Jerry Engels, whose story is told in "At the Shores," grew up in the 1940s, entering high school (the elite U-- High, affiliated with the University of Chicago) around the end of World War II. Dan Keith didn't reach high school until the late '50s in a small town near Pittsburgh (Joe Namath territory), but his story, as told in "Football Dreams," seems more old-fashioned than Jerry's. Perhaps that is because Dan had trouble all through adolescence figuring out how to relate to girls, while Jerry was already a budding ladies' man in the third grade.
"It wasn't just to win the love of many women that I wanted to play football," Dan recalls. "That would, however, be a nice auxiliary benefit." It is, unfortunately, an illusion. When he does reach a modest level of football glory, after a grueling process the book describes in some detail, it turns out that one of the girls who interests him considers the game childish; the other prefers quarterbacks to linemen. Painful knowledge, earned the hard way and often acquired too late, is a motif of Dan's adolescent life.
Jerry's sport is swimming. If life is hard for Dan, with constant conflicts on and off the football field, it is almost too easy for Jerry. His struggle is with water -- Lake Michigan, which enfolds him, caresses him, yields to him. He drifts through a shoal of symbols totally different from those that assail Dan. "The lake could be rough," he felt. "So, let it be rough with you, because -- finally -- it would never really hurt you. That was what he had always felt about the lake even before he was a good swimmer, when he was simply a little boy playing in the water between beach and sandbar."
If Lake Michigan leaves Jerry unafraid, Dan fears sharks amid the mountains of western Pennsylvania. In a conversation with his father, he avoids speaking of his fears, and his rationalization shows how threatened he is by his environment, a rather seedy private school for boys: "I wish I could have said how scared I was even at the thought of freshman football, much less varsity. I had learned early at that school to hold things back, cover up. If you revealed a weakness at that place you got torn to shreds, as if by sharks smelling blood."
Having no natural enemies, Jerry is free to be his own enemy. He is possessed of strong subconscious drives, driven to fantasies which merge imperceptibly into deliberate actions. "We've been much too sheltered," Jerry's sister tells him. "The reason you're so uninhibited is that you've never had to protect yourself. . . ." You do whatever you feel like doing." It's almost true, but Jerry doesn't really control what he feels like doing. At first, after he stumbles into lovemaking at 17, he has a "curious sense of power and certainty." It comes as a sort of shock when he notices that another person's will is involved: Rosalind, who is somewhere between victim and accomplice in the first brief, impulsive episode on a deserted beach, and who is reluctant to repeat the experience. She is shipped off to school in New York after she tells her mother what has happened, and Jerry is driven to attempt suicide. His failure to drown himself in the benign waters of Lake Michigan is the abrupt beginning of maturity.
For Dan Keith, maturity is a matter of slow accretion, knowledge built gradually, painfully, as he builds his muscles for football. Maturing is accelerated in the experiences of working himself into a team, learning to cope with the rough society of a boys' school. Some lessons of adulthood are absorbed inversely from observation of a coach who "had the heart of a twelve-year-old kid," by coping with petty injustice, by facing up to competition, losing and coming back to try again.
The novel of adolescence seems to be a necessary rite of passage for most male writers of fiction -- particularly, but not exclusively, in the United States. Most of them never find their way into print; by reaching publication, these two demonstrate the survival of the fittest. Neither ranks with the classics in the field -- such books as Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" -- but both are well written, and they show the variety that is possible in what would seem to be a rather limited kind of writing.
"At the Shores" is a portrait in considerable depth of a fascinating though only sporadically sympathetic young man. "Football Dreams," a first novel, is skillfully organized. Although narrated in the first person, it stays mostly on the surface of Dan's personality. But it tells the story of his hard battle for maturity with a wealth of finely chosen detail.