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Relistic portrayal of the NFL in the 1970s with few redeeming characters
on January 25, 2016
The semi-autobiographical novel about the NFL in the 1970s is quite an education about the game in that era. It seems to be aimed at shocking the reader, but Jim Bouton had already accomplished much the same task with his baseball memoir Ball Four. And we all know that football had to be worse. The difference is that Jim Bouton is always likable because he has such a sense of humor about the foibles of players and coaches. Bouton also gives you people to root for. You come away convinced Johnny Sain is smartest coach ever bottled, for instance.
In North Dallas Forty, Phil Elliott is not likable and his misanthropic behavior and point of view makes everyone else seem pretty insufferable too. It's really an existential crisis book about a guy who likes playing football but hates everything else about the system in which he plays. He lets you know that he is smarter than everyone else, but they are sinister enough that it doesn't matter. Even characteristics that make typical heroes sympathetic like befriending underdogs and misfits seems like a symptom of rebellion here rather than a spark of human connection.
The main problem that Elliott has is that he's an individual in a collaborative sport. He plays wide receiver and can do nothing if the coach won't put him in or the QB won't throw him the ball. Luckily the closest thing he has to a friend in the story is the team's QB, Seth Maxwell. Seth is every bit the narcissist that Elliott is, but he hides it behind a charm that makes him beloved by fans and players. The character arc is slight which makes the novel much more realistic than genre fiction although the ending is arguably contrived to stunt potential growth.
The parts that dealt with football head-on were the strongest parts of the book. Gent describes in detail how they tape up his body and how he dresses for a game. He talks about pre-game meals, nerves, pain killers, and all of the other rituals. The other parts of the book are his pot smoking and drinking and womanizing. That becomes redundant. And it's probably for the purpose of showing the reader how easy it would be to slide into an existential crisis when you have no ethos outside of hedonism.