politics (perhaps a factor in Liston’s death),
on local crime and cops (another possibility),
and, especially, on the fight game. But almost
40 years have passed since Liston’s death, and
despite Assael’s confidence in his conclu-
sions, the book itself fails to make the case for
murder, though the drug connection seems
unassailable. Still, there is much here that will
appeal to anyone interested in the intersec-
tion of crime and boxing. —Mark Levine
The Perfect Pass: American Genius and
the Reinvention of Football.
By S. C. Gwynne.
Sept. 2016. 320p. Scribner, $27 (9781501116193);
e-book, $12.99 (9781501116216). 796.332.
A perennial conference doormat in football
in the mid-1980s, a desperate, financially ailing Iowa Wesleyan University took a flier on
young high-school coach Hal Mumme, who
quickly implemented a series of cutting-edge
changes: he trimmed an oversized playbook to
a mere 15 pass plays and 6 rushing plays, and
he built his entire offense on the short pass,
then plugged in a quarterback of average arm
strength who could nevertheless throw often
and with deadly accuracy. Decades ahead of
his time, Mumme (pronounced “mummy”)
eliminated hard contact and such ponderous
drills as wind sprints and pushups in team
practices, all of which injected, well, joy into
his players’ training. While it’s a little unclear
how many of Mumme’s changes were entirely new, or came from like-minded coaches
he consulted (the legendary Bill Walsh was
one), Pulitzer Prize finalist Gwynne (Empire
of the Summer Moon, 2010) still delivers a
rousing tale of innovation finding success in
the face of the gale-force winds of convention. —Alan Moores
Though there’s a rich tradition of literary nonfiction about sports, good sports novels are harder to find: with predicable patterns of hard work and redemption, the majority of sports novels are written for young readers. Abroad, it seems to be a somewhat
different story, particularly with novels about soccer. Perhaps it’s the ubiquity of the
world’s game that makes foreign novelists incorporate it as merely one more way into
stories of relationships, struggle, and personal growth—almost none of which feature a
come-from-behind win at the end.
The Damned Utd. By David Peace. 2006. Melville, $16.95
What happens when a soccer coach takes over a team he despises? We
find out in this fictionalized account of larger-than-life Brian Clough’s turbulent tenure—which only lasted 44 days—at English powerhouse Leeds
United in 1974. Using a stream-of-consciousness, first-person narration,
Peace brilliantly builds tension and characterization, imparting an epic feel
to what was ultimately a brief, failed experiment. (This was adapted into
an excellent film, The Damned United, starring Michael Sheen.)
Fan. By Danny Rhodes. 2014. Dufour/Arcadia, $27 (9781909807808).
In one of the worst soccer-stadium disasters in history, 96 fans died
after they were crushed in an overcrowded pen at Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium on April 15, 1989—and author Rhodes was there. In this
haunting and affecting novel, he explores the tragedy’s lasting effects
through John Finch, a 33-year-old schoolteacher who returns to his
hometown in 2004 for the funeral of an old friend and fellow fan who
has committed suicide.
Off Side. By Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. Tr. by Ed Emery. 2001. Melville,
Barcelona FC, one of the biggest and most successful soccer teams
in the world, has been receiving unusually poetic death threats, all
of which conclude: “The centre forward will be killed at dusk.” Team
management hires private investigator Pepe Carvalho to look after their
expensive new goal-scorer, giving Spain’s most famous sleuth a chance
to meander through the world of professional sports. Nominally a mystery, this is also a sly social critique and entertaining character study
offering an engaging tour of 1980s Barcelona.
Papers in the Wind. By Eduardo Sacheri. Tr. by Mara Faye Lethem. 2014. Other, $17.95
When a Buenos Aires man dies of cancer, his brother and friends take it upon themselves to ensure the future of his young daughter. Unfortunately, the man’s entire
estate consists of one terrible investment: he owns the transfer rights to an unknown
soccer player laboring deep in the third division. If they can sell him, the girl’s future is
secure—but how do you sell a striker who can’t score goals? In this funny and affecting novel, the Argentinean best-seller Sacheri explores whether the game can return
the love we put into it.
Red or Dead. By David Peace. 2014. Melville, $18.95 (9781612194387).
A 700-page, experimental novel about Bill Shankly, the sainted coach of Liverpool,
is probably a tough sell, even to the English team’s most devoted supporters, but this
is nonetheless a magnificent literary achievement. Weaving a dense tapestry of short,
declarative sentences, Peace builds each scene with painstaking, poetic repetition,
bringing to life Shankly’s relentless drive, his committed socialism, his concern for
the fans—and rendering his rudderless retirement all the more poignant. When Peace
wrote The Damned Utd, he was clearly just warming up.
NOVELS ABOUT SOCCER
BY KEIR GRAFF
The Penalty Area.
By Alain Gillot. Tr. by Howard Curtis.
Sept. 2016. 192p. Europa, paper, $16 (9781609453534).
The coach of an under- 14 soccer team in Sedan,
France, Vincent leads an orderly, solitary life, shying
away from emotional commitment. But when his peripatetic sister, Madeleine, drops off her 13-year-old son,
Léonard, for an extended stay, Vincent’s arm’s-length
policy is put to the test. Léonard is an
odd duck, a “Martian,” a gangly chess
genius who panics when his own need
for routine is broached. On a whim,
Vincent tries him out as a goalkeeper
and learns that his nephew’s unique
ability to anticipate plays makes him
a goalkeeping prodigy—both due to,
and in spite of, what Vincent learns is
Asperger’s syndrome. The relationship
of man and boy unfolds in a thoughtful, heartwarming
way, alongside a halting romance with a helpful child
psychologist. While in some ways Vincent’s equilibrium
may be a bit too easily earned, the first novel from journalist, screenwriter, and comic-book author Gillot is a
genuinely enjoyable portrait of a man learning to open
himself up and make a new family out of the materials
at hand. —Keir Graff