Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one's point of view, the excerpt from Peter Gent's new novel that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED published recently turns out to be the best part of the book. That section has to do with the Dallas training camp and the coming of "the Turk," the dreaded executioner who sends pro football players packing; the section is funny, touching and true to life.
That's not surprising, since Gent himself is a former football player—he played several seasons for the Dallas Cowboys and did quite well for himself. After he quit, he turned novelist and produced North Dallas Forty, a book that made him considerably more famous than football ever did and got him some good reviews into the bargain. Small wonder, for the novel is quite effective notwithstanding some rough edges; it is gritty and unsentimental, and parts of it are hilarious.
The new novel is called Texas Celebrity Turkey Trot (Morrow, $9.95) and for the first 90 pages it is just fine. Those are the pages set in the Dallas camp, as described by the narrator, 30-year-old Defensive Back Mabry Jenkins. Gent knows his football well, need it be said, and as long as he makes the game his terrain he is on firm footing.
But then Mabry gets cut, and Gent doesn't seem to know quite where to go. It's clear what he has in mind: to describe the agony of a man-child forced "to come to terms with total failure at 30." Certainly that is a legitimate subject for a novel about football or any other sport: the over-the-hill athlete's eternal question—what do I do with the rest of my life?—is a very real and very painful problem.
But Gent takes Mabry through a series of episodes that don't hang together and don't add up to a coherent whole. He hires on with a rich Texan, first as an early-morning country-music disc jockey and then as a roving small-time "celebrity" who is paid to show up at events such as the "Midland/Odessa Battle of the Celebrity Sexes Golf Tournament." But he isn't any good at any of it; all he can do is play football, and getting back into the game remains his obsession.
Gent writes some funny lines, and he does take several sharp digs at the "celebrity" business; he plays a variation on Nora Ephron's theme that "The celebrity pool has expanded in order to provide names to fill the increasing number of column inches currently devoted to gossip," but a few sharp digs and one good football section only add up to about half a novel.