FEBRUARY 7, 2014
THE US OLYMPIC WOMEN’S ice hockey team will take the ice for the fifth time at the Sochi Games. Team USA won the first gold in 1998, but Canada has been the winning team at the past three Games. USA tops Canada in the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) rankings, and has the momentum going into Sochi. The Americans bested Canada 4-2 in a six-game exhibition series, and Canada’s coach, Dan Church, suddenly resigned in December. But the series was best known for a brawl during an October game: all 10 players on the ice battled.
Considering the success of the national team, women’s ice hockey shouldn’t be a secret in America. The problem, of course, is visibility. The men’s squad is populated with 25 NHL stars, including Jonathan Quick, Ryan Suter, and the team’s captain, Zach Parise. No woman has ever played a regular season game in the NHL. Manon Rhéaume, a member of Canada’s 1998 silver-medal team, played in two exhibition games for the Tampa Bay Lightning as a goaltender. Only a fictional woman has played in the NHL: Cleo Birdwell. Her memoir, Amazons, was published in 1980, with the original subtitle of An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League. Cleo Birdwell is Don DeLillo. Actually, Don DeLillo and a friend from his advertising days, Sue Buck. Gerald Howard explains that Buck “provided such hockey expertise as was needed and the raw material concerning Cleo’s idyllic Ohio childhood.” Amazons is the great contemporary literary secret that wasn’t ever really a secret, although every few years an essay is published purporting to rediscover the work. Similar to other supposed recluses like Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy, DeLillo is a magician who reveals his secrets. Yet even with the curtain drawn back, we remain in awe.
Howard, DeLillo’s editor at Viking for Libra, loved the book, calling it “throwaway entertainment,” a shining example of DeLillo’s “superb comic gifts for spot-on mimicry and absurdist literary vaudeville.” Howard says the book was more “of a put-on than a hoax.” Knopf, DeLillo’s then-publisher, “was insufficiently amused” with the bawdy collaboration. They allowed DeLillo to shop the book elsewhere, as long is it remained pseudonymous. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston published the book and “hired a willowy model-actress to pose in full Rangers regalia for the four-color back-cover author’s photo.” Garbed in a Rangers jersey, the model signed galleys at the 1980 American Booksellers Association convention in Chicago, and was an “aisle-clogging sensation.” Holt printed twice DeLillo’s usual run; net sales reached 17,000, his best result until White Noise. Howard notes that Berkely Books bought reprint rights for $60,000, “very good money for 1980.”
The book was a “liberating holiday on ice” from the darker subjects of his surrounding work, a story that “allowed him the freedom to make fine sport of the twin American obsessions of sex and professional athletics.” The prologue to his novel Underworld is set at the 1951 playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, which ended with a home run by Bobby Thomson, known as the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Underworld’s notoriety has overshadowed his other forays into sports. I wonder if DeLillo winced when Grantland asked him “if you were going to write a novel of similar scope about post-Cold War America and begin it with a scene at a sporting event, what do you think it might be?” He mined that territory to perfection in End Zone, his 1972 metafictional satire of college football.
Most discussions of Amazons focus on the novelty of discovering the bawdy, near-pornographic prose, but they shouldn’t be surprised after End Zone. Gary Harkness, the brilliant first person narrator, lusts after Myna Corbett, a fellow student at Logos College. Her size is his fetish. In one scene, Gary finds her in the library, books strewn across her table. Behind her were “long high stacks, reeking a bit of perspiration.” They read dictionary definitions to each other:
We read them slowly, syllable by syllable, taking turns, using at times foreign or regional accents, then replaying the sounds, perhaps backward, perhaps starting with a middle syllable, and finally reading the word as word, overpronouncing it slightly, noses to the page as if in search of protomorphic spoor.” Myna is in mild delirium.
The seduction works, as the “words were ways of touching and made us want to speak with hands.” They go to the stacks and undress, and DeLillo revels in purple prose: “I plucked a chord or two on the tense elastic of her iridescent panties.” Soon the promise of sex becomes language: “Myna stepped away from the clothes, aware of the moment’s dynamics, positing herself as the knowable word, the fleshmade sigh and syllable.”
Other than an uptick in phallus, the sex in Amazons reads with the same cadence and smirk. DeLillo had already played this game. So why use a pseudonym in the more recent novel? The answer lies in how DeLillo perceives sport, play, and language as an interlocking trinity worth of his Catholic youth. In an interview with The Paris Review, DeLillo discusses a “zone I aspire to,” a “higher place,” where he can “become a carrier or messenger” of language and produce “completely surprising combinations that make a higher kind of sense.” Seemingly aware of his own wordplay, he selects the postseason, snowstorm touch-football game in End Zone as an example of this ideal zone, revealing that sports are central to his play with language.
