Winning the Game
By Tyler Thoreson

From Gadfly November 1998


"If they've read the book, then I've won."
—Elwood Reid

In his first novel, Elwood Reid plays it safe: he writes what he knows. What he knows is big‑time college football, and if he's to be trusted, the reader doesn't wish that life on anyone. Reid's fictional doppelgūnger, Elwood Riley, is a huge guy whose body a great number of greedy men (greedy for vicarious gridiron glory if not actual cash) are trying to stretch, shape, ride and generally abuse for their own benefit. The lucky recruits will go on to the N.F.L., and every year thousands of men like Riley sign their bodies over to totalitarian football programs hoping they'll be the lucky ones. That commitment will get you what is misleadingly called a "scholarship," but try to take your body back and they'll yank your free ride.

The real Elwood, a 32‑year‑old former cook, bouncer, carpenter, bartender, writing instructor and author of the novel If I Don't Six (Doubleday, $22.95), signed his body over to legendary coach Bo Schembechler at the age of 18, and clearly he's none-too-thrilled about that decision. The fictional one, a reluctant Michigan freshman lineman who'd rather be pondering Aurelius's Meditations than playing football (he manages to do both), spends 259 electric pages fighting his way through a football program he reviles because he knows what sticking it out can get him—a ticket out of the spirit‑quashing tedium of his father's blue‑collar Cleveland life. Can he milk the remarkable six‑foot‑six tower of muscle that a God he doesn't believe in has given him long enough to get his degree and eradicate his father's life from the realm of his potentiality? That balancing act—and it gets increasingly tenuous—punctuates every crystalline scene in Reid's debut novel.

As one of its blurbs predicts, the book is going to make some very large enemies. Especially considering that the itinerary for his book tour reads like an excursion into the territory of Big Ten football glory—Bloomington, Indiana; Madison, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; and, of course, Ann Arbor.

"I have no idea how people are going to take the book. People, unfortunately, have been fixated on the football aspect. But football, that's what I happen to know," Reid says from upstate New York, where he lives on a farm with his wife and 2‑year‑old daughter. Though Reid prefers to see If I Don't Six as a vehicle to dissect a "bizarre, absurd American thing" and says he would've written a war book if he'd have been a soldier, football dominates. And it's a good thing, too—one wishes all first‑time novelists had such gripping experiences to draw upon.

In the novel, the University of Michigan's storied football program is a model of Puritan hypocrisy and Machiavellian amorality. The coaching staff seems organized purely for the task of browbeating and abuse. "It was the big time when I went there," Reid says. "People were not messing around. They wanted me to play football, they wanted me to lift weights, they wanted me to hit people." Offensive linemen like Riley, whose position is less about skill than sheer strength coupled with a burning desire to maim, seem to take the brunt of it. The players do nothing but run, study plays, lift weights until their ferocious muscles collapse in exhaustion and they can't even bring their arms above their heads, and hit, hit, hit. The system is based on aggression, and there is constant animosity between team members. ("Looks like you and me just became enemies," another player says when Reid is transferred to the offensive line. "Official fucking enemies.") When it boils over into violence, you can imagine the coaches smiling: everything's going according to plan.

Football is a tough game, and you can't exactly blame the coaches for trying to win. Nobody expects that to be a pretty process. But Elwood Riley has committed himself to four years in what might as well be a fascist state training for war, and whose subjects are depressingly supportive of the regime. As a habitual skeptic and lover of books, Riley is seen by coach and player alike as "an unknown quantity."

