Touchdown and Out

Pure Life By Eugene Marten. Toronto: Strange Light. 384 pages. $23.

The cover of Pure Life

ON APRIL 12, Joyce Carol Oates, who’s had a surprise second act as a social-media provocateur, tweeted, “Much prose by truly great writers (Poe, Melville, James) is actually just awkward, inept, hit-or-miss, something like stream-of-consciousness in an era before revising was relatively easy.” Like much Tweeting by truly great Tweeters, Oates’s hot take struck a nerve because it reflected the zeitgeist; whatever one’s feelings about the nineteenth-century masters, one must concede the current vogue for tightly structured novels, rendered in lucid, well-modulated prose. For a long time now, American fiction has not been characterized by any one school or approach, but by a shared patina of editorial polish.

There are different theories as to how this came to pass. The novelist and critic Elif Batuman blames MFA programs for the codification of American fiction. Others have suggested that trends are cyclical, and right now we’re seeing a dialectical response to the loose, baggy monsters that writers such as David Foster Wallace produced in the late ’90s and early 2000s. For her part, Oates appears to be offering a theory of literature pegged to technological progress, the word processor prompting an evolution in style. I personally put more weight on literary fiction’s declining popularity, and the parallel ascendance of serial television as the era’s dominant narrative medium. Publishers can’t risk taking on work that’s unlikely to sell, and readers have come to favor the structural tidiness found on TV.

Eugene Marten’s ambitious fifth novel, Pure Life, offers a riposte against that tidiness. Propelled by lyrical prose that flouts the conventions of grammar and style, it’s a sports novel that’s also a thriller and an existential horror story, though it doesn’t blend genres so much as cycle through them in succession. The results are disorienting, and often thrilling.

We begin in familiar territory: a city referred to as “Y-Town,” where industry is dying and football is life. Our protagonist—also unnamed, though he’ll later be referred to by the number on his jersey, Nineteen—stands alone on a darkened lawn, lobbing passes to a garbage can. Half a page later, he’s in middle school as the local mill shuts down, leaving five thousand unemployed. The bars fill, and storefronts burn in suspected insurance scams. Through context clues (and Google) it can be gleaned that this is Youngstown, Ohio, 1977. We might as well be in a Bruce Springsteen song.

Time speeds past like a slideshow set to “Glory Days”: high school stardom; fighting his way into the starting slot at a D-2 school; draft-day disappointment. Marten renders all of this in run-on narration that’s both distant and omniscient, as if God—or mid-period Don DeLillo—were operating a telephoto lens. For example: “First day in pads, bigheaded in helmets, they learn to sweat, hit, how not to cry, vomit behind the ash tree that shades their parents at the edge of the grass. Coach keeps them thirsty. When their mothers aren’t there he speaks to them in the language of men, the language he used at the slab mill where he was a cinderman, where he ate carbon dust and iron like everyone else in the valley.”

This style of impressionistic prose doesn’t illuminate Nineteen’s inner life so much as offer a sense of what it feels like at the center of the huddle. Or maybe the point is that he has no inner life. By the age of twelve, Nineteen has already committed to becoming an archetype—the humble hometown hero—which can only be accomplished through a kind of self-erasure. His life is a performance, and the role precludes the need for an identity beyond it.

After going undrafted after college, Nineteen moves back to “Y-Town” and takes a job delivering pizzas. He attends a cattle-call tryout, where he wins a position on the local NFL practice squad. (As is Marten’s wont, the team’s name is never stated, but we can assume that “The Only Team That Matters” is the Cleveland Browns.) Through a series of serendipitous occurrences, Nineteen is promoted and given his shot. Though he’s not the fastest runner, or the most dazzling passer, his discipline pays off in the pros, where he pores over game tape and “calculates percentages.” The team starts to win and people take notice. Nineteen makes his first million, buys his parents a house. He marries the daughter of the team’s billionaire owner and sings onstage with Hootie & the Blowfish. People cheer when he enters a restaurant.

Brian Finke, Untitled (Football #106), 2002, C-print, 30 x 30". Courtesy the artist.
Brian Finke, Untitled (Football #106), 2002, C-print, 30 x 30". Courtesy the artist.

