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The Outfield: Friday Night Lights turn dark
The Outfield: Friday Night Lights turn dark
by Dan Woog - SGN Contributing Writer

Raiders Night is the novel J.D. Salinger might have produced, had he not stopped writing in 1965 and had Holden Caulfield been a morally conflicted high school football captain, not a cynically idealistic prep school student.

Robert Lipsyte's Raiders Night does for scholastic sports what Catcher in the Rye did for teenage wanderlust: It captures young readers' attention through vivid characterization, realistic dialogue, and life-like dilemmas. Which drives adults up a wall.

Lipsyte - author of two dozen books, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and American Library Association honoree for lifetime contribution to young adult literature - calls Raiders Night "Friday Night Darks." Sizzling with more sex than Holden Caulfield could dream of; enough steroids, weed, and Vicodin to keep the DEA busy for years; and a graphic hazing scene in which Chris, a talented sophomore, is sodomized with a baseball bat, it reaches far beyond anything Friday Night Lights ever dared portray.

The book's genesis dates to 1999, when Massachusetts high school football captain Corey Johnson came out. Lipsyte, who chronicled the process for the New York Times, heard a freshman complain about showering with "a Gay guy." Johnson's co-captain said, "You're a football player. Suck it up."

"He took his role as captain seriously," Lipsyte explains. "It was his responsibility to be a stable force and keep the team together. That's the good side of jockdom."

The bad side appears early in Raiders Night. Ramp, a captain, takes Nearmont High's initiation rite too far. Matt - another captain, and the book's narrator - is sickened by the baseball bat assault. But he, too, is assaulted - by competing pressures from his fellow captains, teammates, coaches, and father - and spends the rest of the novel grappling with his own feelings of responsibility.

There are Gay subplots - Chris is rumored to be Queer, and after Matt loses his erection with a hot girl, he wonders about his own sexuality - but Raiders Night is not really a Gay-themed novel. It's about jock culture in general.

Lipsyte says, "It's both exhilarating and depressing that high school athletes have the same feelings I had 50 years ago: 'Am I good enough? Am I a man?' The problem is, today so many people see football as a crucible for getting kids ready for life and war. They don't see it for what it is: a desperate place where coaches and fathers think violence is an acceptable form of action."

Lipsyte's pulsating descriptions of sex, drugs, and brutality - on the field and off, in boy-girl relations as well as in hazing - resonate with teenagers across the country. Young readers e-mail him, relating their own feelings of fear, inadequacy, and confusion.

Adults are confused, too - about how to handle such hot topics. "Teachers and librarians like it a lot," Lipsyte says. "I get an amazing flood of invitations to speak around the country. But invariably, a couple of weeks later I get a sheepish e-mail dis-inviting me. Someone decided it would be better if I didn't come."

It's hard to tell, the author adds, whether the "dis-invitations" have to do with the dead-on teenage language, the casual (and often callous) sex, the pill-popping, the hypocrisy and complicity of most adults, or the rape scene. "I think it comes down to the fact that this is a darker look at sports than most people are prepared to look at," Lipsyte says. "Of course, there's no question a more muted description of the hazing would have been easier. Even a lot of kids found it pretty rough."

But, he notes, "any implication of homosexuality makes a lot of people really nervous. Young athletes have been conditioned to think a certain way. If you're in band, you can meet different people in a safe harbor. But jocks have been conditioned by coaches to loathe and fear 'the other' - opponents, the vicious English teacher who makes you get extra help, girls who take your mind away from the big game, Gay people. They can all break up a team's camaraderie and spirit.

"I think a lot of Gay athletes are 'purged' through high school, because sports is such a homophobic atmosphere," Lipsyte continues. "Calling someone a faggot or a sissy is a cheap, cynical way to manipulate boys."

Lipsyte's book is so realistic that - as is often true with teenagers - it's unclear whether the character Chris really was Gay. What does the author say?

"I suspect he was not. But I don't know if he'd figured things out. The real question is, was Ramp, the player who assaulted him, Gay? He could have been. I don't know that one either."

That's the real value of Raiders Night. Like all good young adult literature from Catcher in the Rye on, it raises more questions than it answers. And it makes readers think.

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the Jocks series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.

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