What Riley wants most is to take the kind of classes any intellectually curious freshman would take, but after one look at his freshman schedule Coach Roe red‑inks all but an English course and replaces the others with "Rocks for Jocks" and a class on theories in sports refereeing. And in keeping with the regime, religious dissent isn't exactly encouraged—which causes problems for the nonbelieving Elwood Riley. His fully developed atheism is sure to put off the type of folks who think God causes touchdowns, but Reid says he got fed up with all the hypocrisy. "I wasn't the kind of person who could sit there and be preached to about being a Christian athlete and all this stuff, knowing that the guy next to me was smacking some woman around and beating fraternity kids up on his off hours," he says. "The coaches would preach this real middle‑American, you know, Trent Lott vision of America, and yet I'd see them walk into the locker room with Juggs magazine." Good "fellas" were supposed to at least pay lip service to God's role in victory. "It was just this system these guys were supposed to buy into and they did," Reid says. "It was part of their identity: If you're a football player you're supposed to thank God. It was bizarre to me; it was just like a circus."

Meanwhile, what Riley really wants to talk about is ideas. "My mind was watching these kids on campus," the author says. "Long hair, and they're listening to punk music and discussing Dostoevski around the grass out back and I'm thinking 'I would give my left nut to be that person.' But here I was—if I walked over to them—I was six‑six, three hundred pounds, muscle on top of muscle, and I looked and talked like a dumb jock."

Fortunately, he doesn't write like one. Reid's prose surges ahead with little adornment, and his locker‑room slang is dead on. Despite its muscle‑head subject matter and quick pace, If I Don't Six is a literary book—a nice change from the typical white middle‑class ennui and bourgeois blight that make up the meat of so many first novels. Reid says he wanted to write a book he'd want to read himself. "I don't want to have to groan when I look at a book. I want to know what happens next. That may be my blue‑collar reading background coming out of me, but when faced with a book like Ulysses—I've read that book twice, and I couldn't care less if I ever look at it again."

Reid leavens the novel's sadness with humor. Drawing on his days as a "fella," he creates some memorably amusing characters, among them the white kid who talks black and is therefore scorned by everyone (inevitably given the name "Whigger"), and Riley's roommate Phil, who spends his free time reading the Bible and saying the rosary with a chew in his lip, thinking of his girlfriend and marking days on the calendar ("Days left until he sees Sally? The Apocalypse?"). It's true that any novel brimming with enormous, angry and slow‑witted jocks who make Dan Dierdorf look like Gore Vidal is bound to be funny. And although much of the humor in If I Don't Six comes from indulging the reader's meathead stereotypes (while unavoidably sympathizing with the intellectually evolved narrator), Reid offers no apology. "They're basically clichés," he says of the guys he played with. "That was such a hard thing in the novel—football players: they're big, and they're either black or they're white. Once you have distance on it, you realize that that whole world, while it seems very real and visceral and exciting, actually was almost like a cartoon."

Reid worked odd jobs for years and weathered a blizzard of rejection letters before getting his big break in 1997 when his story "What Salmon Know" was published in GQ. The work leaves little doubt that Reid's talents are bigger than his roman á clef of alienation and big‑time college football. His short fiction is "much more blue‑collar," and "What Salmon Know" is that. It is also deeply melancholy, utterly believable, and its dénouement, where all the seeds the author has planted throughout the work come to full bloom in one final epiphany, is truly profound. The story is set in Alaska and concerns a beer‑soaked, after‑work fishing excursion taken by a couple of Alaskan construction workers. No doubt proud to have such a talent in its stable, Doubleday is including the story in a collection due out next year.

Reid has already moved on to other work, having completed a couple of screenplays (including an adaptation of his novel for MCA) and published another short story in GQ, and is at work on a second novel, based on a painting by Francis Bacon. ("I'm not about to write If I Don't Seven," he says.) But as this issue goes to press his book tour is in full swing through the capitals of Big Ten football. Assuming the Midwest's football fanatics read it (and judging by Reid's portrayal, that's hardly a safe assumption), the author won't be greeted by the type of folks who normally attend book readings. For one thing, they'll be much bigger—and you can bet they'll be angry.

Reid claims he's not worried. (He's still a pretty huge guy, for one thing.) "If someone reads the book through and gets pissed off about it, great. I've succeeded in doing what I wanted to do," the author says. "If they've read the book, then I've won."