I won’t be reading all day today, but that’s okay. Life is allowed to intrude on reading sometimes.
Reviewing a Don DeLillo novel – even a sort of embryonic, proto-DeLillo novel like End Zone – is a daunting task. For pure language he is one of my favorite writers, and has been ever since I first picked up White Noise in college. Yet overall I think his novels fail more often than they succeed. They fail brilliantly sometimes, but they do fail. In End Zone, I can’t quite figure out what DeLillo is going for in terms of plot and character. As satire, the book is sometimes brilliant. It’s about football players at the fictional Logos College in west Texas – the football capital of the universe. Logos College has only just that year decided to pour enormous amounts of money into its football program. The college president – and widow of the founder; she is known as “Mrs. Tom” – hired Emmett Creed as head coach and acquiesced to all of his demands, including a separate dorm for the football players. Some of the best scenes in the novel take place in this dorm, where protagonist and first-person narrator Gary Harkness often wanders from room to room, intruding on and participating in discussions with his teammates, the most existential football players of all time.
One of Gary’s teammates, Billy Mast, is taking a course in “the untellable.” This course provides one of the funniest running jokes in the novel. Billy is always doing some crazy homework assignment for this course, like reading poetry in languages he doesn’t speak. Here’s a snippet of dialogue:
“‘We delve into the untellable,’ [Billy said.]
‘How deep?’ Bobby Iselin said.
‘It’s hard to tell. I don’t think anybody knows how deep the untellable is. We’ve done a certain amount of delving. We plan to delve more. That’s about all I can tell you.’
‘But what do you talk about?’ Howard said. ‘There are ten of you in there and there’s some kind of instructor or professor. You must say things to each other.’
‘We shout in German a lot. There are different language exercises we take turns doing. We may go on a field trip next week. I don’t know where to.’
‘But you don’t know German. I know damn well you don’t. I’m your damn roommate. I know things about you.’
‘Unfortunately I’ve picked up a few words. I guess that’s one of the hazards in a course like this. You pick up things you’re better off without. The course is pretty experimental. It’s given by a man who may or may not have spent three and a half years in one of the camps. He doesn’t think there’ll be a final exam.’” (181)
In addition to capturing just about exactly what I’ve always thought science and business majors think goes on in college English courses, this bit of dialogue anticipates one of the most important running jokes in White Noise – the idea that the protagonist is a professor of “Hitler Studies” who doesn’t speak German – and can’t seem to learn it in spite of its best efforts. DeLillo is remarkably adept at capturing the way language is often what stands in the way between us and the things we want to understand – in spite of the fact that language is the primary medium we use to reach understanding.
The idea of “the untellable” also leads to my favorite sentence in the book: “I was forever pausing in a doorway or standing before a window, looking into rooms and out of them, waiting to be tapped on the shoulder by an impeccably dressed gentlemen whose flesh has grown over his mouth” (230). This sentence both is and isn’t classic DeLillo. The idea of moving through a building and looking through its various “holes” (doors and windows) is a fairly existential image, especially since the passage makes no reference to the idea that Gary might sometimes encounter something meaningful in one of the rooms he looks into or outside one of the windows. At the same time, my first thought when I read this sentence was that DeLillo had swallowed a big lump of F. Scott Fitzgerald and was working to digest it. “Looking into rooms” almost perfectly echoes Gatsby’s declaration that he spent the night before his reunion with Daisy walking through his mansion and “glancing into rooms,” and the idea of a character waiting around aimlessly describes Nick Carraway rather well. The “impeccably dressed gentleman whose flesh has grown over his mouth” is a bit too grotesque for Fitzgerald, but it describes Klipspringer rather well, doesn’t it? Finally, as a San Franciscan, I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that standing in a doorway is what we are supposed to do during an earthquake. Doorways are some of the safest places inside buildings. Standing before a window, on the other hand, is one of the most dangerous things a person can do during an earthquake. There is nothing on the page to suggest that DeLillo intended this interpretation, but it is the sort of thing he might intend. And while I don’t think people were ever instructed to stand in doorways in the event of nuclear war (that’s what teeny-tiny school desks were for!), my mind jumped there – partially because the novel asks it to jump there but also because, having grown up in San Francisco and participated in school drills, I automatically think of nuclear war as a kind of intense earthquake (because the truth of nuclear war is untellable, of course, and we have to rely on metaphors).
The dichotomy between football and nuclear war is less prominent than the book jacket promised, though Gary does visit a mysterious Air Force officer who lives in a motel, with whom he has fascinatingly aimless conversations about strontium-90 and the like. This Major Staley gives speeches like this: “For centuries men have tested themselves in war. War was the final test, the great experience, the privilege, the honor, the self-sacrifice or what-have-you, the absolutely ultimate determination of what kind of man you were. War was the great challenge and the great evaluator. It told you how much you were worth. But it’s different today… Today we can say that war is a test of opposing technologies. We can say this more than ever because it is more true than it ever was. Look, what would our cartoonists do if they wanted to satirize the Chinese, if we were in a period of extreme tension with the Chinese and the editorial cartoonists wanted to stir up a little patriotism? Would they draw slanted eyes and pigtails the way they drew buck teeth for the Japanese in the forties? No, no, they wouldn’t make fun of the people at all. They’d satirize the machines, the nuclear capability, the weapons and such of the Chinese. They’d draw firecrackers and kites. War has always told men what they were capable of under stress. Now it informs the machines… War brings out the best in technology” (82-84).
The running gag about “the untellable” is clearly a way to echo these statements about nuclear war. We can’t fathom the destruction. The novel also occasionally reaches back in allusions to the Holocaust – another event that the mind finds difficult to grasp. The fact that this novel was published in 1972 and that these super-smart, existential west Texas football players are one failed course away from being drafted to Vietnam, however, is never mentioned. That fact just hovers around the edges; DeLillo counts on us to figure it out. Yet at the same time, these characters throw their (never directly referenced) student exemptions around with reckless abandon. Gary Harkness, the protagonist, has dropped out or been thrown out of multiple colleges. Taft Robinson, the newly-arrived first black student at Logos College (in a novel that is not at all about race – another DeLillo gag) recently dropped out of Columbia and decides after one season at Logos that he will never play football again. The whole Taft Robinson setup is another of DeLillo’s gags. As I mentioned in my early thoughts, in the opening chapters DeLillo seems to be setting up a novel about the racial integration of a college and about race in general. As it turns out, in addition to its remarkably intellectual student body, Logos College is also a sort of live-action “It’s a Small World” ride. Not only is Taft Robinson’s race rarely mentioned after the opening chapters, but characters in this novel every so often drop to the floor and pray to Mecca without any social repercussions.
There is so much I could say. I haven’t even mentioned Gary’s obese girlfriend, his exobiology professor, or his bed-wetting roommate. I haven’t described the unspeakable violence of the long chapter that makes up Part II, in which the Logos football team gets trounced by its rival, “the Centrex Institute.” I could quote entire paragraphs – lots and lots and lots of them. If you haven’t read DeLillo and this review makes you want to, I definitely recommend starting with White Noise. That novel is his gold standard. After that, you could try End Zone, but you could just as easily try Mao II or Libra or, if you’re patient, Underworld. I would stay away from Ratner’s Star. His September 11th novel, Falling Man, has its moments, though it doesn’t come close to what I had hoped DeLillo would write about September 11th. It’s worth mentioning, though, if you’re still trying to get your head around who DeLillo is as a writer, that the first thing I thought of when I turned on the TV on September 11th and saw the World Trade Center burning was I can’t wait to see what Don DeLillo will write about this. That’s the kind of writer he is.