A week ago the subject in this space was baseball, which over about three-quarters of a century has managed to accumulate a fairly substantial literature. Today the subject is football, of which almost exactly the opposite is true.
That this should be so is a mystery. For very different reasons, football is every bit as much a part of the American character as baseball is. The possibilities that it offers for symbol and metaphor may contrast sharply with baseball's, but they do exist. Yet with the exception of two novels of relatively recent vintage--James Whitehead's "Joiner" and Don DeLillo's "End Zone"--serious football fiction is almost nonexistent; Dan Jenkins' "Semi-Tough" and Peter Gent's "North Dallas Forty" were great commercial successes, but their literary merit is exceedingly small.
So for Greg Barron, an ambitious first novelist, the field is wide open. That he is tackled after a short gain is due in part to inexperience, in part to self-indulgence, and perhaps in some degree to uncertainty about whether football is a serious or frivolous subject. But "Groundrush" is an interesting novel that does have its moments.
In particular it has a provocative, promising setting: high school football in Montana. It would be difficult to come up with a more indigenously American backdrop for a novel. In our towns and villages, high school sport is frequently the focus of community life and can set local emotions at fever pitch; for a case in point, have a look at the high school basketball game described by Peter Davis in his new work of nonfiction, "Hometown." Add to this atmosphere of intense emotion the rituals of coming of age in America, and those of male bonding, and you have exceptionally rich material for fiction.
The boy coming of age in "Groundrush" is Bill Bailey, who was nicknamed "Beowolf" at an early age (Barron is not very subtle when it comes to his own symbols and metaphors) and is known as that, or as "Wolf," to everyone in Rawlings, his home town. He is a senior at Rawlings High and a starting defensive back for its Rattlers, who have a powerful football tradition: "High school in Rawlings was wedded to football, and Beowolf had always fought desperately to be on the inside . . . When you were a Rattler, thousands of people watched you. You ate, talked, dressed and acted like a Rattler. It was like being in the Army; insiders were Army and the rest were civilian. Everybody was one or the other and there was no in-between."
Beowolf's problem is that he wants to have it both ways. He wants to be on the inside, yet he tends to look at the world from the outside. He has little of the genuine passion for football that animates his older brother, Jason, who now plays for the University of Montana. There's a wide streak of the rebel in Beowolf; he regards it as his greatest shame, for example, that he once capitulated to locker-room mores and got a haircut, in the process severing his alliance with another rebel, the mysterious and charismatic Peter Gray.
His football conflicts are compounded by personal ones. Both his father and grandfather died in recent years, leaving him to live alone in the family's ramshackle house; memories of both men run through his thoughts, and his attempts to come to terms with his heritage constantly preoccupy him. Further, he is deeply in love with Jeannie, a cheerleader with whom he is having an intensely physical relationship that of late has taken a turn for the worse.
All of which conspires to make him feel, as the final game of his high school career draws near, that he is approaching a crisis. That game, which Barron succeeds in making quite exciting, becomes a metaphor for the end of youth and innocence, as prophesied by the coach in his pre-game pep talk: "This is our final game together . . . The season hasn't been everything that it could've been, but we have our chance tonight, right now, to redeem everything. Years from now you'll look back on this night and wish with all your heart and soul that you were back here--that you had the chance again in one night to put it all on the line. You'll remember this game for the rest of your lives."
After the game Beowolf is in excruciating physical and psychological pain. The novel closes with his future in doubt and his prospects far from promising; he still has lessons to learn, and whether he has sufficient depth to do so is far from clear. To his credit, Barron shows his hero's tarnish as well as his glitter; he understands that heroism can be an illusion, and much of "Groundrush" is devoted to exposing it.
Barron is a competent writer who, like Beowolf, has much to learn. His dialogue swings inconsistently between the formal and the informal, employing "you" in one sentence and "ya" in the next. He lets his football practices and locker-room bull sessions drag on far longer than he can sustain them, and he switches back and forth in time so suddenly that the reader is forever looking back a paragraph or two to see where on earth he is--and not always finding an answer.
But Barron has a good feel for the rituals and the language of high school football, its chest-thumping macho and its flag-waving patriotism. He understands the subtle connections between the town and the team, and he defines them with skill. Unlike most novelists who write about sports, he gives the impression that he has actually played the game that he describes; perhaps that is why he declines to romanticize it.