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Nobody Will Admit The Best Novel of Our Generation is About Football
OK, so, there’s this thing where if you write a bunch you hope you eventually build up some trust with your audience. You try to be generally reliable and trustworthy in hopes that they come to believe you are generally reasonable, that you wouldn’t try to trick them, and that you aren’t David French. If any of these three things aren’t true, they rightfully come to distrust you.
Trust is a tricky thing, in that it’s a resource that can be spent (say, if I knowingly lie to you) but is best used in wagers. You go ask people to go out on a limb for you with the understanding that if you fail them you lose some of the trust you’ve worked to build up. If you are proven right, your audience might end up more confident in you than before. But it’s a risk you are taking with a finite supply of collateral; there’s only so many bets you can lose before you lose your audience altogether.
The subject of my brain’s semi-random “important, trust wager-worth identification” process this time is a novella by an author named Jon Bois, on the subject of the game of American football as played in Canada. Now, you might be surprised to learn that I like football; so would I, since I don’t. I don’t watch sports as a general rule, to the point where I’ve missed the last several Superbowls and couldn’t even tell you who played in them.
I know my lack of interest in the game isn’t interesting in and of itself, but I hope it lends some extra credibility when I tell you that this is the best work of literature of any kind written in the last few decades. A statement like that is pretty hard to back up (Although I’ll do my best) and it’s entirely possible I’m incorrect. It’s a subjective thing; you might end up disagreeing with me on how good the books are, and that’s fine.
But don’t be confused: I assure you that even though I might very well be wrong about how good this book is, I’m not kidding; it’s very, very good. Everything about it – the characters, the dialogue, the pacing – is perfect. The writing is excellent. The author was having a good time. The plot is interesting even if you exclude every aspect but novelty from consideration.
But it’s not just the sum of those parts. All those things normally stack up to be just the necessary parts of a good book; In a world where millions of people are trying to be writers, anything that finds its way to you really should have all those aspects by default. Here there’s more; there’s magic. All those positive elements combine with a perfect 10%-skewed-from-reality fantasy world and (I swear) a deep, even-works-for-atheists examination of spiritual purpose to create something else.
I once told a friend that there are a lot of books I enjoyed as one enjoys a piece of candy, but just a few I enjoyed as one enjoys a large, satisfying meal. If you’ve encountered the rare latter kind of book, you know what I mean; you finish and initially don’t feel much at all. It’s only over the course of the next couple of days it dissolves into your stomach, turning into something that for better or worse feels meaningful in a way most things just don’t.
So, for some quick context:
Tim Tebow is a real-life football player that really exists. He by all accounts did very well as a college football player, but then for a bunch of reasons failed to do well in the NFL. He’s also religious in a way that a lot of people said annoyed them (he’d kneel in the endzone after making a touchdown, for instance).
Canada is a real country. It’s sort of a mix between San Francisco, North Dakota, and ice.
The Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles follows the adventures of a fictionalized version of Tim Tebow who, brokenhearted over his inability to make it as an NFL quarterback, arrives in Toronto to join the Argonauts, one of the better teams in the Canadian Football League. He is bitter and views this development as a shameful thing - having failed to achieve his dreams, he hopes to disappear into a sporting league most people in the US don’t even know exists, staying close to the game he loves until he can one day get a gig as a color commentator on ESPN or something.
The Canada he steps into is also a fictionalized version of itself, at the beginning of the story seemingly optimized to exaggerate the aspects of the country most people in the US find silly. Tips in restaurants are simply doing something nice for the establishment, like singing a fun song or fixing a table. Every lock in Canada can be opened by any key in Canada since Canadians can’t understand what locks are for but wanted them anyway. All phone calls are completed by a network of children relaying your message by shouting into iron pipes.
Tim doesn’t understand any of it. He doesn’t understand why his coffee is served in a plastic bag, even though coffee melts plastic bags. He doesn’t understand why his god who he remains faithful to didn’t help him succeed in the NFL. He doesn’t understand why the Canadians are excited to have drafted a failure, and he certainly doesn’t understand why the football Canadians play with is several times heavier than what he’s used to, rendering touchdowns in Canadian football essentially unheard of (almost all forward motion of the ball is attained by punting).
But amidst all the slapstick weirdness, pieces start to fall into place.
The Canadians, it turns out, are excited about Tebow for two reasons: one, they are a fiercely anti-micromanaging people and think the NFL was the wrong place for Tim, that they wouldn’t “let Timmy be Timmy”. They want to give him the freedom to lead a team and to play as his unstifled self.
