When I played hockey as a kid in the ’70s and ’80s, I used to love watching the Olympics, where the game was faster and less constrained than the National Hockey League version; the ice surface was bigger and there was less tolerance in the international rules for the kind of grabbing, holding, and fighting that used to really slow things down in the N.H.L. I always thought of myself as more of a “finesse” player than a fighter, so the game as played in the Olympics seemed like a perfect reflection of who I wanted to be, both on and off the ice, and I can still summon some of that enthusiasm as I watch, even if I no longer play.
Now that I’m older, I’m also interested in how the Olympics, just by virtue of congregating so many different citizens in one small place, showcases a shifting cultural landscape across the globe. The spotlight is intense and—as I see it—incredibly unforgiving to those who are not politically or socially enlightened or “evolved.” How often do we get to hear the Russian “mayor” of the Olympic village talk about why she doesn’t think cartoons should have two kings who love each other? “Excuse me, I have two boys.” What? Is she being serious? Obviously she is, but I like to think she’s on the losing side of history. It’s just a matter of time. Or is it? In either case, the Olympics offers us a lens into a very different world than the one—let’s just call it New York City, filtered through my blog reader—that usually occupies my attention. Seeing these people leads me to ask a question—which world is the real world?—that is also the central theme of a hockey novel, Amazons, published in 1980. Or one might ask a related question that’s posed by the 1977 hockey film Slap Shot, which I was also inspired to watch (you can stream it on Netflix): What do we want the world to look like?
Amazons has a strange history: pseudonymously co-written (and subsequently disavowed) by Don DeLillo—using the name Cleo Birdwell—it’s a “memoir” by the first woman to play in the National Hockey League. The book is great; it’s a hilarious, provocative read from start to finish (and it’s not short) that still has a lot to say about American culture circa 2014. Nobody seems to know why DeLillo has refused to sanction its reprinting—or why he asked his editor to delete it from his list of publications—but it’s worth the effort to find a used copy somewhere, especially if you’re a fan of DeLillo’s other work. It’s not a “heavy” read—you could definitely pick it up with the commercials on mute during the Olympics—but under a breezy surface, it’s philosophical and intense, a perfect vehicle for DeLillo to offer an outsider’s perspective on all sorts of subjects that challenge the reader to determine where reality lies.
There’s a scene about halfway through the book where the narrator—whom I’ll call Cleo here, because she feels like a friend or confidant in a way that DeLillo never does—in the middle of a road trip, stands at the window of her hotel and ponders the non-professional athletes of the world. These are people, she imagines, “who are always running around saying, ‘I have to get organized, there’s so much to do.’ People who run around waving lists. People who set personal deadlines.” She adds that she, by contrast, “has nothing to organize. Nothing to list. Nothing to set a deadline for.” She’s merely waiting for the next game. “All I want to do is play hockey,” she says after scoring a goal against Vancouver, when her teammates “came vaulting over the boards to smack me on the head with their giant gloves, and I felt a few claws on my backside as well. They were all shouting in my face, and giving me those gap-toothed, withered, senile grins, and rubbing my head with their gloves.” This is a very accurate description (except for the gap-toothed part; everyone I played with growing up had to wear face masks) of the collective euphoria that erupts when you score a goal. It doesn’t matter that Cleo’s a woman; if she can score, she’s entitled to the same reward as anyone else. Equal pay for equal work, etc.
And no doubt about it, she can score. Describing her childhood in a small town in Ohio, she explains that “people didn’t fail to notice there was something a little bit tremendous about my ability.” Putting aside the hedging word play that would become a standard stylistic feature of an entire generation—with David Foster Wallace the undisputed champion—she encapsulates the optimism of sports, which in many ways is an important facet of the American dream. If you have the talent and work ethic, the rest is irrelevant. Like Cleo Birdwell, you can make it. It’s the reason why, sooner or later, I like to think there’s going to be a gay Mario Lemieux who comes out in the National Hockey League, and nobody’s going to care if some of his teammates are worried about showering together in the locker room. If you can play, everyone else can STFU.
Or maybe not. Perhaps Michael Sam will let us know in a few years.
