Two themes stand out in End Zone. First, there is the problem of the sane man in an insane world, and this theme relates End Zone to contemporary works such as The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). All three novels end with the protagonist’s collapse in a struggle against worldly madness, but important differences separate the three works. Gary Harkness is a much more appealing youth than Holden Caulfield, whose hard, uncharitable self-righteousness is completely lacking in the distressed Gary. In the novels by J. D. Salinger and Ken Kesey, specific individuals and institutions are singled out for authorial contempt, but DeLillo depicts an anarchic creation in which all are victims and losers. Most satirists would have beaten Major Staley into an unrecognizable monstrosity, but not DeLillo. End Zone, then, is thoroughly postatomic-age in its picture of an irrational world threatened by mushroom clouds, but it is much gentler in its satire and devoid of the author’s single-minded hatred of his characters found in so many novels of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
A second theme of End Zone is the intellectual (even spiritual) gratification that football offers. Football is a dance of patterns and structures that orders existence at least temporarily. It is a “stay against confusion,” in Robert Frost’s words about a poem, or a “supreme fiction,” in Wallace Stevens’s. DeLillo’s exploitation of his conceit about football makes End Zone a philosophical novel as well as an excellent football yarn.