Review of “End Zone” by Don Delillo


I am leary of book reviews that give an author credit for what he leaves unsaid. This stunt is usually performed by undergraduates who haven’t read the book. I used to get a depressing number of papers that tried it.

It is also a recipe for attributing any message whatsoever to any writer whatsoever. Thus, we could imagine the “howling silence” at the center of Mein Kampf pointing to loneliness as the real cause of nazism. This way lies madness, or just plain inanity.

But, even with the “Thin Ice” sign so prominently on display, I skate forth. The best thing about Don Delillo’s 1972 novel End Zone is, I contend, what it leaves unsaid. And, as always, what Delillo does say is wise and masterful. I believe he is Americas’s Thomas Mann, and that his magnum opus, Underworld, is a contender for the Great American Novel. To have a novelist of Delillo’s caliber alive and still producing while I live and breathe fills me with awe. He interprets our American world with all the hard grandeur of Herodotus interpreting the ancient Greek world.

On its surface, End Zone tells the story of 21-year old Gary Harkness, a talented but abstracted college running back who cannot quite commit to football even though it is his guiding passion. He wins a series of scholarships to one notable college after another only to squander them by missing practice and indulging a growing curiosity about nuclear war. When the action opens at Logos College in West Texas, Gary has recovered from his latest failure at the University of Miami and is back in shape, preparing for the football season to open. He is also auditing courses in Aspects of Modern War and the History of Air Power. Bad omens for his successful return to football.

End Zone

As an allegory, End Zone draws clear parallels between football and warfare, especially its nuclear variety. Gary is inexplicably drawn to books about nuclear holocaust; the subject’s arcana, like the “elegant gibberish” of sports talk, holds him spellbound. He reflects:

I became fascinated by words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill ratio, spasm war. Pleasure in these words. They were extremely effective, I thought, whispering shyly of cycles of destruction so great that the language of past world wars became laughable, the wars themselves somewhat naive.

The power of public discourse to dominate the private mind is one of Delillo’s enduring themes. His novels are full of characters who adopt the phrases of the media, the military, the government in what should be their personal modes of speech. When we encounter the helter-skelter of real life, Delillo insinutes, it is not really as raw and unknowable as it all seems. The helter-skelter is already processed and categorized by the ready-made terms provided by large institutions. In one scene in End Zone, a teammate rushes into a room to announce that the college president’s plane has crashed. Another teammate takes the event in as headline news and responds, “Let me get it straight. Critical list. Overshot the runway. Light plane.” The news anchorman’s standard terminology encroaches on the individual’s experience of life.

As we come to know Gary through flashbacks and internal monologue, we learn that his childhood and adolescence were dominated by his deeply conventional father, who also spoke in terms that had been validated for him by institutions. For years there was a sign posted on Gary’s door neatly summerizing his father’s  philosophy of life: “Suck in that gut and go harder.” There was also a poster of the Detroit Lions, never a championship team but one that took its losses and kept bulling ahead. The Lions always had a chance of making it if they just kept trying. That was the way to go.

Gary’s father’s philosophy works, more or less. By the time Gary is playing college ball, he believes that his sport refers to something higher and more vital than itself. Gary can tick off its transcendental elements by heart: “(1) A team sport. (2) The need to sacrifice. (3) Preparation for the future. (4) Microcosm of life.” We go through life learning lists that people in authority impress upon us. (I do this to my kids all the time.) The more lists we learn, the better our chances to succeed.

In a delicious passage, Gary’s father writes him a letter at college with instructions on how to fly home for Thanksgiving. Part of it goes,

The airline employee will write on your ticket and stamp some things on it purely for airline use and then he’ll give you back the ticket and tell you the gate number to go to. Go at once to that gate. If you fool around and start exploring the airport or wandering off somewhere like you always do, you’re going to miss your plane. So head for the gate right off the bat and avoid headaches later on. If you have trouble finding the gate, ask someone in authority. That usually means uniformed personnel.

Any reader who has ever read (or written) a military operations order will immediately “get” this letter. It is an attempt to reduce the randomness of everyday life–mundane and harmless as it is–to predictable risk factors.

The message at the center of End Zone is that all of the systems that have risen to the top of our repertoire for coping with life are throroughly masculine. In the pivotal chapter, Gary’s team loses badly to a rival. Up till the climactic game, Logos had been executing almost perfectly, outthinking and outperforming all their opponents. They had a perfect record. The lists they had earned marked them for success.

