"The title of the novel, an unusual geographic reference, gains weight as the narrative progresses, since the true subject matter of Davis’s concern is not simply the murder of a young black man, its reason, its solution, and its playing out of the plot of identifying the guilty and supplying the emotional release the reader experiences from the punishment the miscreants so richly merit and receive. Instead, Davis presents a piercing look into the heart of the geographic and emotional location of his protagonist and his journey from jaundiced estrangement into a renewed connection with the ordinary definition of what it is to be human. In the process, Davis teases the reader into a consideration of what the words South and America mean in the new millennium."
Saturday, November 9, 2013
Saturday, September 7, 2013
Making War at Fort Hood, by Kenneth MacLeish, is one of the books that gets to the essence of what it means to serve in the military far more bluntly than even some of the best war novels, good as they might be. Here's my review, "The Body as Battleground," in the September 2013 issue of The Texas Observer. It appeared the same week as the mind-numbing push to initiate military action against Syria. The issues researched and analyzed by MacLeish will never go away.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
When I was at Houston City magazine in the '80s, we had a watering hole in the Montrose with a jukebox that played "Free Nelson Mandela" constantly. This is a great video link with both the song and an interesting piece about it from the BBC. I want to post this now while he is still with us.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
Sunday, July 7, 2013
If you've found John Ford's "The Searchers" as disturbingly compelling as I have, you might find reasons in this NYRB commentary on Glenn Frankel's comparison of the film to the story on which it was based. Helps me see why this epic, along with "La Dolce Vita" and "Bullitt," is among my faves.
Read the piece here.
Read the piece here.
Monday, February 4, 2013
- Monday, 04 February 2013 11:55
- Rod Davis
“It is so hard becoming a civilian," Kyle said. "When you are in the military, everything you do is for the greater good. And as a civilian, everything you do is for your own good.
“When you’re in the military, you are facing life and death every day. And then you come home and hear people who are unhappy about the little things. And you think, are you kidding me? Two weeks ago, I was shot. And this is your problem. … They train us how to become warriors, but then they don’t teach us and train us how to become businessmen.”
– Dallas Morning News, Feb. 3, 2013
I am late getting to the party on Ben Fountain’s acclaimed, relentless novel that is not a war novel but a combattere interruptus about what happens to soldiers when they return home. And then have to go back. And maybe not come home. I don’t actually know if that’s a literary (or Latin) term, any more than I know why Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk didn’t win the National Book Award. I’ll let the writing speak for itself, after these digressions.
First, a confession. When I started reading, I was immediately taken with how much the language of young warriors rang true and has remained so constant over so many conflicts. Direct and no-bullshit, it is chiefly concerned, in no special order, with sex, chow, bitching, getting wasted, dumbasses, boredom, loneliness, and not getting killed. In this complex military world both truncated and expansive, terrible things become comic. The mundane leads to transcendence. Even vulgarity is destroyed and reborn holy. Consider the word “fuck.” Among troops, it assumes any syntactic form, always with complete precision. You could make whole sentences out of fuck. Fuck knows I’ve fucking heard them. I thought, this fucking guy fucking knows his shit. When the fuck did he serve?
Of course, the Dallas-based author didn’t, and never said he did. I put the book down when that dawned on me, feeling a little duped but mostly stupid for my assumption. I thought there was a rule about this. But I had an honest moment with myself: this book wasn’t about Iraq any more than The Sun Also Rises was about World War I. And how in any event it is the task of the writer of fiction to elicit the truths that lie deeply embedded inside illusions of “reality.” Especially concerning the fog of war. I had to finish the novel. Some in the military may disagree, but I think Fountain did his job and got it right.
The story vehicle is that of a small squad nicknamed the Bravos, whose 15-plus minutes of fame follow a deadly firefight that was caught by a network news crew and became a viral video. The Bravos are brought home for a two-week leave and publicity tour culminating in an appearance at Cowboy stadium (the old one) as halftime stars at the Thanksgiving game. The day is witnessed through the acutely reflective mind of Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old Texan who lost two friends and won a Silver Star in the action and is at once both innocent and older than Homer.
