Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 918
Gary Harkness is a talented young halfback with a troubled mind and soul, and Logos College in West Texas is a last chance for him. Gary’s troubles begin with his father’s saying about life: “Suck in that gut and go harder.” His father had played football at Michigan State University, and his life creed is an amalgam of clichés from Teddy Roosevelt as adapted by Knute Rockne: “(1) A team sport. (2) The need to sacrifice. (3) Preparation for the future. (4) Microcosm of life.” This parody of the work ethic and the American Dream sticks in Gary’s throat, making him a constant disappointment to his pharmaceutical salesman father.
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His father, who had spent most of his time on the bench, makes a real football player out of Gary, who becomes all-state and receives twenty-eight scholarship offers. He goes first to Syracuse University, where he meets a young woman who is hiding from the world and goes to ground with her—fortified by two boxes of Oreos and an economics text full of “incoherent doctrines.” At Penn State the next fall, Gary succumbs to angst and retreats, this time to an Adirondack winter at home. Gary’s next sojourn is at Miami, where all goes well until he becomes obsessed with the horrifying accounts of nuclear war that he finds in a textbook. Depression sends him home again, waiting out the year before moving on to Michigan State as an “aging recruit.” When he and two other players hit an Indiana safety man so hard that he dies the next day, Gary gives up once more and stays in his room for seven weeks, shuffling a deck of cards.
Therefore, Logos College is Gary’s final chance. At Logos, he finds himself playing for Coach Emmett Creed, who says of football, “It’s only a game, but it’s the only game.” Gary’s teammates are a colorful lot, notably Taft Robinson and Anatole Bloomberg. Taft is a transfer student from Columbia University, the first black student at Logos. He is brilliant in the classroom as well as on the football field, but he eventually gives up on football. Taft reads books about the Holocaust and ponders his claim that Rembrandt van Rijn and Johann Sebastian Bach had Masai blood in their veins. Taft is another DeLillo loner in retreat from the madness of the world.
Taft’s roommate is Anatole Bloomberg, left tackle on offense. Anatole is also “a voluntary exile of the philosophic type.” Anatole is overweight and suffers from enuresis. He is a northerner who is, he says, “unjewing” himself in West Texas:You go to a place where there aren’t any Jews. After that you revise your way of speaking. You take out the urbanisms. The question marks. All that folk wisdom. The melodies in your speech. The inverted sentences. You use a completely different set of words and phrases. Then you transform your mind into a ruthless instrument. You teach yourself to reject certain categories of thought.
By these means he will relieve his “enormous nagging historical guilt.”
Gary spends most of his time away from the football field with either Myna Corbett, a classmate in Mexican geography, or Major Staley, a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps professor. Myna claims that she keeps her weight at 165 pounds to free herself from “the responsibility of being beautiful.” Her Texas boots are studded with blue stars, and her mind is stuffed with the fantastic plots of science-fiction novels. She is especially fond of the trilogy written by Tudev Nemkhu, a Mongolian with an epic imagination. Gary and Myna spend time on picnics with Esther and Vera, the Chalk sisters, who specialize in breadless and meatless sandwiches.
Whereas Gary’s closest friends all seem burdened by some great spiritual wound, Major Staley is brisk and competent. Gary finds in Major Staley an agreeable accomplice for conjuring up awful visions of a nuclear future. He cannot get the subject off his mind because he believes that “[s]omebody has to get it before the public regardless of language. It has to be aired in public debate, clinically, the whole thing, no punches pulled, no matter how terrible the subject is and regardless of language. It has to be discussed.”
A second instructor to whom Gary is close is Alan Zapalac, who teaches exobiology. Zapalac voices the paranoia that many of DeLillo’s characters feel: “I’m afraid of the United States of America. Take the Pentagon. If anybody kills us on a grand scale, it’ll be the Pentagon. On a small scale, watch out for your local police.”
With friends such as Taft, Anatole, and Myna, and professors of woe such as Major Staley and Zapalac, Gary’s alienation gets worse and worse. At story’s end he is confined to the college infirmary, being fed through plastic tubes.
End Zone is structured as a triptych, with the big football game between Logos and West Centrex Biotechnical Institute as its centerpiece. DeLillo’s account of the game is a marvelous set piece. The ambience of college sports is evoked vividly. The dialogue rings true, and the game is convincing and entertaining—a narrative by someone who knows what happens in football. End Zone is, then, a sports story that gratifies with its knowledgeable game talk, an evocation of the terrible shadow of nuclear war as it was felt in the 1960’s, and a picture of several unusual but ingratiating young people coping with an insane universe.