to life, warts and all.”—Miami Herald
“A lesson-filled trip into the past, a compelling, richly told story of the tragically flawed 2010 Glades Central football team….Muck City takes you to a place that, if you aren’t a reporter or a local football player or coach, you won’t ever see or experience. And, like any good piece of nonfiction, Muck City leaves you asking more questions than you started with.”—Palm Beach Post
“There is real drama here, with the stakes much higher than the question of who wins or loses the big game…. a stirring tale of sports as a means of escape from dire circumstances.” - Kirkus