Billy and his buddies pass some edgy time before the game drinking, eating, bitching, and fantasizing over hooking up with the halftime act, Destiny’s Child. They’re also in surreal talks with a semi-famous Hollywood producer, trying to land a movie deal based on their experiences. He’s got Hilary Swank interested if she can play the role of the macho intellectual squad leader, Sgt. Dime. Some investors will only sign on if the story can be re-cast in World War II, because, you know, that was the greatest generation. Cowboys owner Norm Oglesby also may deal himself in, but only if he can get the Bravos to take an obscenely huge cut in their share of the potential deal, from $100,000 each down to $5,000. Everybody has to make sacrifices, Norm reminds them, as Mr. Jones, his armed bodyguard, stands by.
At every turn, Billy and his comrades confront a volatile mix of admiration, fear and ignorance. His sister, one of the book’s strongest characters, wants him to run away to an anti-war sanctuary. A Cowboys cheerleader from his hometown wants him to come back to her. Which Billy knows will never happen. The fans at the game treat the Bravos like sacred souvenirs. Everybody wants a piece of them and no one knows why.
It makes for a cold schooling: Soldiers, like artists, are heroes in the abstract, and problems in the flesh.
Here’s how Billy sees it:
- “Without ever exactly putting his mind to it, he’s come to believe that loss is the standard trajectory … The war is fucked? Well, duh. Nine-eleven? Slow train coming. They hate our freedoms? Yo, they hate our actual guts! Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.”
- “No one spits. No one calls him baby-killer. On the contrary,
people could not be more supportive or kindlier disposed, yet Billy
finds these encounters weird and frightening all the same.”
- “It seems to Billy a flat-out miracle that any of them are still
alive. So they’ve lost Shroom and Lake, only two a numbers man might
say, but given that each Bravo has missed death by a margin of inches,
the casualty rate could just as easily be 100 percent. The freaking
randomness is what wears on you, the difference between life, death, and
horrible injury sometimes as slight as stooping to tie your bootlace on
the way to chow, choosing the third shitter in line instead of the
fourth, turning your head to the left instead of the right… Billy sensed
the true mindfucking potential of it on their first trip outside the
wire, when Shroom advised him to place his feet one in front of the
other instead of side by side, that way if an IED blew low through the
Humvee Billy might lose only one foot instead of two.”
- “Billy spots Mr. Jones [Oglesby’s bodyguard] nearby, discussing
the line with several other suits. Cowboys by four? ’Boys by three? They
chuckle like men comparing the talents of a carnally shared woman, and
Billy would like to go over there and beat their faces in. He doesn’t
know why he’s so offended, but he is, maybe it’s Mr. Jones’ gun that
sets him off, something about the presumption of it, the ignorance, the
sheer fucking ego of carrying around an instrument of deadly force. Like
you know? You wanna see what deadly force can do? Bravo can show you,
Bravo does deadly like you wouldn’t believe, the kind that will break
your mind and make you wish you’d never spilled out of your mother’s
- “Maybe it’s not as much as you were hoping for, [Norm Oglesby
says] but I think most people would agree, something is better than
“Something would be nice,” Dime says. “Something would be
great. But it’s”—he breaks off with a choking gasp—“it’s just, I don’t
know it’s just so sad, sir. We thought you kind of liked us.”
“But I do!” Norm cries, lurching upright in his chair. “I do like you! I think the world of you fine young men.”
Dime clasps his hands to his heart. “See?” he gushes to Billy? “He does like us! He likes us so much he’s going to fuck us in the face.”
- “For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality’s bitch; what they don’t know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he’s lived what he’s lived and knows what he knows, which means what, something terrible and possibly fatal, he suspects. To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war? … Thank you! the nice people call after him. Thank you for your service!
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, By Ben Fountain, HarperCollins, 2012, is available here.
Rod Davis is a literary columnist for Plaza de Armas.
Sunday, December 30, 2012
- Saturday, 29 December 2012 17:35
- Rod Davis
“Sam was the bridge between the leather-helmet era and the modern,” writes Holley, a seasoned journalist who once worked at the Express-News and is currently political editor at the Houston Chronicle. “Before Sam Baugh, football closely resembled rugby, with tightly packed linemen trying to open holes for ball carriers running primarily between tackles on a tighter field without hash marks. Confident enough to throw the ball from any spot on the field, on any down, Sam wrenched football free from its sclerotic past and made it a hell of a lot more fun to watch.”
The subtitle of Holley’s Slingin’ Sam —“The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game”— is a straightforward declaration of a straightforward history, laden with games and stats. It provides a valuable look at the down-home TCU grad and subsequent Washington Redskins marquee draw who with his laser-sharp passes changed the offensive strategies of the country’s burgeoning sports industry, the NFL.
