Don DeLillo’s End Zone

End ZoneOne of the smaller pleasures of reading comes from uncovering the hidden relationships between writers. We speak of a literary tradition because writers, no less than scientists, build on the achievements of their predecessors. Shakespeare would not be Shakespeare without Ovid, Montaigne and Marlowe; Milton could not have written Paradise Lost without Iago and Hamlet; there is no James Baldwin without Henry James; debt piles upon debt, ad infinitum. I had such a moment of recognition reading Don DeLillo’s second novel, End Zone, when it immediately became apparent where David Foster Wallace got the inspiration for Infinite Jest‘s Enfield Tennis Academy, with its precocious, wise-cracking young athletes.

Like Wallace’s first novel, The Broom Of The System, DeLillo’s End Zone explores the meaning-making power of language, dramatizing philosophical problems worthy of Wittgenstein. Thus Gary Harkness, the novel’s protagonist and star offensive back of the Logos College football team (logos, incidentally, from the Greek), develops an obsessive fascination with the terminology of nuclear war – “words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill-ratio, spasm war,” so much so that the realities of the football field and the distant Cold War begin to merge in his mind.

Gary, you see, is no ordinary football player, no stereotypical jock drawn to the game’s brutality. He is not-so-subtly goaded into playing football by his father (“He had ambitions on my behalf and more or less at my expense. This is the custom among men who have failed to be heroes: their sons must prove that the seed was not impoverished”), who spurs him on with inspirational clichés and platitudes like “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” These have an unintended effect on Gary. “All meaning faded. The words became pictures. It was a sinister thing to discover at such an age, that words can escape their meaning. A strange beauty that sign began to express.”

Midway through the book, DeLillo hints at one of the uses of language vital to our survival: “Most lives are guided by clichés. They have a soothing effect on the mind and they express the kind of widely accepted sentiment that, when peeled back, is seen to be a denial of silence.” In several characters, DeLillo gives us extreme caricatures of this cliché-wielding type. Thus his coach, Emmett “Big Bend” Creed, “a landlocked Ahab,” has a penchant for philosophical musings: “A brave nation needs discipline. Purify the will. Learn humility. Restrict the sense life. Pain is part of the harmony of the nervous system.” Or Major Staley, an Air Force recruiter, whose pitch for Gary to enlist extolls the Air Force as “the most self-actualizing branch of the military.”

Other characters struggle with language as it relates to identity. Gary’s 300-pound roommate Anatole Bloombert, who feels “like an overwritten paragraph,” is trying to “unjew” himself. And Gary’s love interest, Myna Corbett, refuses to lose weight, apply makeup or put thought into what she wears in an effort to make her outward appearance match her inner being: “Inside me there’s a sloppy emotional overweight girl. I’m the same, Gary, inside and out.”

Gary is initially drawn to football precisely because it is simple, a world of prescribed rules within which he knows how to function.

Football players are simple folk. Whatever complexities, whatever dark politics of the human mind, the heart – these are noted only within the chalked borders of the playing field. At times strange visions ripple across that turf; madness leaks out. But wherever else he goes, the football player travels the straightest of lines. His thoughts are wholesomely commonplace, his actions uncomplicated by history, enigma, holocaust or dream.

At one point he boasts of leading his university team in “touchdowns, yards gained rushing, and platitudes.” But as the linguistic barriers between war and football begin to dissolve, so too does Gary’s peace of mind.

This is a fun little novel, treating heavy themes with light-hearted humor (to borrow a phrasing from one of its characters, “It’s all very existential”), but to what end is never made particularly clear, and so little attention is devoted to fiction’s infrastructure – plot and character – that it’s unlikely to last very long in the reader’s imagination or demand a second and third reading.