In Slap Shot, which stars a youngish Paul Newman (swoon) in a screenplay that was written by a woman (Nancy Dowd), a more pessimistic view of sports (and society) is offered. Here, the players on a minor-league team on the edge of bankruptcy—the film was shot in a very depressed Johnstown, Pennsylvania—debate whether they should play a version of hockey rooted more in speed and finesse, which they all understand is how the game is best played, or give in to the crowd’s seemingly endless thirst for spectacle and violence, so that games frequently devolve into what looks like a demented professional wrestling match. If the former option has more integrity, the latter fills the seats and pays the bills. Money versus ethics: sound familiar?
In Amazons, Cleo offers a perfect description of the collective bloodlust that possesses the Philadelphia Spectrum on any given night. “You know that for the next two and a half hours, all the laws of civilization will be suspended and you will be a part of a little drama of aggression, retaliation and death under the smoky lights… Those mysterious energies were in the air… A veil had been parted and the Spectrum crowd was looking into the clear, blue universe of a whole new idea. It is alright to maim and kill Cleo Birdwell.” Equality, you might say—even in the hockey rink—has its potential downside, which (hello gay marriage) is something we should always remember in any fight for social change.
Although Slap Shot, like Amazons, has plenty of LOLs—particularly when the three Hanson brothers take the ice with their taped-together Buddy Holly glasses to brawl with anyone who crosses their path—it barely feels like a comedy when you remember what’s really at stake here. It feels like society in 1977 was at a turning point; looking back three—almost four!—decades later, it’s hard not to feel regret at the way spectacle has infiltrated our collective consciousness. At least we can still remember that it’s a debate we should be having.
Both Slap Shot and Amazons have a lot to tell us about language and its evolution. Slap Shot is filled with what now feel like abrasively homophobic slurs. One player refuses to participate in a fashion show because he doesn’t want to look like a “cock-sucking faggot” and even Paul Newman (again: swoon) has a scene where he tells the owner of the team that her (maybe ten y.o.?) son “looks like a fag to me. You better get married again, ’cause he’s gonna wind up with somebody’s cock in his mouth before you can say ‘Jack Robinson.'” Whoa, Nellie. Later he tells an opposing goalie that his wife “sucks pussy! She’s a dyke! I know! I know! A lesbian! A lesbian! A lesbian!” This kind of banter feels very archaic to my sensibilities—it’s too ridiculous to be offensive—until I remember what’s going on right now in Sochi 2014—not to mention in Nigeria, or Uganda, or Alabama, etc. etc.—at which point I have to admit that we still have a long way to go, assuming it’s even possible to get there.
Amazons offers a more optimistic view of language, albeit from the vantagepoint of gender. Cleo isn’t afraid to call men out on sexist bullshit, such as the reporters who—”with a kind of lemon-sucking look… when they know they are being obnoxious and stupid”—ask her about her “poor, floppy, delicate breasts.” To which she answers: “You wear a jock for your lower plumbing, I wear pads for my upper.” End of story. In another early scene, she meets the president of Madison Square Garden, a foul-mouthed alcoholic who in the course of a rant about all the “shit-ass clauses” Floss Penrose (Cleo’s agent, also a woman) managed to get into Cleo’s contract, tells her that “speaking about pussy, my wife’s been keeping it under wraps. She rolls it out once a year, on New Year’s Eve.” Cleo interrupts and tells him that his “choice of words leaves me a little cold, frankly.” Later, when she’s in the locker room, naked to the waist, and someone compliments her “big-league boobs,” she responds by saying “Okay, but don’t call them that.” This is exactly the spirit I want to summon when I confront idiotic, homophobic language: I want to calmly correct the perpetrator and move on. Cleo Birdwell is a hero.
Nor does she like the idea of displaying her chest in a proposed television commercial for “Amazons,” the name of a new brand of crackers for which she is asked to film a spot as a celebrity spokesperson. “Go swing your organs,” she tells the male assistant who outlines the cleavage concept to her. “I’m a hockey player.” Later, she takes on the slang of genitalia. “Men use strong, virile words for their own damn parts, like cock, prick, tool, and balls…. yours come out heroic and mine come out silly and demeaning. Tit, twat, nookie, boob, pussy. These are men’s words for women…the only one worth anything is cunt, and probably some woman came up with that one.”
