third and long
Reviewed by Michael Oriard, Oregon State University
27 August 2010 archive
Third and Long tells the story of a mysterious stranger who appears on a September day in 1997 in the one-company town of Longview, Ohio, to apply as plant manager for that one company, a clothing manufacturer called Made Right that is barely hanging on in the face of globalization. Nick Nocera gets the job only because he was once a star running back at Notre Dame, and the plant's owners, father and son, are obsessed with Notre Dame football. Soon, the son also talks Nick into coaching the high school team after work hours, when the 30-year incumbent suffers a stroke. Initially reluctant to coach, and always reluctant to talk about himself and his past, Nick proceeds to energize Made Right and quietly transform a bunch of drifting teenagers into a real football team of young men with future plans and a supportive community uplifted by their success.
The novel is narrated by a first-person community voice. (I was initially put off by what seemed a naïve use what might be called first-person selective omniscience—an unidentified "we" who knows many things that no one not present could know, but not other things that are no more private—but eventually realized the author's intention.) This narrative voice continuously portrays Longview as an ordinary (though picturesque) town, inhabited by ordinary decent people. Expectations are low, so disappointments are rare. Made Right ("a decent and fortunate place to work") is surviving without prospering; the owners are respected but not feared; labor relations are placid despite recent layoffs and worries about more if a deal is struck with visiting Koreans. The long-time football coach is unimaginative and his teams not very good, but townsfolk attend all of the games, enjoying the occasional victories and not feeling too bad about losses. People gossip without viciousness, drink without drunkenness, for the most part regard each other with detached goodwill. They are ordinary and decent, neither their virtues nor their vices remarkable, and they feel good about the changes that the stranger brings to the factory and the team.
This constant emphasis on the ordinary repudiates, sometimes explicitly, the melodramas of the 24-hour news cycle and the class and culture wars on which it thrives. (It also poses a narrative challenge—how to create drama without conflict; the mystery of Nick's past must carry the burden of plot.) The author's main point seems to be that America and Americans are much better than the media would lead us to believe. The title evokes hope in the face of desperation, and Third and Longseems to be Bob Katz's own "Hail Mary," an attempt half-desperate, half-hopeful, to reach an audience in ways made possible by changes in our commercial literary culture. Partially self-published, with the imprint of a press started four years ago by a college friend, the book looks indistinguishable from one published by Knopf or Random House, complete with back-cover blurbs from Frank Deford and E. J. Dionne Jr. It was presumably Katz's connections that got it noticed by Sports Illustrated, which called it "a sly, lyrical novel (think Friday Night Lights meets All the Right Moves, only funny)" and recommended it, along with three other titles, for summer reading. Successful Hail Mary passes are exceedingly rare, of course, but each one is instantly mythologized and sustains hope for thousands of desperate attempts in the future. Self-published bestsellers tend to be inspirational or motivational, and Third and Long leans in the former direction. Another well-placed review or two, an enthusiastic blog post that gets a few hundred thousand hits—who knows, anything is possible in the book trade today, and nothing is predictable.
I offer this comment on Katz's book as a product in a changing commercial media culture in part because the story he tells is so self-conscious about its relationship to the mass media. It so happens that I read Third and Long after several months of poring through the representations of high school football in print and film. Idealized portraits of "Football Towns" such as Massillon, Ohio, began appearing in popular magazines in the 1940s, initially in the great general-interest weeklies, later in Sports Illustrated. A counter-narrative began appearing in the 1950s: high school football not as the focus of community pride but as escape from a desperate future in a grimy mill town. (Check out Life magazine's November 2, 1962, portrait of Martin's Ferry, Ohio, as a context for James Wright's wonderfully evocative poem a year later.) With Friday Night Lights in 1991, H. G. Bissinger fully fleshed out the counter-narrative, with desperation having darkened into collective pathology, and gave it a shorthand name. Friday Night Lights syndrome hovers over recent films such as Varsity Blues and the 2006 MTV reality show Two-a-Days, as well as the movie and TV versions of Friday Night Lights itself.