But there’s another story. As a boy, Holley, in the company of his dad and two brothers, met Baugh during the latter’s appearance at a Waco sporting goods store in the mid-1950s. You could almost see it as a passing scene in Terry Malick’s The Tree of Life. The brothers got Baugh’s autograph, and promptly lost it, but the big man obviously struck a chord. Years later, encouraged by colleagues at the Washington Post, Holley decided to restore the public’s awareness of a half-remembered legend. The result has appeal both to football buffs and devotees of Texas history.
Holley positions Baugh squarely in that extended Depression era of Texas, when life in the Lone Star state was, to paraphrase Hobbes, poor, racist, brutish and short. In the Hill Country, a young LBJ was growing up in abject conditions documented in stark detail by Robert Caro. In and around Sweetwater, near Abilene, things weren’t much different, although unlike LBJ’s, Baugh’s family was fortunate to be middle-class — his dad worked for the railroad.
But conditions were right for Baugh to grow physically and mature as an all-around high school athlete and then attend TCU (instead of UT, his initial preference). A standout talent, he was grabbed quickly after college by the former Boston Braves, whose owner, George Marshall, moved them to D.C. and changed their name and fate. Baugh was one of Marshall’s favorites and an extraordinary investment. The young Texan led the team from obscurity to five title games and two NFL championships, in addition to 13 NFL records at three positions in the ’30s and ’40s. He eventually left the game as a player in the early ’50s.
Holley spends considerable time showing, through Marshall’s team, the creation and expansion of the NFL. Throughout, Marshall was despicable. It was largely his racism that kept black players out of the NFL until 1946 and unsigned with the Redskins until 1961, under intense political pressure. When Washington Post sports writer Shirley Povich observed that “the Redskins colors are burgundy, gold and Caucasian,” he was promptly banned from the team clubhouse.
Of course, a lot of pro franchises are run like gilded feudal sweatshops by wealthy moguls with unchecked egos and reactionary social views. It’s something players and fans have to deal with, for better or worse, as Pete Gent notably recounted in North Dallas Forty. Baugh, though, kept his eyes on the game, the sport. In doing so, he assembled victories, honors and respect. Finally, the Redskins lost their mojo, and Baugh got older. He went on to coach the New York Titans (later Jets) and the Houston Oilers (now Texans), and spent his latter years at his Double Mountain ranch, near Rotan. He was one of the first inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Two parts of Baugh’s life might have merited further discussion. The first was the accidental death of a boyhood friend killed by his own .410 shotgun while climbing a fence hunting for rabbits. Such trauma is not something that goes away, and “it would stay with Sam the rest of his life, although he rarely talked about it.” Yet all we know of the possible effects is found in one provocative sentence: “Years later, Sam would take his boys out hunting for jackrabbits, but he would never handle a gun himself.”
A more important need for further exploration, at least to me, is Baugh’s lack of service in World War II, at the top of his career. Reasons are given — the morale-building aspect of pro football for the troops, and Baugh’s second-tier draft status based on an essential occupation as a beef rancher — but they leave more questions than answers. At any time, Baugh could have volunteered, as did tens of thousands of the other 16 million Americans who served in the war. As did, in our time, NFL player Pat Tillman. This lack of action, especially in a man applauded for his strong character, seems inexplicable if not inexcusable. He did, after all, find time to still play football while raising those essential cattle. Without Baugh to clarify his choice, we are unlikely to ever make sense of it.
Nonetheless, by all accounts Sam Baugh was not only a great athlete, but a likable man. He was self-effacing in a way that is rare in a major football hero. With his beloved wife, Mona, he raised a strong, healthy family. He died in 2008 at age 94, his last few years in a nursing home not far from his ranch. Beyond his athletic gifts, his appeal was that he was an average Joe in many ways, not even “buff” by contemporary steroid and weight-room standards. Holley’s biography, which relies heavily on help from Baugh’s family and friends, is clearly a work of love. It also is an important record of a Texan who made a mark in a world that at the time barely knew the state existed, or that football would become an unrivaled metaphor in American culture.
Rod Davis is a literary columnist for Plaza de Armas.
Slingin’ Sam, by Joe Holley is available here.
Foreword by Peyton Manning
University of Texas Press, 2012