they've read the book, then I've won."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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."