Peter Gent Pete Axthelm - Essay

Pete Axthelm

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Peter Gent] has written a big, powerful, chaotic novel about life in pro football and in Texas. Rich in sex and drugs, violence and satiric humor, "North Dallas Forty" is neither as hilarious as Dan Jenkins's "Semi-Tough" nor as scathing and self-righteous as the various football exposés of recent seasons—but it is not meant to match any of those books. Instead, Gent has written a sensitive, personal novel about one man's attempt at survival in a cold, unnatural environment; and for the most part, he has made it work on his own terms.

Phil Elliott, Gent's hero, is a fringe player, an injury-plagued receiver who is close enough to the end of his career to see clearly into the worlds both inside and outside of football. His coach, a man of "bovine indifference" to individuals, tends to use Elliott only when the Cowboys are trailing, and Elliott learns to accept that fact and root against his teammates while he sits on the bench. Elliott and his fellow athletes laugh, discuss sex and dine together on endless amphetamines and pain killers…. For deeper relationships he must look outside his trade—but there, too, he finds emptiness and tragedy.

In a world of athletes trying to act as grand as their images, Elliott is refreshingly mortal and vulnerable. (pp. 118-119A)

"It's an age of specialists," says Elliott. Such unassuming bits of philosophy, complemented by some remarkable satire and self-mockery, produce the best moments in a book that has many good ones. There are also flaws, including endlessly repetitive medicine-cabinet drug listings and a wildly apocalyptic climax that may be a Texas novelist's occupational hazard; it is the same type of ending that vitiates other fine Texas novels such as Edwin Shrake's "Strange Peaches." Despite such difficulties, however, "North Dallas Forty" commands attention as a strong and honest work by a writer so talented that he seems certain, with a few more efforts, to make us forget that he ever happened to catch passes for a living. (pp. 119A-119B)

Pete Axthelm, "Speed for Breakfast," in Newsweek (copyright 1973, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXXII, No. 13, September 24, 1973, pp. 118, 119A-119B.