What I like most about Frank Deford's new novel—and I like many things about it—is the stunning fidelity with which it brings back to life a place and time that I knew intimately: North Carolina, Chapel Hill in particular, during the '50s, '60s and '70s. How he does this mystifies me, for he is neither a native North Carolinian nor an alumnus of the University of North Carolina; but he reveals himself in Everybody's All-American (Viking, $13.95) to be about as close to a Tar Heel born and bred as any Baltimore Yankee (which Deford is) could ever hope to be.
It's uncanny, this degree to which Deford recaptures the North Carolina scene dating back to 1954, the year his fictional protagonist, Gavin Grey, finished up at UNC. Not merely does Deford know all the words to all the songs, he knows the accents and inflections they were sung in and what the singers wore. With just a few well-placed words, he takes me back to my college days:
"... North Carolina was the face of our earth. This place was known as Carolina (it most particularly did not include South Carolina, any more than that Carolina included North Carolina), and as best as I can spell it phonetically, it was pronounced Kowlinah.... It was before everybody all spoke like the six o'clock news and lived in ranch houses and ate at the salad bar. There was still a sense of being, a sense of Carolina."
It was also a time when there were still heroes, when TV had not yet come along to eliminate the crucial distance between hero and hero-worshiper. The great running back Gavin Grey—"The Grey Ghost"—is chief among the book's heroes. As Donnie McClure, Grey's nephew and the novel's narrator, is told by a family friend, Judge Frank Pace: "Understand what Gavin Grey is to us. He is Alexander, Robin Hood, General Washington; he is... Jeb Stuart. He is Sergeant York; or even, if you prefer art to life, Gary Cooper."
He is all those, that is, only so long as he is on the football field. Off it—and this is the real subject of the novel—he is merely a decent man, a limited man, caught in a web of memories. When he signs to play football in Canada, and later for the Redskins, he is fine; he is still a player. But as his skills fade, and then when he is at last forced out of the game for good, he has nothing left. He won't take a steady job because he wants the freedom to return to the game should he be asked by some benign general manager. He knows that "I'm just the guy who used to be The Grey Ghost," but he can't face this situation and find a new life.
It's an old American story, but few writers have told it as knowingly or candidly as Deford does here. Athletes die young, even if they live for many years, for nothing can exceed or even match the glory of the playing field; as the judge says at one point, "...this glory now will be his burden thereafter," and indeed it is. In the end all The Ghost has left are his memories: His wife is leaving him, his children are grown, his teammates have gone on to new careers.
Deford has told this sad but instructive story with a cast of wonderful characters and a rich supply of funny and/or poignant detail. Though one or two of the folks are right out of central casting (a black football player turned entrepreneur, the wise old judge), the rest of them are true to life: Babs, Grey's wife, who is especially appealing, a beauty queen who matures into a successful woman; Bolling Kiely, an auto salesman, who is especially loathsome—a small-town Carolina type whom Deford has caught down to the last drop of his hair oil; and Gavin Grey himself, whose career bears a certain resemblance to that of UNC's fabled Charlie Justice, but whose difficulties and disappointments are very much his own.
As for the details, Deford has them down pat. He has every frat house, beer hall and hash house in the right place; a novelist who knows that in the '50s the jocks went to the Goody Shop, not Harry's, knows his Chapel Hill. The only telling error I found was not making two words out of "Tar Heel"—as all good Tar Heels do, if Webster's doesn't.
But I don't mean to belabor the Chapel Hill connection; it's just that Deford has struck a responsive chord. Everybody's All-American is a lovely piece of work that readers everywhere will admire for its wit and compassion.