When they lose the big game,  it is because they collapse under the brute force of aggression. It is a clear case of Dionysus beating the shit out of Apollo. The other team mauls Logos (and we now know why Delillo chose that name for Gary’s team). All the high sentiments about football being teamwork and preparation for the future just go out the window. Football is really about beating the other guy to death. Violence wins the day.

This article of faith, in the ultimate efficacy of violence, is one that boys learn early in life and, according to Delillo, probably never let go of. It becomes the center of what Delillo calls a kind of “theology.” The world we accept as given, an objective thing that can be no other way than the way it is, is actually a made-up one. What passes for plain old life as we know it is really a masculine contest for physical supremacy. The universal masculine resort to violence is why we face the prospect of nuclear war:

There’s a kind of theology at work [in thinking about nuclear war]. The bombs are a kind of god. As his power grows, our fear naturally increases. I get as apprehensive as anyone else, maybe more so. We have too many bombs. They have too many bombs. There’s a kind of theology of fear that comes out of this. We begin to capitulate to the overwhelming presence. It’s so powerful. It dwarfs us so much. We say let the god have his way. He’s so much more powerful than we are. Let it happen, whatever he ordains. It used to be that the gods punished men by using the forces of nature against them or by arousing them to take up their weapons and destroy each other. Now god is the force of nature itself, the fusion of tritium and deuterium. Now he’s the weapon. So maybe this time we went too far in creating a being of omnipotent power. All this hardware. Fantastic stockpiles of hardware. The big danger is that we’ll surrender to the sense of inevitability and start flinging mud all over the planet.

This passage is, of course, horrific in what it describes, but the real horror of End Zone came to me as I read the scene below of a kind of Walpurgisnacht. It is the offseason, and Gary’s team has gone fallow. Bored, they have a party. It is marked by spontaneous acts of mischief in which missiles are launched. The bonhomie that ensues becomes chaotic even as it follows certain rough rules of engagement. Here is the action as it climaxes:

The throwing of the beer cans started half an hour after the party began. It went from there to fights to mass vomiting, to singing and comradeship. A defensive end named Larry Nix kept punching a door until he busted through. A few people fell asleep in their chairs or on the floor. There was a pissing contest with about twenty entries trying not for distance but for altitude–a broom held by two men being the crossbar as it were, the broom raised in stages as contestants dropped out and others progressed. It was the most disgusting, ridiculous and adolescent night I had ever spent. The floor of the lounge was covered with beer, urine and ketchup, and we kept slipping and falling and then getting up and getting casually knocked down again by somebody passing by. Clothes were torn, and there was blood to be seen on a few grinning faces. There were tag-team wrestling matches, push-up contests, mock bullfights, and other events harder to classify. A bunch of men jumped repeatedly in the air with their hands at their sides. Seven people in a circle spitting at each other’s shoes. Lloyd Philpot Jr. ate nine hamburgers in twenty-five minutes. Link Brownlee chugged a bottle of ketchup. Jim Deering and his brother Chuck traded punches to the midsection, apparently reviving a boyhood tradition. It was a horrible night. They took off Billy Mast’s clothes and threw him out the front door. Somebody pushed Gus de Rochambeau and he skidded past me over the beer and piss and put his hand through a window. I took out my handkerchief and bandaged him. Then, we sang one of the school songs, . . . .

Such are the consolations and diversions of the warrior. What does the soldier seek when not at war? More war.  No matter which way men turn in life, they try to hit out. They might be playing ball, studying, or just flying home for the holidays, but no matter what problem they are trying to solve, they hold the use of force in ultimate reserve.

As a general principle, the novel asks us to use our imaginations. This demand is what makes End Zone an important book, I believe. If the world as we know it is fashioned and controlled by men, what would it look like if the shoe were on the other foot? In other words, what would we have instead of nuclear war and piss/vomit parties if women were running the show? It may be that evolutionary theory makes this an idle question. The physical nature of the struggle for life may very well determine that men will always dominate all our institutions.

But it is the better part of optimism to imagine things differently. The message that Delillo leaves unspoken in End Zone is that the contest of life might still pass into a new phase in which our institutions respond to new evolutionary pressures imposed by reason rather than the struggle for physical supremacy. We may have reached a level where we can see that the “objective” features of reality are really made up by men who spend their whole lives keying up to kill one another. For me, this implied message of End Zone is the most powerful part of the book.

[As usual, I wrote my review without reading others first. You might also enjoy others’ reviews of End Zone here or here.]




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