By Dan Jenkins
Twenty-six years later we revisit the Jenkins gang from the author's, shall we say, revolutionary sports novel, Semi-Tough. The characters are certainly older, not necessarily wiser and every bit as impudent, profane and bibulously carefree as in the earlier book, which gleefully punctured holes in the sporting establishment. This time, though, the author has an even more inviting target for his skewering wit: political correctness. "Hell," says one of Jenkins's alter egos, "you can't say anything anymore. Tell a joke to some p.c. jerk, you can get shot."
But health cops (especially those on the smoking beat), language mutilators and blue-nosed moralizers of all stripes aren't the only pigeons Jenkins pots in these bawdy pages. The author has it in for athletes, agents, kids, football officials, magazine editors, sportscasters, protesters, rockers, university administrators and the entrepreneurs who hideously transform stadiums and bowl games into advertising messages: "the Regal Crystaline Finish Auto Painting & Collision Repair Celebration Bowl."
Taking the shots are fun-loving rogues not only from Semi-Tough but also from other earlier Jenkins novels: former All-Pro running back Billy Clyde Puckett; his beautiful actress wife, Barbara Jane; his lifelong pal Shake Tiller; sportswriter supreme and expense-account magician Jim Tom Pinch ( Jenkins his ownself in fictional disguise); former Puckett teammate and current coach T.J. Lambert; barflies Wayne and Ralph (who like to hang out at a cozy tavern named He's Not Here); and Puckett's filthy-rich father-in-law, Big Ed Bookman. Big-spending Big Ed exults in finding just the right university chancellor for the alma mater he so lavishly supports: "His qualifications were impressive.
He was a chain-smoker with a hacking cough," and, "his driver's license had been suspended at the time for a series of DUI's." Most important, though, the man came from a school with a winning football record.
Oh, yes, somewhere along the way in this very funny book these merry men and women (sexiness aside, Jenkins's women are really just guys) take a mediocre NFL expansion team in remotest West Texas to the Super Bowl. The league's vaunted "parity" helps no end. I'll leave it to you to guess who wins the Big One.
King of the World Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero
By David Remnick
Random House, $25
This is, Allah be praised, much more than just another book about Muhammad Ali, who surely has been the subject of more biographical studies than Lindbergh, Lady Di and Jackie O combined. The old champ may be the protagonist here, but Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and author of Lenin's Tomb, the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the fall of the Soviet Union, has assumed the far larger task of examining the mostly disreputable history of boxing over about a 40-year period. Along the gory way, he provides memorable portraits of such Ali foes as Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson and takes longer and no less penetrating looks backward at the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Archie Moore.
Liston emerges here, for all of his menacing presence and sordid past, as a sympathetic, almost tragic figure. Patterson, too, is seen as a sad case, a gifted athlete demoralized by self-doubt and his urgent need for acceptance. Remnick's hero, the former Cassius Clay, suffers from neither Patterson's angst nor Liston's truculence. But at least in his early career, his genial braggadocio was often misinterpreted as either cynicism or lunacy.
When Ali joined the Nation of Islam in 1963, his stock declined even more precipitously, particularly among pundits of the sporting press, notably the columnist Jimmy Cannon, whose tough-guy sentimentality is wickedly dissected in these pages. What is almost forgotten now, more than 30 years later, is how Ali's allegiance to the separatist Black Muslims and his refusal to be inducted into the military brought him much public vilification.