I AM LIVING PROOF that even a person who doesn't know diddly about football can love Dan Jenkins and the mad clutch of characters he creates. Billy Clyde Puckett ("your basic all-pro immortal") especially. I am also living proof that even a feminist can love Billy Clyde, who, if he were real, would have to be served with an apple in his mouth. It's sort of like all the repressed medievalists who wax rhapsodic over the Wyf of Bathe but who would die if she tried to sit next to them on the bus.
Billy Clyde narrates this novel, as he did Jenkins' 1972 book, Semi-Tough, outrageously and well. Marriage to Barbara Jane Bookman has somewhat tamed Billy Clyde, but no matter: he's still one of the funniest sumbitches around. For example, to fill the reader in on his lifelong friendship with Shake Tiller, he explains, "We were as close as you could be without buying each other jewelry."
Jenkins' ability to ensnare a person in a single phrase is boundless. He has Billy Clyde deliver even minor characters in this way. One such, Aubrey Williams, is said to be a man whose entire vocabulary consists of three common obscenities and the words, "more gravy." Another, Veronica Danby, is "two-thirds cheekbones and one-third pout." A CBS sports exec gets extended parodic treatment, of which, "It was a good guess he ran in marathons and had conquered wok cuisine" is but a start!
Did I say person? Well, places aren't exempt. Here's Billy Clyde on SoHo, for instance: "It was the newest place to go watch activist groups eat croissants." Or Billy Clyde on cities in general: "Take the snow out of Minneapolis and you had Phoenix. Take the cactus out of Phoenix and you had Denver. Take the crab cakes out of Baltimore and you had Kasas City." And now, said sameness is even happening to Billy Clyde's beloved home town, Fort Worth, once "world headquarters for white socks, Western music, and Tex-Mex food, an honest town where a man wasn't considered drunk unless he was lying down in a livestock pen and couldn't speak his native language."
Because Billy Clyde has left football courtesy of a knee injury and become a television commentator and because Shake has left football to write best-selling books and possibly screenplays too, the world of video is in for its share of pokes and jabs. Shake, for instance, gives us a brief how-to on screenwriting: "On page forty-two, Gregory Peck stands up in his trenchcoat and tells everybody what the movie's all about. On page eighty-four, Gregory Peck stands up in his trenchcoat and tells everybody what the movie's all about again. On page a hundred and fifteen, the movie's over. Gregory Peck slings the trenchcoat over his shoulder and gazes into a spiritual dawn."
The reader is also in for some educational material about Texas, namely the origin of that down-home specialty, chicken-fried steak. Billy Clyde is outraged over a Manhattan permutation of the dish. "I asked a waiter one night if the gravy was any good. It's wonderful he said. 'We make it with mushrooms and sherry.' He should have had his tongue cut out. The chef should have had his hands cut off." Why? Billy Clyde goes on to explain that the gravy that goes over a proper chicken-fried steak, "If it's done right . . . looks like scrapbook paste, but it tastes better."
With all of this going for it, Life Its Ownself wouldn't need any more, but that doesn't stop it. There's so much more, I almost expected the pages There's the wonderfully dumb Tonsillitis Johnson. Billy Clyde is helping to persuade the boy to play for his own alma mater, TCU. There's the dumb-in-yet- another-way fellow sportscaster Larry Hoage. And there's the spiritual stripper, Kim Cooze, whose apres performance clothes fit "like an oil-base paint." There are reappearances that are hilarious (such as Jim Tom Pinch's and Big Ed's) and disappearances that are even more so: "Hose Manning . . . moved back home to Purcell, Oklahoma, to sell front-end-loaders . . .; Bobby Styles . . . beat the rape charge, married the fourteen year old girl, settled in Baton Rouge, and became a partner in Shirley's Tree & Stump Removal."
Plot? Plot? Well, there's some of that, too -- enough to satisfy, at least. There's the survival of Billy Clyde and Barbara Jane's marriage at stake -- nothing, as Barbara Jane puts it, "that a faith healer can't fix." There's the step-and-fetch-it that the Player's Organization of the NFL decides to do in place of a strike. There's Shake's expos,e in Playboy, and there's the risky business of TCU's recruiting efforts. See? Plenty. And keep this in mind: I've only quoted from the PG parts of the book. The others -- Billy Clyde's initial conversation with Kim Cooze, to name one -- are side-splittingly rip-roarious, bound to get laughs as big as Texas its ownself.