What are we to make of Peter Gent, onetime wide receiver and tight end of the Dallas Cowboys, whose third novel, The Franchise (Villard Books, $16.95), was published last month? Gent's first novel, the rowdy, swinging North Dallas Forty, received a lot of attention, sold vigorously, turned Gent into what Dan Jenkins might call a semi-celebrity and was made into a movie of sorts. Gent then wrote Texas Celebrity Turkey Trot, an admirable effort in that he was trying to write a novel that took him beyond the autobiographical environs of North Dallas Forty. Though this attempt didn't come off very well, Gent showed that he at least deserved to be looked upon as a genuine writer, rather than as a former football player fooling around with a typewriter.
A number of big-time athletes, SI's Kenny Moore and Rick Telander among them, have become successful journalists, but I can't think of many who have made a second career writing fiction. Bill Tilden wrote plays and novels, none memorable. Jackson V. Scholz, the 1924 Olympic 200-meter champion, who appeared as a character in the film Chariots of Fire, did a series of juvenile books. There may have been a few other athlete-novelists, but none were quite Pete Gent, who came out of NFL warfare to become proficient in this radically different field of endeavor. Don't lightly dismiss what he has done. It's difficult to write a book, even a bad one. Bil Gilbert, who has explored jungles, trekked across Arctic islands, crawled through caves on his belly and written six books, says, "Writing is probably the most fatiguing thing I know." That Gent, an athletic extrovert, a freewheeling taster of the sweet life, has had not only the talent but also the dedication to metamorphose into a novelist is utterly remarkable.
Having said that, we move into the arena of criticism. North Dallas Forty was a brisk, obscene, funny, sometimes shocking blast at pro football. It was considered a roman � clef by readers who busily tried to identify the various characters with people on and around the Dallas Cowboys. The central character was obviously based on Gent himself, and the pain, anguish and, yes, exaltation he felt playing the game were admirably caught.
The Franchise is another matter. Although Gent has returned to pro football for his setting, there's very little on-field action in the book. He has invented an expansion franchise in Texas, and the plot deals with the machinations that go on when the game doesn't. However, if the characters in this book are thinly disguised fictional counterparts of real-life pro football people, the law ought to move in right now and arrest just about everybody in the game. Gent's characters, with few exceptions, are thugs, criminals, demimonde figures guilty of murder, manslaughter, aggravated assault, torture, mayhem, theft, embezzlement, bribery, fixing games, stealing and hiding evidence, corrupting public officials and, I must sternly add, very reckless driving.
It's hard to understand what Gent is trying to say. Is he having fun, writing an exaggerated, hyperbolic satire of pro football just for the hell of it? Or is he seriously trying to warn his readers that this is what pro football is really like behind the facade? He seems near the truth when he describes naive players being ripped off by high-figure contracts that don't produce much actual cash. But when he has his fictional commissioner, Robbie Burden, and the fictional heads of the Players Union (never called the NFLPA) in cahoots, and when he has murderers and thieves bilking the players and the public, he's indulging either in wild hyperbole or something uncomfortably near outrageous libel.
Gent is good at describing places and things, although he's committed to the name-brand school of writing. His characters don't wear shoes; they wear Guccis. But his plot is so extravagant, the characters so shallow, the dialogue so contrived that his story is simply unbelievable. There's also an extraordinary amount of gory killing, most of it detailed down to the last twist of a slug through somebody's spleen; there's so much of it that, in the end, The Franchise sounds like a preliminary script for one of those mindless movies that teenagers like and that keep film producers in business. Indeed, a press release says that Gent is already at work on a screenplay—for what will probably be a minor motion picture.