Revisiting A Couple Of Classics Billy Clyde Puckett is back in the game, and the young Ali comes back to life

October 18, 1998

Rude Behavior
By Dan Jenkins
Doubleday, $24.95

Twenty-six years later we revisit the Jenkins gang from the
author's, shall we say, revolutionary sports novel, Semi-Tough.
The characters are certainly older, not necessarily wiser and
every bit as impudent, profane and bibulously carefree as in the
earlier book, which gleefully punctured holes in the sporting
establishment. This time, though, the author has an even more
inviting target for his skewering wit: political correctness.
"Hell," says one of Jenkins's alter egos, "you can't say
anything anymore. Tell a joke to some p.c. jerk, you can get
shot."

But health cops (especially those on the smoking beat), language
mutilators and blue-nosed moralizers of all stripes aren't the
only pigeons Jenkins pots in these bawdy pages. The author has
it in for athletes, agents, kids, football officials, magazine
editors, sportscasters, protesters, rockers, university
administrators and the entrepreneurs who hideously transform
stadiums and bowl games into advertising messages: "the Regal
Crystaline Finish Auto Painting & Collision Repair Celebration
Bowl."

Taking the shots are fun-loving rogues not only from Semi-Tough
but also from other earlier Jenkins novels: former All-Pro
running back Billy Clyde Puckett; his beautiful actress wife,
Barbara Jane; his lifelong pal Shake Tiller; sportswriter
supreme and expense-account magician Jim Tom Pinch (Jenkins his
ownself in fictional disguise); former Puckett teammate and
current coach T.J. Lambert; barflies Wayne and Ralph (who like
to hang out at a cozy tavern named He's Not Here); and Puckett's
filthy-rich father-in-law, Big Ed Bookman. Big-spending Big Ed
exults in finding just the right university chancellor for the
alma mater he so lavishly supports: "His qualifications were
impressive. He was a chain-smoker with a hacking cough," and,
"his driver's license had been suspended at the time for a
series of DUI's." Most important, though, the man came from a
school with a winning football record.

Oh, yes, somewhere along the way in this very funny book these
merry men and women (sexiness aside, Jenkins's women are really
just guys) take a mediocre NFL expansion team in remotest West
Texas to the Super Bowl. The league's vaunted "parity" helps no
end. I'll leave it to you to guess who wins the Big One.

King of the World
Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero
By David Remnick
Random House, $25

This is, Allah be praised, much more than just another book
about Muhammad Ali, who surely has been the subject of more
biographical studies than Lindbergh, Lady Di and Jackie O
combined. The old champ may be the protagonist here, but
Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker and author of Lenin's
Tomb, the 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the fall of the
Soviet Union, has assumed the far larger task of examining the
mostly disreputable history of boxing over about a 40-year
period. Along the gory way, he provides memorable portraits of
such Ali foes as Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson and takes
longer and no less penetrating looks backward at the likes of
Jack Johnson, Joe Louis and Archie Moore.

Liston emerges here, for all of his menacing presence and sordid
past, as a sympathetic, almost tragic figure. Patterson, too, is
seen as a sad case, a gifted athlete demoralized by self-doubt
and his urgent need for acceptance. Remnick's hero, the former
Cassius Clay, suffers from neither Patterson's angst nor
Liston's truculence. But at least in his early career, his
genial braggadocio was often misinterpreted as either cynicism
or lunacy.

When Ali joined the Nation of Islam in 1963, his stock declined
even more precipitously, particularly among pundits of the
sporting press, notably the columnist Jimmy Cannon, whose
tough-guy sentimentality is wickedly dissected in these pages.
What is almost forgotten now, more than 30 years later, is how
Ali's allegiance to the separatist Black Muslims and his refusal
to be inducted into the military brought him much public
vilification.

In fact, the Ali illuminated in these pages is a far more
complex figure than the man-child we have come to know and, of
course, love. Like so many icons, he was capable of hypocrisy,
cruelty and fear. Like Liston and Patterson before him, and like
most participants in his mean profession, he ultimately became a
victim, albeit a victim, as Remnick so touchingly reminds us,
both indomitable and serene.

COLOR PHOTO: DOUBLEDAY [Cover of book Rude Behavior] COLOR PHOTO: RANDOM HOUSE [Cover of book King of the World]
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