He Didn’t Six
By Ronald Sklar
Elwood Reid and I have formed the I-Love-Richard-Price Club. You already may (and should) know that Richard Price (The Wanderers, Ladies’ Man, Blood Brothers and Clockers) is the most brilliant working-class writer who ever lived. Elwood and I worship and adore him.
So, kids: now you know the yin-yang of Richard Price. And, of course, you know me (I’ve held ten thousand jobs and my novel is in the works and it’s coming soon, I promise all of you). But do you know Elwood Reid? You’d better. He’s the next best thing to Richard Price – and that’s saying something. If you go into your corner bookstore and they don’t have Reid’s If I Don’t Six (Doubleday), kick their ass.
Reid is as working class as you can get, but his rise to literary coolness is the stuff of fairy tales. He was born and raised in the factoryland of Cleveland – a world where people punch clocks and each other and don’t read books, let alone write them (Quick: name a famous author from Cleveland). His only hope of escape was a football scholarship to the University of Michigan. But here’s the catch: Reid loved books and writing more than the game (Are you ready for some literature?). In fact, while on the field, he longed for the moment when he could go back to his dorm room, crawl into bed and get back to reading a book. Of course, in college football, an egghead like this is considered “subversive.” This is the thread of his novel, and it’s a howl: a big hulking football stud quotes Marcus Aurelius and devours books as easily as he does his opponents.
“I don’t know how the passion found me, but it did,” he recounts in a recent interview. “Most of the writer models that you’re given growing up are almost effete. I didn’t connect with them. I tune out. I prefer writers like Philip Roth or Raymond Carver or Richard Price. They have a blue-collar passion that says, ‘I’m going to die telling you this story.’ It may not have those sleek BMW curves and edges, but it has much more passion and pop. You can’t imitate it. You can’t buy it.”
After ten years of rejection, Reid’s expressed himself right out of the slush pile at GQ. Yes, GQ, that Bible of effete dandyism. Reid’s hard-hitting short story, “What Salmon Know,” was a stone-cold look at his experience as a Big-Ten college-scholarship player. It got raves, to say the least.
“The editor must have had a good breakfast that morning,” he laughs about his wild good luck.
He then took the misunderstood-jock idea about seven giant steps further in his first novel, If I Don’t Six.
For those of you pansy-asses who don’t know what it means to “six,” (okay, okay, I didn’t know either – please don’t hurt me), sixing means flunking out of school, blowing your dream to play college football and losing your scholarship. This is the dilemma facing the main character, Elwood Riley (Get it? The name is strangely close to Reid’s, which must mean that the character is much like the author.). In his tough, funny, Richard Price-like style, Elwood debates rejecting the pain and suffering of the college football way of life. The vicious coaches push him to the limit in one way, and Elwood pushes himself in another. It’s both savage and ironic: because Elwood refuses to dumb down, he is on the verge of sixing.
The world of this novel is no fairyland. In fact, it’s all too real. We get Cleveland in all its dismal glory, as well as the Wolverines and the University of Michigan. No made-up names to protect the innocent.
“I don’t like books or films that create fictional sports teams or fictional wars,” he says. “When that is done, the reader is reading along and at some point he pulls back and realizes that the story doesn’t really exist. It’s sort of make believe. In my book, this is a real place and a real team and a real city. It can happen. You want a sense of consequence. Bad things can happen.”
Yes, bad things can and do happen. But nothing in the savagery of football or the cold rejection of publishing could compare him for the actual success of being a first-time-published author.
Of that experience, he says, “As a quote-unquote dumb jock, I felt as if no one was going to listen to what I had to say. I spent ten years dealing with rejection. The book becomes this abstract thing and the real goal is staying true to your course of writing. I wanted the book in the abstract but it was more important that I continue to grow as a writer.”
When the world finally does come around, he says, “you’re oddly unaffected by it. Everyone else around you makes a big deal, but you are sitting there after ten or twelve years of rejection, thinking, ‘I’m not very good.’ To this day, I would like to change half the book. Part of the training of a good writer is to never be satisfied. Early on, I would write a few drafts and think, I’m a genius. Slowly, the reality gets beaten into you that you’re not very good. And by the time I went on tour for the book, I was so detached from it. It was so far in the past that people who have read the book knew more about the book and felt more deeply connected to it than I did.
“You become very impressed that you have a book published,” he says. “And you think the next step is the New York Times bestseller list. Then you go on tour and you realize that not many people show up. Sometimes you walk into the bookstore and the manager didn’t even know you were coming.”
Those heady days may be over, it seems, as Reid prepares for his first published collection of short stories as well as a second novel. “It never, ever, ever gets easier,” he says of his sophomore effort. “Before, with the first novel, there was everything to gain and nothing to lose. Now, my brain is working more than my heart and I’m analyzing every step I’m taking. The minute I have confidence in it, that would be the end of it.”
In addition, he is completing the screenplay for If I Don’t Six, which is currently being optioned by New Line Cinema. The casting should be very interesting. After all, how do you make a sports movie that hasn’t already been clichéd to death?
Reid may have the answer.
“The character is probably a little bit smarter than I was and probably a lot more aware of his situation,” he says. “I wasn’t that aware. The character is much wiser than I ever was. These are monster players who go from their parents’ hands to coaches’ hands.”
Because it is done so often – and not always successfully – the task of bringing a fictional sporting event to life is always challenging.
“What interested me was violence,” he says. “A gut reaction of a narrator on the page. There is no looking back on the moment, because it happens in the present tense, as all violence does. There is a rush: a feeling of both dread and exhilaration. Making verbs pop. You should write about it quickly and not build it too much.”
Now a Catskills-dwelling father of a little girl, Reid is still a sports fan but no longer watches football.
“There are guys who live and die for the game and it consumes their whole life,” he says. “I can’t understand that. It’s a mystery to me. There is a line between enjoying something and having it dominate your life. We all see the stereotypical fan. What is going through the guy’s head who has his body painted and his shirt off? What an impoverished life that person must lead if he is willing to go to that great of a length. I never understood it and I think part of it comes from being on the other end of it. I mean, you’re eighteen-years old and professors who you don’t know want to shake your hand. Women who you’ve never met want to be around you and look at you as if you’re special. Why am I so special? I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that I was someone special. I felt guilty. I’m not deserving of this attention or this adoration.”
He had better get used to it, though, because his day is coming. However, like most working stiffs, Reid knows the score.
He fears “the knowledge that any moment you’ll be working with your back. Many blue-collar writers write to rescue themselves from the fate that happens to their fellow blue-collar workers. They write to save themselves. Many serious writers put the message or the theme first at the expense of the character and the story. I want to tell a story first. All the other stuff follows.”
We’ll be following you, buddy, behind your next literary touchdown. Spike that ball and do a victory dance!
|© 1999. Courtesy of Doubleday. All rights reserved.|
Copyright ©1999 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 14, 1999.