Fifth Down: Reading Don DeLillo’s End Zone | Jeff Staiger
It was a thin paperback novel, creased, softened by wear, part of the Penguin series of Contemporary American Fiction, dirty white with big letters hard-shadowed in red: DON DELILLO and below, bigger yet, END ZONE. This was on a gray Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, where I had landed not long before at the end of the 1990s. In my free time during those first months in that city, when I didn’t really know anybody, I would often find myself divided between a sense of being able to do anything and the feeling that doing it alone would be insipid. The morning had been cold and rain seemed imminent, but I needed to get some activity. The form that took was a walk leading to the upstairs “literature and fiction” room of a converted house in a small patch of residential neighborhood squeezed on two sides by universities. And there was a tattered, smudged copy of End Zone. The novel was from the early 1970s, and I guessed it would harbor some of the free-wheeling absurdity that was familiar to me from that era, when I was growing up and the world seemed so much more open and honest.
I got home just ahead of the rain and, now feeling sickness coming on, got into my bed, which was in the far back of my attic apartment, in an old converted Victorian whose sharply pitched ceilings gave it the feel of a garret, a good foil for furtive intellectual flights. Thus I embarked on what was to be a kind of controlled experiment in which, all extraneous variables removed, I could test the chemistry among three primary reagents: the stillness, the book, and my mind—the only thing stirring in that little tucked-away pocket of world. There I alternately read and dozed and sometimes peered into the gray silence until there was nothing for it but to read some more, traversing in this manner the vast expanse of the afternoon all the way into evening.
It was a stripped-down chassis of a novel, about a college football team, without much plot or development or investigation of character, which nevertheless moved along just fine on the witty scuffle of words with meaning and the rhythm of the shapely vignettes of which it was composed. The characters are skimpy, slivers of people defined by the quirky obsessions they circle around, à la the damaged menagerie in Catch 22. Mostly the action consists of their skewed speeches and rapid exchanges in which big ideas are undercut by well-timed non sequiturs: Gary Harkness, the narrator, and the team’s running back, is fascinated by repellent accounts of nuclear war and mass death; his occasional companion, Myna Corbett, keeps herself chubby in order to evade “the responsibilities of beauty”; the head coach, Emmett Creed, preaches discipline and self-abnegation with religious fervor. Their motives seem arbitrary, bereft of higher rationales, just as the terminologies they brandish have come free of the reasons that once sanctioned them.
End Zone takes place at Logos College, somewhere in the blasted, rock-strewn landscape of West Texas, apt setting for a meditation on nuclear destruction. Logos: word, logic, reason, except in this illogical world, the world of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), the logos has come to a kind of blithering end, gone to scruffy seed.
In the emptiness, the result of my own strange self-abnegation, I read on and on, letting the gray patter of words steadily rain through my head. Reading this way was like being home all day from school when I was sick, doing a puzzle on the floor of my room, only vaguely conscious of the songs coming and going on the AM radio and then coming round again. I discover now that I know the words to many of those songs, some of them preposterously banal. What have I retained from my mingling with that book on that day, a book that I have remembered ever since as one that sank into me deeply? The book had, and has, its sportiveness, a kind of scrambled absurdity I would now say—an absurdity mixed with psychic murk, an absurdity not hoisted as a theme but already assumed, intrinsic to the author’s vision of a world awry, and therefore more unsettling even while comic. The novel has a loose, broken-down form that seems to say things are too far gone for the ambition and purpose that would go into amply bodying forth a world.
I don’t know whether a work such as End Zone would see the light of day if it were submitted to agents and publishers now. Maybe not—though I like to think that the novel’s consistent, perverse wit would see it through. But I don’t think that such a work would have been created now anyway. For End Zone gives me a reference point—one of many, actually, but one that is particularly distinct—for my sense that today’s generally more “finished” novels, with more narrative arrangement and more observance of the traditional obligations of the novelist, are a falling off of the truth available at that more casual, more reckless, moment in time. That moment, that mood, conducive to the emergence of a work of such compelling and somehow encouraging oddity, is now long past. But a dose of it is decanted in the pages of DeLillo’s slim novel.
Jeff Staiger has a PhD in English from the University of California at Berkeley. His critical writings, on such topics as Harold Brodkey, Thomas Pynchon, and Homer, have appeared in recent years in various literary reviews. He is writing a book on the plight of the contemporary novel and also, naturally, a novel. He is the Literature Librarian at the University of Oregon.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.