Are we in the presence of a new literary genre? Last week's nonfiction best-seller list from The New York Times Book Review certainly seemed to suggest so, for right there in second and third place, behind William Styron, were a couple of football coaches—or, rather, former football coaches—Barry Switzer and Tom Landry.
Styron, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and also the author of the memorable Sophie's Choice (1979), made the top of the list for his Darkness Visible, a gripping account of his desperate battle with depression. Switzer (with help from former SI writer Bud Shrake) was in second place with Bootlegger's Boy. Reviewed on page 19 of this very magazine, Switzer's tome recounts his miserable childhood and his travails while mentoring players like The Boz (himself a former best-selling autobiographer) at the University of Oklahoma. Landry (with Georgia-based freelance writer Gregg Lewis) is currently third on the list with his memoir, Tom Landry, which chronicles the 29 fun-filled years he spent on the sidelines coaching the Dallas Cowboys until he got canned by the team's new owner before the 1989 season.
So what's going on? Isn't this pretty heady company for the X's-and-O's guys? I mean, William Styron, Barry Switzer and Tom Landry? You don't hear those names mentioned in the same breath in many literary salons. Or are we spawning a new generation of whistle-toting belletrists? Come to think of it, weren't Bo Schembechler and Lou Holtz best-selling authors not that long ago? One must look for trends here.
Schembechler and Holtz aside, there is the real possibility of a new Southwest school of regional literature springing out of the arid playing fields of Texas and Oklahoma. These things do tend to run in cycles. If New England could flower in the 19th century with Emerson and Thoreau and the Midwest could offer up Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the 1920s, why can't the Dust Bowl deliver Switzer and Landry to the reading public of this fin de siècle? The perceptive reader can just picture the two coaches standing in lonely grandeur on their respective practice fields after three-hour workouts, their flinty gazes fixed on the distant horizon. "What," they ask themselves in voices grown scratchy from bellowing at interior linemen, "does it all mean?" And so to the word processor.
September 23, 1990
There is also, of course, the common-experience theory to explain the coach-litterateur phenomenon. Papa, Scott and that Lost Generation crowd had the Great War as the inspiration for their disillusionment. Steinbeck had his Okies. Mailer, James Jones and, yes, Styron had World War II. Switzer and Landry have modern football, its gridirons darkly peopled by conniving agents, television executives and gym-shoe salespersons. Granted, Switzer was a college football man and Landry worked in the NFL, but even the most callow among us would agree that the boundary between these two supposedly separate sports is growing less and less distinct. So Switzer and Landry see life from the same vantage point. And like so many authors before them, what they see has led them to insights lasting and profound.
Just as Sinclair Lewis was repelled by the philistinism he discerned in the American small town, and just as the proletarian authors of the Great Depression rebelled against a capitalism gone haywire, so Switzer and Landry find themselves spiritually isolated from wide receivers bejeweled like maharajas and from noseguards who can't read a blackboard. Their disillusionment is akin, I suggest, to that of Maxwell Bodenheim.
Switzer and Landry are, in many important aspects, opposites. The former is bombastic, hedonistic, roguish; the latter circumspect, God-fearing, domestic. But there is much they have in common besides a literary bent. Each in his separate way has been an authoritarian, passionate believer that his alone is the way to truth and enlightenment. And each, now, in the contemplative phase of his heretofore hyperactive life, has come to see a certain light. Part of this is a realization that players are bozos. And part is the acknowledgment, painfully gained, that when all is said and done, the authors may not have been right all the time. Thank heaven, as Landry would say, they have chosen to share this enlightened state with us. And in doing so, they have moved right up there behind William Styron.
Of course, there may be one other explanation for their sudden best-sellerdom, for as the eye travels down The New York Times list, it also falls upon the names of those noted scriveners Donald Trump (10th) and Bob Hope (14th). And as I recall, that fellow who said he learned everything in kindergarten has only recently departed from the top 15. So maybe Switzer and Landry aren't in such a fast crowd after all. Maybe, in fact, their fellow author Henry L. Mencken had it right when he wrote, "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people."