Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, Ben Fountain’s debut novel is a penetrating microcosm of George W. Bush’s Texas and an increasingly disillusioned Pat Tillman’s America during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era. Fountain unfurls fluid prose, biting metaphors, pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and uncanny powers of observation into an uproarious, razor-sharp satire of “the sheltering womb of all things American — football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus 300 million well-wishing fellow citizens.” Although Fountain’s opus has drawn comparisons to Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” for its irreverent discussion of war, the football passages at Texas Stadium are a kindred spirit to Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo-styled lampooning of the debauched Kentucky Derby crowd.
The novel covers a single day, starting with a pregame stadium tour of excesses, continuing through the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day showcase with the Dallas Cowboys — America’s Team — and closing with the post-game fallout. Fountain adroitly uses the overwrought spectacle of 21st century pro football as a metaphor for modern America’s “nightmare of superabundance,” best encapsulated by a ridiculously over-the-top Destiny’s Child halftime show described as “porn-lite out of its mind on martial dope.”
Among Fountain’s bon mots: attributing a break in the football action to “the pontifical ceremony of instant-replay reviews”; gazing at the stadium’s colossal Jumbotron and wondering if “maybe the game is just an ad for the ads”; strolling through the Cowboys‘ lavish gift shop and pondering at what point “America became a giant mall with a country attached.”
Fountain didn’t just capture America’s obsession with sport. He also penned one of the finest works of 21st century literature. If you don’t trust me, consider the rave review of “The Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini: “My overall reaction reading the book throughout was like, oh my God, why continue writing? The whole undertaking is pointless after this.”
“Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables, and such meats, that extraordinary pipeline of beef, poultry, seafood, and pork, feedlot gorged, vitamin enriched, and hypodermically immunized, humming factories of high-velocity protein production, all of which culminate after several generations of epic nutrition in this strain of industrial-sized humans? Only America could produce such giants. … Only America could take such a product-intensive sport and grow it into the civic necessity it is today.
The players dutifully approach, and as they assemble here in the middle of the room Billy tries to imagine the vast systems that support these athletes. They are among the best-cared-for creatures in the history of the planet, beneficiaries of the best nutrition, the latest technologies, the finest medical care, they live at the very pinnacle of American innovation and abundance, which inspires an extraordinary thought — send them to fight the war! Send them just as they are this moment, well rested, suited up, psyched for brutal combat, send the entire NFL! Attack with all our bears and raiders, our ferocious redskins, our jets, eagles, falcons, chiefs, patriots, cowboys — how could a bunch of skinny hajjis in man-skirts and sandals stand a chance against these all-Americans? Resistance is futile, oh Arab foes. Surrender now and save yourself a world of hurt, for our mighty football players cannot be stopped, they are so huge, so strong, so fearsomely ripped that mere bombs and bullets bounce off their bones of steel. Submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of hell!”