That heavy, bizarre football that prevents almost all significant forward progress of the ball? It’s heavy because CFL regulations demand there be a full, expandable javelin. And for whatever other failings Tim has, he’s freakishly strong. Whatever weaknesses kept him from being successful in the NFL, throwing a football like it’s half-javelin isn’t one.
(Note: SPOILERS START HERE. I am not worried about spoiling the book for a couple of reasons: First, it’s eight years old and you would have read it by now if “concealing the plot of the book” was the main thing you needed. Second, the part everyone thinks is the big, shocking part isn’t anything like the most important part of the book.)
In a game where all scoring is done by field goals because pretty much nobody can run with the ball or effectively pass with it, Tim Tebow finds himself able to do the impossible; he gets the ball and runs it to the end zone. It is then that the entire back of the stadium opens up, and it’s revealed that successful Canadian football drives don’t have a defined stopping point. They go “to street”, meaning that the team can move the ball through the city and out to the wilderness. The entire country of Canada is potentially in play, and Tim Tebow is the only person ever born who is able to take advantage of this.
I’m vaguely aware that none of y’all are ever going to read the book, even though I’m recommending it. That’s partially my fault; I’m describing all the slapstick elements, and nobody is going to believe that a book can be deeply and powerfully significant if it also has football rules that allow for “breakfast plays” to eat poutine in downtown Toronto.
But here’s the thing: it really is special. The author did something I’m not sure all of us could do by looking at a person, a real person, at the low point of the career and thinking “this person isn’t bad; they were built for something different”. He managed to put himself in the shoes of a homeschooled uber-religious football player with a slightly unorthodox throwing style and imagine what it would be like to know you were good - really worthwhile, really special - and then have that beaten out of you because it didn’t conform to what everyone else has agreed should result in success.
He looked at the NFL, which is refined and “solved” to the point where it doesn’t allow anything nonstandard to succeed, realized that un-success in one field doesn’t mean worthlessness in all others, and imagined what Tim Tebow could do in a world that wasn’t built to make him fail.
He imagined what a person could do, what they could really accomplish, if they found what they were actually built for.
There was a dark period in western media where someone said the word “gritty”, and every producer in the western world said “Yes, yes…. gritty. Everything we make for the next ten years will revolve around this word”. And so we got gritty; we got hundreds of shows and movies absolutely dedicated to imagining worlds where no one smiles, telling stories that were designed in such a way as to make sure they would never make anybody happy.
For a longer time before the gritty period, we all dedicated ourselves to the idea that anything we’d acknowledge as very good had to be both serious and artsy. People really liked Good Will Hunting (see: very serious); it was also a good movie, so it won an Oscar. Zillions of people love movies like The Princess Bride and Happy Gilmore; it’s incredibly likely both dwarf Good Will Hunting in terms of total views, but you can’t even imagine a world where either could have possibly won an Oscar.
As a society, we have a very limited definition of genius that broadly succeeds in keeping us from acknowledging greatness in anything silly; we can’t admit that something that wasn’t heavy and serious moved us.
There was a long period of time where I failed over and over at everything I tried, at least in terms of what I could perceive. My failures orbited the concept of finding worthwhile work. It was only later that I found my way to a bizarre set of circumstances that allowed me to use the few things I’m good at to succeed. Before that? It was really, really hard to consider myself anything other than a failure. It was very, very difficult to keep from being bitter at a world seemingly set up to make sure I’d never be able to do anything cool or rewarding.
Through all that, one thing I was allowed to be successful at was relationships. But I knew people who weren’t, who just weren’t built for general palatability in romance, or who hadn’t been able to build the kind of life that allows one to make a lot of friends. If you find someone who doesn’t check all the standard boxes that normally let people succeed, they flounder; they tread water wondering why they have to risk drowning while everyone else they see has yachts built out friendships and satisfying romantic relationships.
What this book does, really does, is invite you to consider the kind of world you might be built for, and to think about the fact that while the standard kind of person can do standard kinds of things, there might really be things that only your particular weird personal mix of talents and characteristics can do. That there are things only you can accomplish, or people only you can help.
It’s such a simple, sincere message that all the slapstick is necessary to sneak it through your defenses, but we are so trained to “slapstick means not very important” that this work of incredible art mostly got ignored - if you aren’t a sports person, you’ve probably never heard of it.
This is a short article by my standards, but it does have me thinking: What kind of world could we actually live in, if we were willing to treat works of art made with the goal of making us happy as if they were important? What if we were willing to make them? We’ve seen what happens in a world where all the Oscars go to movies that make you cry, or that we pretend make us think even though they generally don’t.
I’m just putting this out there: What kind of world would we get if we were willing to admit that works of art that tried to make us happy were important?
Hey: Visit my friend Parrhesia’s blog. He’s just been getting better and better.