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FOOTBALL CONSPIRACIES By Don Graham THE FRANCHISE By Peter Gent New York: Villard Books. $16.95. 423 pp. EARLIER THIS FALL when South America’s team was having its problems off instead of on the field, Tex Schramm, the Cowboys’ general manager, looked back at North Dallas Forty with something like nostalgia. Those were the good old days, he said, when all a general manager had to worry about was a little pot smoking. If Schramm ever gets misty-eyed about the good old days of Peter Gent’s new novel, The Franchise, then you can be sure that professional football will have become so corrupt that it will make Rollerball look tame. Remember Rollerball? That was the film, based on a story by William Harrison, about a sport in which the object was to kill the opponent. The Franchise is a long, bleak, violent, and conspiratorial novel about the business of professional football. The game is a sideshow; the real action takes place in corporate boardrooms and bedrooms, in stretch limos tooling around the Sun Belt, in the brassknuckle rip-off schemes of New Jersey Italian mobsters, in Deals concocted with Other People’s Money. There’s Don Graham teaches at the University of Texas-Austin. In December, Texas Monthly Press published Don Graham’s Cowboys and Cadillacs: How Hollywood Looks at Texas. In January, 1984, The Texas Literary Tradition, edited by Graham, James W. Lee, and William T. Pilkington, will appear. about as much football in The Franchise as there is combat in Catch-22. With The Franchise, Gent moves beyond the form and realism of the traditional novel, joining company with writers such as Joseph Heller, Thomas Pynchon, and William Eastlake, all of whom mix straight surface realism with wild satire, surrealism, black comedy. What seems exaggerated in The Franchise may turn out to be accurate prophecy. History has vindicated every charge made in North Dallas Forty drugs, labor problems, criminal medical neglect and history may vindicate The Franchise, too. Certainly Gent has a talent for stripping away official media versions of reality and exposing the realities of what happens behind the scenes. My favorite story to come out of the recent Cowboy-Forty-Niner debacle at Candlestick Park was a brief news item that appeared on the back page of a Dallas paper. Two fans died, one violently, and an amazing number of serious fights, incidents, and unpleasantries broke out during and after the game. Such episodes form the very rich background texture of The Franchise. Gent’s two favorite characters claim that the beauty of football once lay in its separateness from life, but that now that specialness is lost because football is, life. And life in The Franchise is grimmer than the merely Darwinian. Competition is the underlying ethic, but nobody wants just to compete; everybody wants an edge, wants to control life, the game, wants to know who’s going to win before the event occurs. To win, the characters in this novel are willing to kill, and kill they do. A player rep and a muckraking reporter \(who got violently at the hands of the mob. A lineman whose career ends prematurely because of a hack team doctor’s incom petence kills himself, his wife, and two of his children. A young son, neglected by his father, a brilliant Machiavellian general manager, kills himself. The owner of the franchise chokes to death on fruit loops after having been slowly drugged into a state of drooling lunacy by his vicious ex-carhop wife. The book is saturated with death. NFL aficionados looking for roman a’ clef correspondences will find in such episodes as the owner’s death reminders of recent NFL history. But Gent has taken care to transform newspaper reality into a strange alchemy of the believable and the improbable. Such reality chasing is a harmless spectator sport, and a number of TV Guys have already gone into spasms of disbelief at the novel’s claim that one Super Bowl was fixed. \(It’s the Jets-Colts classic, which, according to the novel’s line of reasoning, had to be rigged in order to of this checklist tallying of what’s made up with what’s real is, as I said, fruitless. I quit using North Dallas Forty in my course on Life and Literature of the Southwest because I grew tired of Cowboy groupies worrying about whether X character was really Lee Roy Jordan. What matters more, in fiction, is whether the author can persuade the reader of the authenticity of his vision. I have trouble on the literal level with Melville’s great white whale \(the origiDick, the novelistic whale. Nor do I have to do any philosophical soulsearching to believe that NFL games, even a Super Bowl, have on occasion been rigged. Much of the time Gent seems right on target, as he was in North Dallas Forty. The athletes’ pain, their pride, their status as media products are very convincing, as are the insider descriptions of the manipulative owners, union management, and league administrators. Gent is especially effective in creating a wild and wacky portrait of the Ultimate Fan, one Lamar Jean Lukas. Lamar Jean’s a season-ticket holder from day one of the Franchise, and, being a member of the lowly proletariat, of course, he gets screwed out of a seat at the Texas Pistols’ new stadium for the ultrarich \(read Texas Stadium, Irving, Texas, and the Deal the Cowboys pulled But it’s Gent’s hero, Taylor Rusk, the Franchise incarnate, that gives me pause. Rusk is the quarterback as god, 6’5″ Adonis and an intellectual to boot. He’s so good at playing football that I won’t tell you how many touchdown passes he throws in the Super Bowl game that closes the novel, but 18 JANUARY 27, 1984