Sports Illustrated called Third and Long "Friday Night Lights meets All the Right Moves." No. The narrator repeatedly and explicitly sets up the story as the anti-Friday Night Lights. The halfback whose absent "lout of a dad" had once been the team's quarterback plays not to "eclipse the alleged heroics" of his father, "or seek revenge through such psychologically tortured means," but simply because "he really liked the sport, liked the way it felt to hit and avoid getting hit." The townsfolk "watched our fair share of ESPN broadcasts involving brand name teams and marquee players" but reserved "true passion . . . for our local squads, for the sons and daughters (well, mostly sons) of townsfolk and neighbors. . . . [I]f winning was all we cared about, we'd have been smarter to just pick up and leave." For readers fuzzy on the details of Bissinger's portrait of Odessa, Texas, that lie behind these passages, halfway through the book the narrator declares, "Longview was not one of those fabled Friday night lights football hotbeds. We took the sport seriously but we liked to think we did so with a sense of balanced priorities, unlike the nut cases we'd read about in Texas and Oklahoma."
As these lines suggest, the novel's narrative voice has a quasi-postmodern self-consciousness, but without the usual irony or destabilizing epistemology. Set against what has become the stereotype of Friday Night Lights, the novel openly embraces more uplifting clichés. Third and Long is a story about underdogs, team players, and redemption—an alternative set of equally familiar narratives—and the title itself would make no sense if it did not evoke the desperate hope of the Hail Mary pass endlessly intoned by sports broadcasters. The narrative voice, in effect, suggests that we live in a world inundated by the distorting clichés of 24-7 sports media, but there may be no way to talk about sports without clichés, some of which can be true. As the Longview team improves, it demonstrates that "stepping up to the 'next level,' another concept beloved by football announcers, wasn't mere fantasy." When the townsfolk feel a sense of "destiny" as their placekicker is about to nail a winning field goal, the narrator steps back to comment: "Sports can do that. We try to resist (unlike those fanatics in Texas), knowing it's only a game, a diversionary recreational pastime. Yet sports can also manufacture the kind of wild onrush of unanticipated joy that gives rise to an otherwise insupportable belief that, damn it, our fortunes, yes our very fortunes, just might be improving." An averted crisis is real, we're told, "not some TV movie . . . no ESPN replay." A coach's placing his hand on the shoulder of his running back is "one of those Kodak snapshot moments, iconic in its way, that make you think life really is a passing of the baton, generation to generation." If sports cannot be imagined without stereotypes, the novel seems to ask, why should we take only the negative ones to be true? Third and Long rejects Friday Night Lights for a return to Football Town, minus the obsession with winning. Longview and its surroundings are variously described—with unironic self-consciousness—as "bucolic," "like the idealized layout of a model train hobbyist," and "like some eighteenth-century oil painting depicting the Promised Land, dappled and serene with benevolent light streaming through a break in the dark sweep of clouds." There is nothing subtle in all of this "telling" as opposed to "showing," but it seems fully self-aware.
I obviously cannot give away the secret to Nick Nocera's past, and what follows in town and at the Thanksgiving Day "Super Bowl" when the truth is discovered, but suffice it to say that the novel has a feel-good ending (how could it not?). Third and Long at times seems to aspire to serious social commentary in its portrait of a community utterly out of touch with a warped larger culture and society, but a mysterious and benevolently potent stranger arriving in such a bucolic setting seems a setup for a fairytale, and that is what I think Third and Long finally wants to be. The self-consciousness of the narrative voice is not in the service of postmodern knowingness but of a fairytale that keeps reminding readers that it's a fairytale but also wants to be enjoyed as such. At one point the narrator admits that the townsfolk enjoy Hollywood blockbusters "with handsome actors dramatizing the impossible uphill triumphs of good-hearted underdog souls. But we could never forget that they were fiction. We never suspended our disbelief. We weren't dreamers except deep in slumber when we couldn't help it." Third and Long, in contrast, seems intended to be a fairytale about ordinary people, not Friday Night Lights meets All the Right Moves but Football Town meets It's a Wonderful Life. I'm left uncertain whether it wants us to believe or to suspend our disbelief.
I long ago realized that sentimentality is a personal matter. The artfulness or artlessness of the text or film matters greatly in the degree of persuasiveness, but I know that I'm a sucker for certain kinds of sentimentalism and instantly turned off by others. Third and Long is a sweet tale out of Frank Capra, and how readers will respond will likely depend on their susceptibility to that sweetness.
Bob Katz, Third and Long. Minneapolis: Trolley Car Press, 2010. Paper, 252 pp.
Copyright © 2010 by Michael Oriard.