Amazons should be placed next to End Zone when we examine DeLillo’s athletic coda. I am interested in Amazons for the same reason I am interested in hockey: it’s right in front of our American faces, and yet remains mysterious. Keith Gessen calls Amazons the “closest thing we have to a great American hockey novel.” He calls for more hockey books like Amazons, ones which are “not about hockey in just the right way.” The claustrophobic, awkward sex in the novel makes readers long for actual hockey. Philip Nel notes that the book’s “pornographic tendencies uphold rather than challenge masculine structures of power.” DeLillo “is most successful at exposing gender’s dependence on sets of social conventions when he treats masculinity or femininity as a performance, showing how those conventions may be susceptible to challenge and revision.” Cleo is a man’s woman: she “propositions and sexually harasses members of the opposite sex, enjoys fighting and generally inhabits rather than challenges masculine power structures.” Sex is focused on stimulation of the men; “we hear very little about her pleasure.” Nel notes that the cover to the essential paperback edition carried the subtitle The Intimate Memoir of the First Woman Pro Hockey Player and Her Successful Search for the Perfect Man. So Amazons should not be heralded as the feminist DeLillo text because of its sex. Critics have had so much fun writing about DeLillo playing a woman who plays men that they have forgotten the center of the novel: hockey.
Cleo’s refrain throughout the book is “All I want to do is play hockey.” As a sport, it “is so fast it’s practically nonlinear.” Descriptions appear in the structures of ritual: “The world of men was a sound in my ears. Men on skates marching on concrete. Sticks tossed into corners. Men muttering matter-of-fact curses. The blast of hot showers.” And the words of the fan-beating coach, Jeep Larousse, sound like End Zone’s Coach Creed: “The name of this game is play the body, take the body, stay on top the man, shadow the man, chop the man’s ankles.” Cleo feels comfortable in this male world. She drops her sticks and gloves and punches “some toothless, crooked-faced Penguin.”
“Soon all the players on both teams paired off, just clutching now, and I felt good. I felt a white hot elation. I’d started it, throwing my first NHL punch, and they’d come to my aid, my teammates, my mates, come swarming off the bench like legionnaires.” Hockey has a code: “You stick up for your mates.”
Those bright, swift moments of skating fade, and for all the lusts and licks of Cleo’s nighttime trysts, she is a sad character in the world of hockey:
In the dying moments of games, I heard lonely, wounded, human sounds bellowing down from the dimmest heights of arenas, and on the bench I’d glance up over my shoulder and wonder at the stark emotions that lived in the thick smoke up there.
Hockey feels like local theater, when “you can hear somebody in row 17 tell his brother-in-law they ought to leave after the second period because the parking garage charges by the hour and they can beat the crowd. There is a hollowness in the building.” This is contrasted with other nights, when “all the rage and frustration of a whole city is being released in one place at one time […] a secret electricity running through the night.” And then later, a home game at Madison Square Garden against the Red Wings: “The red light went on. Dead silence at the Garden. For a moment, no one moved […] A piece of paper drifted down.” This is the final game of the season: “Our season was over. It wasn’t real.” Characters repeat: “Where was the puck, where was the puck?” and then another says: “I keep thinking if we don’t undress, the goal won’t count. They’ll bring us out for another overtime.” Like End Zone, the novel peters out at the end.
The empty ending sends readers combing back through the novel for some revelatory code. Following Gessen, that center might be the novel-as-travelogue. Hockey is a road game, a sport where emotional centers are off the metropolitan map. Amazons dramatizes this idea through the electronics of hotel rooms. DeLillo’s thoughts on Great Jones Street are applicable to Cleo Birdwell’s time spent in hotels:
What we finally have is a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work — the man hiding from acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.
And “the TV audience represents another kind of crowd. The crowd broken down into millions of small rooms.” The novel is soaked in phone calls, pranks, television voices, the sound “of a phone ringing in an empty room.” And phone messages. She talks on the phone to her brother, Kenny, who “is supposed to be a microcomputer technician” but is really a porn star.
Sex in the novel often happens in these temporary homes. Cleo seduces agent Glenway Packer: “The music leaped and soared, but in a bare, dry, reedy way, which was all the more appropriate to the setting. Music, mood, brandy, atmosphere, lighting.” Seduction is a game. Amazons is a predecessor to the electronic erotics of Videodrome: “I realize there are more telephone conversations in this memoir than there are bugging files of the FBI. That’s life on the road. You can’t make deathless prose out of phone calls, but people in hotels are always reaching for the phone.” Cleo quips that “the second straight chapter that ends with sex and intimate lighting,” but Amazons is really a rather solitary book. After sex with Sanders Mead, Cleo says she is lonely. He responds: “I’m lonely all the time. I’m lonely when I’m by myself and I’m lonely in a crowd. TV makes me lonely, radio makes me lonely, airports make me loneliest of all.” Other teammates share the feeling, and they all read spiritualist Wadi Assad, searching for “a pattern, a plan, a design, a lesson, a principle, a truth.” Later, Cleo attempts to console herself: “Soon the season will be over and no one will call or visit or squat in the dark or telex. You can read and think. You can wonder at the strangeness of things. You can seek the meaning of all this.” Which is exactly what has happened with DeLillo’s supposedly mysterious novel. DeLillo signed a copy of Amazons at a 92nd Street Y reading in 1997 as “Cleo Birdwell.”
We should not talk about Amazons as a secret, but as an experiment in pseudonym, persona, and inhabitation of gender. The novel’s real mystery is that, like women’s hockey, it remains unknown and yet right in front of our American faces. We don’t need fiction to find Cleo Birdwell.