Pity the poor soul that sets to write a great sports novel. It can feel like trying to train a goldfish to fetch. Sisyphus might find pushing that rock up the hill a more fruitful task.
What makes penning a sports novel such a perilous pursuit? Maybe it’s because the all-too-real world of sports can sometimes feel far stranger than fiction. If someone ten years ago had approached a publisher with fictional versions of the Pat Tillman saga or the odyssey of Barry Bonds they would have been rudely removed by office security. It’s tempting to conclude that maybe a great sports novel is simply a contradiction in terms. Sport is the business of suspending disbelief and shaping perception. Only real characters need apply.
Or maybe not. I just read a book that manages to capture both the seductive adrenaline of sports and the rot beneath the surface: and while most sports writing is reality spun as fiction, this is a fictional exercise that feels all too real. The book is Raider’s Night by Robert Lipsyte. It is listed as a Young Adult title, which rings false at first since the issues at play are explored with a sober gravity. But that is also what makes the book work: it is written for teenagers without the slightest trace of condescension. Lipsyte understands his teen audience has long lost their innocence, and refuses to talk down to them.
Raiders Night is the story of the Nearmont high school football team in New Jersey, a top program at a school where football is king. It’s told through the eyes of one player, senior captain Matt Rydek, who is forced over one season to confront machismo, homophobia, sexism, and steroids: not to mention psycho parents, backstabbing coaches, and teammates gone over the edge. It’s a raw look that will shatter the reader with illusions in high school sports. At times I felt like I had to take a break between chapters to shower with steel wool.
Lipsyte’s wisest move is the character of Matt Rydek himself. Rydek is troubled by what brews around him, but is no saint in the land of Sodom. He loves the game of football and its attendant privileges of small-time stardom, but hates how it shapes his view of the world. He takes part in the parties, the ‘roids, and the hazing. But the decay beneath the sports world wears at him, gradually stripping him down. He reacts with a kind of slow-motion horror as events around him slowly erode his sense of the kind of person he wants to be.
Lipsyte does a chilling job of linking Rydek’s existential crisis, with the emotional roller coaster imposed upon him from a steady diet of Vicodin and steroids, as well as a world where war is casually accepted as a fact of life.
As Lipsyte writes,
“He could visualize himself shutting down, an old trick he usually saved for games, but now he used it just to get through another day. Closing doors, shutting windows, pulling drapes across the glass. Look straight ahead. Narrow the ears, too…If it’s not about football, don’t see it, don’t hear it, don’t touch it. Delete it. If it’s not about football, it’s spam. Smile and keep moving…Matt was so wired, he remembered the Southwood game only as a personal highlight reel. He’d never been in the zone so long and so completely. Might as well have been playing himself in a video game. Dad must have been screaming his lungs out. But Matt never heard him. Or anyone else in the crowd.”
This is the best fictional critique of the athletic industrial complex I’ve ever read, and in the Bizarro World of high school sports, Lipsyte has the perfect vehicle for his subject. There is something particularly perverse about a game that sanctions frustrated adults projecting their hopes, and need for escapist cathartic violence on young people born during Bill Clinton’s presidency. It is a particular unflattering lens of a sports world as Golem, consuming all around it whether directly involved in the business of sports or not.
Raider’s Night is a trenchant look at sports in the age of alienation. It is both very upsetting and satisfying: a barbaric yawp in the face of barbarism. Lipsyte has also, at the risk of hyperbole, redeemed the very concept of the sports novel.
DAVE ZIRIN is the author of “The Muhammad Ali Handbook” (MQ Publications) and “Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports” . You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com