doesn’t mean anything. except to your friends, who by assuring you constantly that it doesn’t matter, you’re still the same person, demonstrate just how much it did matter.Now somebody’s telling you, ‘If you’ll spend a third of your life behind this desk pleasing your boss, who’s the most boring sonofabitch you’ve ever met, we’ll pay you $600 a month, and if you stick around 20 years you’ll get to be just like him.’ ” While the Cowboys pursued their first Super Bowl championship, Gent churned nights and weekends of that fall through a chaotic first draft of North Dallas Forty. Working as an extra on the set of Kid Blue, the Western written by Shrake, he polished the book in Durango, Mexico, and revised it in Beverly Hills quarters provided by that film’s producer. Morrow’s promotion was lavish, and the NFL establishment, which had just launched an anti-drug-use PR campaign, assisted with vehement denials that true-life pro football players rely on amphetamines and pain-killers. Despite its sensationalism, North Dallas Forty filled a qualitative void. Ever since Grantland Rice likened a Notre Dame backfield to the apocalyptic horsemen of Revelations, football metaphors have come easier to sportswriters than insights. The game is scrutinized best by television, not prose. The specialized jargon invites cliche. Overwrought with hyperbole, football writers become little more than groupies; or, bloated with self-importance, grow so caustic they cut themselves off from their journalistic sources. Baseball has Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer and Roger Angell’s The Summer Game, prizefighting has Plimpton’s Shadow Box, basketball and horse racing have the profiles of John McPhee. The literature of football is a dogged, predictable list of as-told-to collaborations between prominent players and needy writers. Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough was an entertaining string of post-game one-liners, but any sportswriter can get in the locker room. Pro football players aren’t particularly verbal, and the articulate exceptions soon fashion a public mask worthy of a seasoned politician. Always a misfit in that fraternity, Gent disclosed its secrets bluntly and skillfully. In a region whose fiction is obsessed with masculine initiation, football is a valid field to explore; inability and superior ability to play the game are equally heavy crosses for adolescent Texas males to bear. But except for onetime sportswritersin Texas an impressive list: Shrake, Jenkins, Gary Cartwright, Bill Brammer, Larry Kingprofessional reaction to Gent was fairly cool. Had Gent not been a public figure, and brought the same humor and narrative energy to another subject, his initial effort would have been labeled “promising” and set adrift to its soggy fate. Most first novels earn their authors less than $5,000. Promotion is limited to a couple of hometown newspaper ads and a one-by-two in The New York Times Book Review. For those novelists, the spectacle of a jock holding forth about writing on a coast-to-coast talk show was hard to take. Gent was dismissed as a lucky one-shot artist, or at best, pro football’s equivalent of Joseph Wambaugh and the cops. The theme which distinguished North Dallas Forty was the enormous physical toll exacted of pro football players. Texas Celebrity Turkey Trot starts in the same vein. “It’s concentration that keeps me intact,” says Mabry Jenkins, a 30-year-old defensive back, “and in this business staying intact is what it’s all about.” Jenkins is intact except for a swollen, troublesome knee; the book’s most breathless episode is his recollection of the operation in which he helped the fumbling team surgeon, Dr. Badd, remove a lima-bean-sized cartilage chip from the opened joint. Jenkins reinjures the knee in an exhibition game in Los Angeles; the Dallas coach trades for a Ram cornerback and places him on waivers. Even Tampa Bay is uninterested. The theme of Gent’s second novel is the psychological toll of Jenkins’s “long slide down” during his first season in retirement. He has a lethargic affair with a rich married woman. He makes a fool of himself as an all-night country-western disk jockey and endures the insults of his boss, a buffoonish retired astronaut. When Jenkins answers his phone, an American Express bill collector says, “Hello, deadbeat.” Turkey Trot’s football passages read as though Gent was bored by them. His ablest descriptive writing involves a conversation with a wino in a Dallas greasy spoon, and a pigeon shoot by cocainand-heroin-snorting celebrities on a yacht. The primary fault of this novel is design; nine subplots are hard to develop and connect in 239 pages. When Gent moved back to Michigan after North Dallas Forty . he intended to write a rodeo novel, a stillborn project that apparently germinated the most appealing of those subplots. Jenkins’s first love was Nadine Watt, and his oldest friend is her husband. Luther. Jenkins made allstate at Bob Wylie High and went on from Texas Tech to the glory sport. Nadine married Luther and his rodeo career, washing diapers in motel sinks or staying home in the house trailer while Luther worked stock for rodeo entry money and lost count of the “hours spent standing, sitting on fences, squatting behind the chutes, staring off into space, trying to decide whether to go on or to quit.” By the time they meet again in the novel. Jenkins is washed up, but Luther now wears the World’s Champion AllAround Cowboy buckle. “He held up his scarred and callused hands. They showed the price he had paid: the knuckles were swollen and the fingers were misshapen; the skin was cracked, scabbed and dry. Luther slept in Vaselinesoaked gloves to ease the dryness and pain. ‘God, the things Nadine had to do. She’s a good woman, Mabry. She worked her ass off and never complained . . . .’ Luther had tears in his eyes. His joy was uncontained. He was a success. Gent is 36 now. Teammates still active on the Cowboy roster have dwindled to Rayfield Wright, Jethro Pugh, Larry Cole, and D. D. Lewisplayers whose own times are coming soon. Looking back, Gent says, “To think I could just sit down and write a book was like thinking I could play pro football after having been a basketball player in college. If I’d known how ridiculous it was, I wouldn’t have tried either. But once I’d done it, there was no reason not to go on. I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time now if I sit down to read. It wasn’t hard to understand Tom Landry when he talked about giving the game one hundred percent. Of course it would make you a better football player. But it was like Omaha Beachthey were falling all around you. Six or seven years were all you had. There’s no question making a big catch in front of a million people is a more intense high than drafting a good passage at four o’clock in the :morning, but after you’ve written, it’s still there, it continues to exist. An athlete is like a dancerall you’ve got is the performance, and that high is so evanescent. The world is full of exes.” Jan Reid is a .former sportswriter with the New Braunfels Herald now revising his first novel, Deerinwater. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11
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