If you liked Semi-Tough (and hundreds of thousands of readers liked it enormously), you are going to enjoy Dan Jenkins' new novel, Dead Solid Perfect (Atheneum, $7.95). If, on the other hand, you found Semi-Tough disappointing because it fell far short of the excellent writing Jenkins does in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (that was my feeling), then you'll be glad to know that Dead Solid Perfect is a much better novel.
The two books have a lot in common, which is one good reason why this is almost certain to be Jenkins' second bestseller. Both are about Texans. Both revolve around the escapades of athletes named Puckett—Billy Clyde Puckett, the pro footballer in Semi-Tough, his uncle, Kenny Puckett, the pro golfer, in Dead Solid Perfect. Both have generous amounts of sex, raunchy conversation and "inside" stuff about bigtime sport.
Both books are exceedingly loosely constructed. Jenkins is less a novelist than a teller of stories, which he strings together with a thin thread of plot—in this case, Kenny Puckett's struggle to rise out of the ranks of golf's fringe players and win his first U.S. Open. Doubtless it is a matter of taste, but I thought most of the stories in Semi-Tough were not so much funny as crude, so the book didn't work for me. Many of the tales in Dead Solid Perfect, on the other hand, amused me greatly, and as a result I enjoyed the novel.
But the real reason this one works is that its people are more interesting than the gridiron caricatures of the other. Jenkins writes about Kenny Puckett with compassion. He is a still-young man who has yet to achieve great distinction in his field, who is struggling down to the end of his third marriage, who has his full share of human aspirations and frustrations. How he finishes in the Open is ultimately of less moment than what he learns about himself—and it is very much to Jenkins' credit that he manages to divert the reader's attention to this process of growth and maturation.
Dead Solid Perfect also is very good as a golf novel. Jenkins conveys the flavor of the sport with humor and affection. His depictions of the country-club set found on the periphery of the pro game are deft and devastating, and he portrays with nice detail the blend of camaraderie and competition that exists among the pros themselves.
One final note: with the title of his first novel, Jenkins added a phrase to the language. He may have done so again.