Concerned as she (or DeLillo, as it’s easy to forget, given the ease with which he inhabits her voice) is with pricks and cunts, it makes sense that a large percentage of Amazons‘ pages are devoted to the mechanics of sex between men and women, which also happens to be another arena in which Cleo operates with an ability that is at least a little bit tremendous. In addition to her sort-of boyfriend Shaver, Cleo sleeps with six other men during the course of the season, and she describes each of these encounters with a level of frank detail that, in addition to being very funny and often absurd—e.g., Cleo having sex as she recounts her idyllic Ohio childhood; a man losing his erection because he hears the word “Watergate”; another trying to penetrate her while holding her pinned against a wall and finding the wrong orifice: “you want five-oh-one, just down the hall,” she tells him, etc.—is breathtaking if you consider the literary minefield represented by sex in 2014. We’re still dealing with the aftershocks of AIDS, which made sex (gay or straight) too dangerous or loaded to handle with any aplomb; for a long time, it was easier to pretend that it didn’t even exist or, if it did, that it was something that had to be treated with a kind of sacred earnestness that so often works at cross-purposes to any sense of insight or entertainment. Now that we’re beginning to emerge from the shadow of the disease, a book like Amazons offers some hope or evidence that sex writing really could get better with the passage of time.
To do so, we’re going to need to become a lot less squeamish when it comes to talking about the penis; here again, Amazons is extremely instructive. Others have described the book as “penis-obsessed,” but to me it feels more “penis-honest.” As a culture, we continue to possess a serious and seriously idiotic reluctance to spend much time considering male genitalia with much detail; it’s always lurking but never shown. “Full-frontal” is still fairly rare in any context outside of pornography, and it’s basically non-existent when the male in question is aroused. Most books and movies seem to operate on the (very false) assumption that the penis is either soft or erect, as if it were manufactured and distributed in a one-size-fits-all commodity. For DeLillo, writing in the guise of a woman frees him from such constraints and allows him to expose this hypocrisy or double-standard (if you consider the detail in which female sexual anatomy has been described by men in the post-war American literary canon).
Cleo Birdwell describes the many penises she meets in both general and specific terms. In one early scene, she’s in the locker room in the middle of some horseplay, where she gets caught up “in the merrymaking and [takes] a friendly little swipe at his [defenseman Bruce McLeod's] cock.” He stops and asks her what she’s doing, to which she responds: it’s “locker-room stuff,” something one of the other guys on the team does all the time, which leads McLeod to say, “He doesn’t grab it. He grabs at it, [and] if you don’t know the difference… I don’t know what to tell you.” Though McLeod is obviously right about a line that never gets crossed in a locker room, DeLillo’s comedic genius is to highlight and mock the arbitrary nature of this line. One guy has a “longish pecker, softly fluttering”; another has a “penis so humongous it was given a separate identity by the other players. Eric was Torkleson; his penis was Torkle… if a player took a shot that went wide, someone on the bench might say he was off by half a torkle.” In another scene, the Watergate guy is again rendered impotent by hearing about the Torkle, “knowing it’s there, and being aware of the size of the thing—well, it gets to you,” to which Cleo responds in disbelief: “You’re going to let somebody else’s sex organ dictate the course of the rest of this night?” Another penis turns out to be “brown…. Sure,” she adds, “a lot of men have penises that are a shade darker than the rest of their body. But Glenway’s was surprising. It was quite, quite brown… I didn’t know if I was supposed to comment or not.”
By employing Cleo’s voice, DeLillo has circumvented the rule that inhibits straight male writers from describing the penis, lest they appear a little too interested, i.e., homosexual, which to this day is the greatest fear of the collective American—or, as we ponder Sochi, world—male psyche. It’s another important act of subversive genius, and one that, for those of us who wish to continue subverting American culture, we can use as an example going forward.
Twenty years from now, as we review the homophobic YouTube clips from Sochi—in between what (let’s hope) will be some memorable hockey games—will they seem like relics of an unfortunate past or a harbinger of a deranged future? Well, how did we end up here a generation after Amazons and Slap Shot? Which world is the real world?