Monday, November 25, 2013

Nicholas Dawidoff

Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of four previous critically acclaimed books, including the bestselling The Catcher Was a Spy and The Crowd Sounds Happy. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Civitella Ranieri Fellow, a Berlin Prize Fellow of the American Academy, an Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University, and a Branford Fellow at Yale University. A Pulitzer Prize finalist (for The Fly Swatter), Dawidoff is a contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone. His new book is Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Dawidoff's reply:
My two books previous to Collision Low Crossers were companion biographical memoirs about family. You can’t get more interior than that, so this time I aspired to look out into the world and take on a big American subject that had real urgency for many people. Also, I’d long hoped to write about a group of committed people engaged in challenging, interesting work that completely absorbed them to the exclusion of everything else. Which is how I came to spend more than a year all but living on the field (and mostly in the office) with a group of professional football coaches.

In contrast to the American national pastime of baseball, football has always been a challenging subject for writers. That may be because baseball is timeless, leisurely enough in its rhythms that it lends itself to reflection. We’ve all played some version of baseball, and since the game’s proportions are our proportions, most of us can see it clear and understand it. Football, on the other hand, is the national passion. Games are always on the clock, and play moves so quickly that no spectator really knows what the hell is going on out there. (It can be the same for coaches; they reserve Sunday judgments until reviewing the game film on Monday.) If there is a deliberately unfolding epistolary pace and feel to baseball, football is frenzy punctuated by pauses--has the start-stop-start metabolism of texting. The players are often enormous, always armored and masked, and the ball is sometimes difficult to locate amid all that fast-twitching bulk. But what really sets football apart is that everything depends on a secret portfolio of plays that the coaches develop over the course of the week before games. Deepening the recondite qualities of the sport, these game plans are set down in obscure jargon—a thieves’ cant for fullbacks. Since the essence of the game is the plan, most of the football life takes place at a remove from the public--in the team “facilities” that are essentially athletic safe houses. It was a rare and necessary privilege to be allowed inside.

These are some of the reasons why the books that most informed Collision Low Crossers were not football books. Wait! One was. Published fifty years ago, George Plimpton’s Paper Lion remains the best book I’ve ever read about football. Plimpton, a gangly and not terribly athletic man, solved the problems of accessibility that I’ve just described by arranging to go through training camp with the Detroit Lions as the last string quarterback. This was a stunt, to be sure, and an inspired one, because it gave him connection on many levels to the elusive game. What has made his book endure is Plimpton’s hilarious and moving account of personal (mis) adventures set in parallel with his vivid and humane character studies of the interesting Lions people he met on the fields and in the meeting rooms and dorms of a private school in suburban Michigan. Who could forget the various Lions rookies being forced at mealtimes to sing their school songs in front of the veterans? Or the unique noises defensive back Dick “Night Train” Lane made while he ran along in pass coverage? (Lane was married to the singer Dinah Washington, and Plimpton’s description of listening to her records with Lane in his training camp bedroom is one of the book’s many indelible set pieces.) Plimpton was such a good writer he could make memorable the way a man chewed a toothpick, reserved a dinner table, talked while gambling or daydreamed about lemonade on a sweltering summer day. It all added up to a nuanced portrait of the many human components that mesh into a violent and risky group endeavor.

The contemporary master of such participatory journalism is Ted Conover. He’s written several books about subcultures that he came to understand by living in them. All the books are excellent, though my favorites are Rolling Nowhere and Newjack. For the former, Conover, then still an Amherst college anthropology student, took time away from school to live as a hobo, riding the American rails. The itinerant vagrant life of jumping boxcars and sleeping in hobo jungles brought risks, and so did John Law. When Conover was arrested for loitering while passing through his hometown of Denver where his father had a law office, the writer did not relinquish his role and went off to the hoosegow. Then decades later Conover spent a whole year inside. In order to learn about American prisons for Newjack, Conover took a job as a guard at Sing Sing Prison. Intense is the word for that account. Both books are models of evoking a menacing, rarefied environment filled with dangerous men. They also remind a writer attempting a similarly immersive project of how difficult is the necessary toggle between becoming a part of the community you seek to describe, and keeping a foot in your real life. Your book won’t be any good unless you achieve an intimate and sympathetic knowledge of those you are writing about, but your final obligations are to your reader.

The best rendition I’ve read of how football coaches think is a book about the making of a painting—James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait. Lord’s brilliant description of the great Swiss artist’s perpetually dissatisfied—enraged! tormented!--relationship to his work takes me right back into the New York Jets defensive coaching room where for hour after hour from day into night, the coaches would study the film of their own players while in the interminable grip of endless possibility. They aspired to an impossible ideal--to invent original patterns of defensive play. It was in these moments that I felt a certain kinship with the coaches. Building the game plan was their creative endeavor, and the slow, frustrating, probably fruitless process had much in common with the perfectionist methods of Giacometti who painted all day only to sponge the whole thing at quitting time: “I’m destroying everything with great bravery!” In that way, coaching and painting were a lot like writing. You could always aspire to do better.

Over time, I came to see that for many people in the NFL, a football team’s signal attraction is that it functions as a surrogate family. As one player put it, “Football is my father.” This was a powerful and enormously consequential revelation, and as I sorted through the implications, it helped to return to Ian Frazier’s masterpiece of memoir and personal history, Family. In the book, Frazier uses the story of his own ancestors as a means of thinking about the country, about the ways that people do and don’t make their way together, and about the institutions that bind them. It’s such a beautiful, inventive book that somehow you hear it speaking to you in its own distinctive voice as you read. Frazier’s approach meshes memoir, biography, straight history, oral history, travel writing, autobiography, creative nonfiction—so many genres. That sound—how can I explain? As I read Family I hear in the pages the resonant thrum of ancestral voices.

In the United States, country of feel-good films with happy endings, our most popular entertainment is ultimately about loss. In the end, only one football team can win, and because so many days and nights go into preparing for football games, football coaches become masters of losing. Thinking about these men who give up their homes, their children’s youths, their marriages, all for a doomed cause, I went back to James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” where it is said, “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

There is in particular a grave, complicated, mortal, holiday feeling to the last Sunday of the football season. As I sat on the Jets team bus outside an emptying stadium in Miami, experiencing this unwanted finish firsthand, my memory went suddenly to Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings.” When I got home, I opened up Larkin’s Collected Poems and reread the poem several times. Then I closed the book and began to write.
Learn more about Collision Low Crossers, and follow Nicholas Dawidoff on Facebook.

Check out Dawidoff's list of the five best baseball novels.

Writers Read: Nicholas Dawidoff (May 2008).

--Marshal Zeringue