Top five: football fiction

Fiction about sport is a tricky thing. Real-life sport creates its own stories: the against-all-odds win, the greatest player or team at their peak, the bitter loss, the win that seemed destined, etc., etc. It’s hard for fiction to compete because one of the things that makes sport great is that it really happened. How often do you hear commentators say some variation of ‘you couldn’t write an ending like this’?

Still, fiction can take us closer to the people who play these sports than any non-fiction writer can. We can see through their eyes, just for a moment, and get a sense of how it feels to be the best or fall from grace, or we can just revel in the craziness of fame and celebrity.

Here, then, is a selection of the best football fiction. The classics of the genre date from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Do today’s footballers lead lives that lend themselves less to fiction? I’m not sure that they do but perhaps modern writers are interested in other topics. There is only one 21st Century book on this list, though 2012’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk did almost make the cut.

Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes (1968)
Subtitled ‘A Fictional Memoir”, Exley’s novel draws extensively on the author’s experience with alcoholism, mental illness and an obsession with the New York Giants. It’s not a book about football, particularly, but sport forms a backdrop to the narrator’s worsening behaviour and increasingly desperate state.
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Don DeLillo, End Zone (1972)
The second novel by Don DeLillo is nowhere near as complex as his later work. (His masterpiece, Underworld, finds a key theme not in football, but in baseball, or at least a baseball.) End Zone is a satire centred on a college football quarterback who is obsessed with the threat of nuclear war. He and his teammates have a series of implausibly intellectual conversations. That’s not to criticise football players, it’s just that everyone in a DeLillo novel speaks in exactly the same implausibly intellectual fashion. It takes some getting used to.
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Peter Gent, North Dallas Forty (1973)
As a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys during the 1960s, Peter Gent brings more experience to his football writing than most novelists can manage. North Dallas Forty is a wekk in the life of a receiver on a Dallas professional football team and it looks at the physical toll that football takes and how players numb that with drugs and alcohol. Part of the fun of this book is wondering which of his teammates Gent based certain characters on, and how much of this stuff the real players got up to.
Out of print: available secondhand

Frank Deford, Everybody’s All-American (1981)
Everybody’s All-American is the best known of several novels written by former Sports Illustrated writer, Frank Deford. It’s the story of a promising college star who makes it to the pros but manages only a solid career. After retiring he finds it hard to accept that his football days are gone and constantly trades on the glory days.
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Lost Empress by Sergio de la Pava (2018)
A sprawling epic reminiscent of David Foster Wallace, De La Pava’s novel divides its focus between a deeply critical view of the American criminal justice system and a satire of football. The latter concerns the daughter of the Dallas Cowboys’ owner, who is disgusted when her brother inherits the NFL team, even though she has greater football knowledge. Instead, she gets the Paterson Pork, an indoor football franchise. Her mission to make the indoor league bigger than the NFL is very entertaining.
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