Book Review: North Dallas Forty
Peter Gent’s North Dallas Forty is not like most of the books I’ve reviewed on here. For one thing, it was first published in 1973. Older books can be hit or miss. Some, like Paper Lion, feel old, artifacts of their times. Others, like Meat on the Hoof or Instant Replay, are recognizably about a time past but can still profitably be read in the present.
For another, it’s a novel. While I read plenty of fiction (precisely one-half of the sixty books I’ve read so far this year have been novels), my reviews on here have been almost all non-fiction. Of course, there aren’t really that many novels about football, and even fewer of them are good. North Dallas Forty is considered one of the best, though, and it came in twenty-fifth on Sports Illustrated‘s list of the top 100 sports books.
North Dallas Forty chronicles a week in the life of Phil Elliott, an aging receiver for a Dallas football team. Gent was a wide receiver who played for the Cowboys from 1964 through 1968, and one of the fun parts of the book is guessing to just what extent players in the book resemble their real-life counterparts. The backup quarterback seems relatively straitlaced enough to be Craig Morton, and Tex Schramm and Tom Landry are recognizable enough. Just how much of “Dandy” Don Meredith is in the hard-living quarterback who is Phil’s best friend on the team, though, is something we’re left to wonder.
The best comparison for North Dallas Forty may be Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. A big part of the seminal impact of both books was their willingness to portray the seamier side of life as a professional athlete. For Bouton, that was things like pill-popping (greenies) and Mickey Mantle’s alcohol consumption and his (and others’) eagerness to engage in intimate relations with females to whom they were not bound by holy matrimony. For Gent, like Kramer he writes about the literal physical pain of being an NFL player, but where he goes beyond Kramer is detailing how players try to escape the pain with, of course, alcohol, sex (whether with wife, girlfriend, groupie, or all of the above), and drugs, including both pain pills and, more controversially, marijuana.
Now, though, all that stuff is old hat; it’s not exactly news that professional athletes drink, sleep with attractive women even if they’re not married to him or are married to somebody else, and may do drugs of both the legal and illegal varieties. Like Ball Four, though, North Dallas Forty still makes for a very interesting portrait of a time both gone by and that still looks a lot like the present. Recommended.
UPDATE: I suppose I should mention I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen the movie based on the book, though it’s now on my “to watch, eventually, one day, hopefully” list.