We can predict what happens next. The team is given 6–1 Vegas Super Bowl odds, so of course Nineteen hurts his shoulder on the first play of the season. When he returns the next fall, he’s not the same. He gets sacked and suffers concussions. More injuries: “Sprains, ligaments, torn quad, torn groin, bruised bone, bruised lung, broken fingers, broken jaw.” He plucks opiates from a candy jar in the training room, and “pisses blood from a lacerated kidney.” The team loses. The pain gets worse. A new coach wants to shake things up. Nineteen’s career is over. He’s thirty-two. We’re on page twenty-eight of the novel.

I’ll admit I was surprised—and a bit disappointed—by how few pages Marten affords to Nineteen’s playing days, especially as I was so taken by his descriptions of on-field action. As someone who’s read Marten’s previous work, I should have seen it coming. Two of his novels, Firework and In the Blind, feature protagonists who are fresh out of jail, and a third, Waste, follows a janitor who brings home a human corpse he finds in a trash chute. Point being, Marten’s primary subject is human detritus, and the bad things that occur when people are spit out by the system or otherwise left behind. If the first section of Pure Life feels ripped from the Hollywood playbook, right down to the mythical white quarterback whose determination makes up for a deficiency in natural ability, then we’re about to see what happens when the proverbial carriage turns back into a pumpkin.

The prospects seem relatively benign at first: golf tournaments, TV cameos, spending time with his wife and kids. Things quickly get dramatically worse. A few bad investments, and soon the money’s gone, the marriage is over, and Nineteen’s gobbling Vicodin for breakfast (“Hasn’t shit for a week”), and watching The Notebook in tears. One night, drunkenly masturbating to internet porn, he sees his eldest daughter—“on her knees, mouth open, grunting and gasping in fifteen inches of liquid crystal display . . . And him finishing in spite of it all.” Somehow, we’re only on page forty-three.

Compounding Nineteen’s sizable array of problems, his football days have left him with “yellow patches of dead and dying tissue where blood vessels had bruised themselves against the brain case.” In layman’s terms, he’s got CTE, the neurodegenerative disease that afflicts NFL players at an alarmingly high rate. After consulting a neurologist, Nineteen ends up on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras seeking an experimental stem-cell treatment, at which point we enter what feels like a totally different novel, less DeLillo’s Underworld than Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky or even Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Without giving too much away: after the government shuts down the treatment clinic, Nineteen embarks on a bender that leads him on a trek through the jungle, where he’s served brain meat spooned straight from a monkey’s skull, and is later held hostage by a paramilitary outfit—I don’t know which sounds worse. Not only does the plot take a left turn—or series of left turns—at this juncture, but time grinds to a halt. After speeding through the first three decades of Nineteen’s life at a rate of roughly nine months per page, Marten reverses course; for the most part, the novel’s remaining three hundred pages unfold over a matter of days.

Upon arriving in the jungle, Marten barrages the reader with observational detail, a kind of sensory assault that reflects the setting’s untamed grandeur. These pages are filled with vivid and visceral descriptions, such as the cowhide that “lay curing under the sun like a shiny red carpet,” but there’s so much recorded detail here that Marten’s strongest descriptions sometimes get lost amid comprehensive inventories of the characters’ backpacks.

Nineteen’s suffering is tracked in a similarly exhaustive manner. There are the headaches, blackouts, and holes in his memory that result from CTE. There’s the mental anguish over his failures as a husband and father. And then there’s the suffering incurred in the jungle, first at the hands of the indifferent wilderness, and then while detained by his guerrilla captors. The difficulty here is that the first part of the novel does such a good job at painting Nineteen as a cipher that it’s tough to feel invested in his hyperbolic plight.

Marten’s a gifted stylist, and if anything holds Pure Life together, it’s his consistently exciting prose. It’s accepted wisdom that authority is the bedrock of successful fiction; if the reader trusts that the author’s in control, they’ll be more inclined to follow into uncharted land. Pure Life defiantly bucks that wisdom, and reading it can feel a bit like riding shotgun with a drunken stock-car driver. And while at times I wondered if the book might benefit from a heavier editorial hand, I’m ultimately convinced that—as in the cases of Poe, Melville, and James, not to mention Woolf, Bellow, and Faulkner—its nebulous shape affords Marten the room to rev up to rhapsodic peaks.

As for what it all adds up to, Marten seems to be suggesting that The Self—if such a thing can be said to exist—lives in the senses, a composite of memories and physical pain. In this regard, perhaps it’s not a book about what CTE does to the brain, but one in which CTE acts as a metaphor for all of our brains, for the fragmented experience of being alive. Joyce Carol Oates would hate it. 

Adam Wilson is the author of three books including, most recently, the novel Sensation Machines (Soho Press, 2020).