Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mock Football 2K1D0

Tonight begins this year's NFL Draft, which the league hopes will attract greater than usual TV ratings due to a widely-reported glut of talent and, more so, because they've stretched the draft into a days-long progression of marginally comprehensible, sports-related goings-on, perhaps putting it into direct competition with cricket in the international athletics world. I have nothing to add to my mock mock draft from last year (you only get so many NFL Draft-related jokes in a lifetime) and anyway by the time I get to posting this the first round will most likely be over, putting an end to most of the speculative fun.

On the topic of Mock Football Anything, though, a few words about Monday Night Jihad by Jason Elam and Steve Yohn. I read it a few months ago because "debut suspense novel from a 14-year NFL place kicker and his Colorado pastor" was my second-favorite noun phrase of 2009 (although Elam just retired from the game) and it turned out to be a serviceable, probably inaugural entry in the genre of Christian Terror Football Thrillers. The prose is watery and the characters are generally stock, despite some nice detail work here and there, and the depictions of R-rated-movie-level violence too often come off as sadistic. The authors put their evangelical and Fox-News-Republican worldview in plain sight, though in both respects it's understated enough to come off as sort of affable, at least compared to something truly noxious like Left Behind. (That, and the lead character's conservative cred is built up with the same signifiers a lazy, left-wing caricature would use -- the Fox News watching, the Ford Expedition, the basement full of hunting trophies -- which along with the fact that his name is "Riley Covington" makes it almost possible to interpret him as a joke.) The book holds two big pleasures for me, though, both of which -- to conform this post to my declared subject -- relate to the fundamental Mockness of its football contents.

First and foremost is the mysterious villain at the center of the story. The novel focuses on Riley Covington, pro football linebacker and ex-special ops guy, but its most promising character by far is the Iraqi terrorist operative Hakeem Qasim, also known as The Cheetah, who [CHRISTIAN TERROR FOOTBALL SPOILER ALERT] leads a double life in the West as Riley's teammate and best friend Salvatore Ricci, a purportedly Italian soccer star who broke into American football as a running back. It is he who, having wormed his way into the underbelly of American culture, orchestrates the plot behind the titular Monday night attack. Now, this plot to terrorize America -- described as an "all too possible scenario" in one of the back cover blurbs -- consists of the following steps:
  • Become radicalized during the first Gulf War when American bombs destroy your family's home.
  • Grow up under the wing of your terrorist uncle, who trains you to move effortlessly within Western culture.
  • Pass as Italian.
  • Become a star soccer player for A.C. Milan.
  • Become the first European soccer star to become a running back for a professional American football team. Excel at your new sport.
  • Found a terror cell in the U.S.
  • Take an American wife and have a daughter.
  • Wait a couple of years.
  • Now that the West has let its guard down, bide your time until your team is scheduled to play a Monday night game. Smuggle a duffel bag's worth of explosives into the stadium's player entrance and hand it off to one of your half-dozen or so collaborators. When the suicide bombings begin throughout the stadium, shortly before halftime, disappear into a service hallway and trade your uniform with... You know, I forget what exactly happens at this point. Anyway, disappear into the night, presumed dead, and melt back into Italy until Riley Covington comes for you at your safehouse.
I'm leaving out a prefatory suicide attack on the Mall of America and the big finale, but this is the gist of it. All of this plays out in as goofily implausible a way as it sounds, and not just because Iraq is not a significant player in international terrorism directed at the U.S. Rather than snarking on it further I'll just point to Jon Stewart's epic takedown of birther logic about Barack Obama's birth certificate (starting at about 5:30 in that video), which proceeds along the same lines as I would, except it's much funnier and has the edge that a disturbing percentage of the real-life Riley Covingtons out there actually believe it's true.

Qasim/Sal emerges from this as a lost opportunity for character development, though, in that he shows possibly unintentional signs of a nascent split personality: The scenes of his doubts about abandoning his American family and life take place before the novel's big reveal, and the authors' forced coyness about his identity plays up the sense of self-alienation. Plus every time he speaks as Hakeem he slips from standard (if presumably Italian-accented) English into a sweaty Hollywood-terrorist vernacular. ("Who am I, friend? I am Hakeem Qasim! What am I? I am an Iraqi! I am a child of Allah! I am a predator, and America is my prey!") I really wish Elam and Yohn had played him to the rafters as a Hitchcock-type, Tony-Perkins-in-Psycho head case. The inevitable, overheated plot twists that would have followed from that would have been a lot of fun. And there's no risk that some Mock Psychology would somehow discredit the book's Mock Geopolitical Landscape.

The second element of Mock awesomeness comes from the fact that none of the NFL's names, players, personalities, or other properties are actually used in the book. For instance, it's the PFL, not the NFL. Riley plays for the "Colorado Mustangs", not the "Denver Broncos". The Pittsburgh Steelers become the "Pittsburgh Miners" (come on). The Jamal Lewis-type Baltimore running back who's killed by an exploding football is named "James Anderson", and so on. In itself this approach is pretty standard for copyright-protected institutions and it's clear that Elam and Yohn are just having fun with it even before you get to the "Twin Cities Norsemen". But what's more fun, and what they seem not to have thought as much about, is the visible seam between Mock and Real. Monday Night Football, for one, is real. College football, unlike the pro level, is unexpurgated -- adding some weirdness to the claim that Covington's drew comparisons in college to former Baylor linebacker Mike Singletary. (How, I wonder, did that guy not go on to a storied PFL career? Would the Chicago Stockmen not have him?)

My favorite Mock/Real collision, though, is that John Madden has been replaced with "[Bay Area] Bandits' ex-coach-turned-announcer Jim Madison", but we still see a kid playing Madden Football on an X-Box! I just love to think about how the gamers in the book's world must wonder about that. "So who's this pasty John Madden guy on the cover? Couldn't they get a coach? I mean, I guess he knows something about football, because it's a pretty good game. But it's not like he's Jim Madison or something." What is John Madden himself like in this Mock Universe? Is he a game developer who kind of regrets never becoming a football coach? Does he hate the Pittsburgh Miners and not really know why?

Okay, and the third pleasure: The number of times the authors refer to their protagonist by his full "Riley Covington" name, especially in the early going. It just gets more ridiculous every time.

I'll note in closing that the novel seems intent on never being filmed by a Disney-owned film company: It depicts thousands of people dying on Monday Night Football (part of the Disney entertainment empire) and ends with a climactic, attempted terror attack at Disneyland. Perhaps that's why Monday Night Jihad: The Movie hasn't made it to the silver screen yet. That and/or persistent, anti-Christian Hollywood bias, and/or the fact that Kirk Cameron would have to gain about 40 pounds of muscle to look like a credible threat as a pass rusher.


Blogger Don said...

Wow, you're a braver man than I. I'm glad you've given me the ability to enjoy this book without having to purchase or touch it. I'm hoping your forthcoming recap of Blackout will be accompanied by illustrations.

-Dan Madison

4/23/2010 9:49 AM  
Blogger nate said...

I don't know about Blackout -- Blown Coverage would be next in the series, but with all the non-Riley Covington Thrillers on my book list I'm not sure I'll get to it. And I definitely don't have any time soon for a Riley Covington Thriller that doesn't have some kind of football wordplay in its title. (Unless they're referring to the thing where they won't show a game in its local TV market if the stadium hasn't sold out. But they've got to have something better than that left if they're only on their third book.)

4/24/2010 12:49 PM  

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