Summer Reading Part 1 of 6: 'If I Don't Six'

I am not a sports fan, but that didn't keep me from lovingby Elwood Reid. There is something more to this book that takes it out of the sports fiction genre and brings it into the realm of literary fiction.
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I read a lot. This summer I will spend most of my time on set. There is a ton of downtime for actors on a movie set, because it takes so much time to set up the lights, and I usually take the opportunity to read. On the movie I'm working on in New Orleans, I usually bring two books to the set: one to read to myself and one to read aloud to Nana, my hair woman and friend. Nana loves to read, but English is her third language, so she prefers me to read to her. Recently I have been reading to her from Jerry Stahl's book about Fatty Arbuckle, I, Fatty -- but more about that book in the next post.

Sometimes people ask me for book recommendations. I know that many of my younger co-stars will be taken with the Hunger Games trilogy and the Fifty Shades of Grey books this summer, but I thought I'd write a series of posts talking about a few books that I have been enjoying this summer.

Before I talk about If I Don't Six, a book about one young man's induction into the exclusive world of college football, I want to mention a heady book about another elitist world that hunts for recruits in the upper echelons of college: Liquidated: An Ethnology of Wall Street by Karen Ho. I, for one, had no idea what business types are like. My father and mother met at Stanford University in art class; they were accepted into the graduate art program and then my father changed his trajectory and went to Harvard Business School. I think his decision helped push me further into the arts because I couldn't understand why anyone would want to spend all their time just making money. Ho's study shows the intense competitiveness that is instilled in these primarily Ivy League recruits even before they are finished with their Bachelor's degrees. And she examines the myth that stockowners and companies are best served by maximizing shareholder profits. If anything, this book gives faces to the people who work in that abstract entity called Wall Street that seems to affect our world so much of late. I highly recommend it, especially if you have no idea how the world of high finance operates.

I also admit that, just as I am not a businessman, I am not a sports fan, but that didn't keep me from loving If I Don't Six by Elwood Reid. It's a book of fiction about a high school football player who is recruited by the University of Michigan, but it flirts with non-fiction and banks on Reid's insider knowledge as a former Michigan lineman -- the same position played by his protagonist, Elwood Riley -- to give the book its vitality. It is written without haste; each step of his induction into the brutal world of college sports is reported with precise and extensive details. One review compared the book to the work of Denis Johnson, but the prose in If I Don't Six remains grounded in journalistic detail, whereas Johnson often spirals off into lyrical moments, many of them justified by his characters' drug use. In part, If I Don't Six seems to be a moment-by-moment account of Reid's actual experiences at Michigan. But there is something more to this book that takes it out of the sports fiction genre and brings it into the realm of literary fiction. Although the book trades heavily in the ins and outs of college football, it is equally concerned with the character study at its center. Elwood Riley has intelligence that sets him apart from the other players, but he also has a screw loose that causes him to act in unreasonable and destructive ways. These character aspects allow Reid to look at his high school experiences from dueling perspectives -- one inside the morass and the other outside of it.

At the beginning of the book, Reid makes it clear that he'll be operating in two distinct modes. We get fine, blow-by-blow details of a football game, signaling to the reader how closely the book will follow every turn of Riley's football experiences, but we also hear him quote from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations, a habit he will indulge throughout the book. These two modes are key to Reid's approach. We understand that this is a novel about football, but that it will be narrated by someone whose outlook is ostensibly broader than that of his football peers.

The funny thing is that Elwood Riley's ability to quote Marcus Aurelius is never explained. We learn that he felt compelled to prove something after being told he was dumb by a more studious classmate, but that's it. And the quotes don't have much impact on Riley's life or the book; their main function is to punctuate scenes of intense football description with glimmers of erudition. We learn that Riley is a big reader, but his deep reading doesn't yield enlightened interpretations of the barbarism around him. His voice is not that of an intellectual. It is the voice of a young man, inexperienced and brutal, if capable of keen observations. The writer side of Reid is looking at the football side of Reid and channeling subject, character, voice, and tone through him. Yes, Marcus Aurelius makes his brief appearances, but the majority of the book is told in the dumbed-down vernacular of typical freshman football player.

Later in the book, when the boys debate culture, they use Three's Company, not the stoic philosophers, as their reference point. Riley may possess highbrow learning, but he doesn't sieze the opportunity to use it. Riley's behavior in the Three's Company discussion isn't so different from Reid's approach to writing the novel itself: a smart guy, capable of tackling more intellectual topics -- or so we can imagine, judging from the list of books he admires and his choice of quotations -- uses a lowbrow subject in order to say something about mass-culture products, institutions and how we live our lives. Induction into the heavily regimented arena of college football can stand in for induction into any kind of institution, into the professional world, or into the moral ethos of a country.

The other aspect of the book that takes it beyond straightforward documentation is the protagonist's twisted side, which at moments impels him, or at least allows him, to perform deranged acts. We learn that, when he was in high school, Riley pointlessly dropped a concrete block off an overpass onto the windshield of a Cadillac. Fortunately the driver was not killed, but we're supposed to believe that Riley has been haunted by it ever since. As a college student, Riley steals a teammate's equipment to pawn off to a low-level black-market dealer, and he checks another teammate during a group run, busting the guy's knee in the process. Because Riley otherwise seems like an above-average specimen, someone who excels intellectually, physically and even morally, these flashes of ruthlessness stand out even more than they would if he were just a young delinquent. But I think they're supposed to stick out. Riley isn't just smarter than the average football player -- he's also more messed up than the average brainy, voyeuristic writer type. That puts him in the company of other intelligent protagonists who hang out with dimmer bulbs -- think Fellini's I, Vitelloni, Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries, Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting, or Denis Johnson's Jesus's Son. (Maybe Fuckhead isn't more intelligent, but he stands out.)

But now that I look at my list, I realize that it's actually quite common to imbue this character type with his own disturbed pathos and inner demons. So I suppose we can say that If I Don't Six stands out because it deftly combines disparate elements that are well-chosen and finely nuanced, told in a voice that contains more intelligence than its brutal subject matter and low masculine nomenclature might otherwise suggest, even if this kind of combination has all been done before.