A good-natured black football player tries to make it in a duplicitous world.
In this novel, DeShawn Biggs is as formidable as his name suggests. At 6-feet-5-inches and 300 pounds, DeShawn seems headed for the NFL. Indeed, a football career is regarded as an inevitability for the young man in his native Albany. While most NFL–bound seniors head off to play college ball after they leave high school, DeShawn’s abysmal math grades—and the fact that his parents can literally no longer afford to feed him—result in the giant lineman attending an elite Connecticut prep school for “grade thirteen.” After an emotional farewell to his parents, who are purposefully removing themselves from his life for good—“You’ve got to use your God-given talents to make a life for yourself,” says his father, “and you cannot do that with your mother and me in the way of that life”—DeShawn is left alone among the white, wealthy student body. Sticking out like a large sore thumb, DeShawn attempts to walk the fine line between what is expected of him and what will not be tolerated. A cheating scandal gets him expelled but not before he secures a place at Montgomery Southern A&M, a football power that will set him up to advance to the NFL. DeShawn eventually gets his shot at the big leagues, but his trusting nature and penchant for making bad decisions dog him throughout his career. Each time, the stakes get higher. DeShawn has always been a pawn in a game controlled by other people, but how much of his own integrity can he compromise in order to get ahead?
Havel (An Adjunct Down, 2016, etc.) writes in a simple, direct prose that deftly mimics the thoughts of his protagonist: “He couldn’t let anyone know, and if any of his teammates questioned him about liking a white woman over a black woman, he would bite his tongue and not reveal this somewhat impossible scenario—that a white woman could love him.” DeShawn’s story works in the tradition of the social novel, boldly tackling issues of racism, power structures, and the murky morality of American football. Like his near-namesake, Bigger Thomas, DeShawn is a cog in a system built to use him, not to help him. That said, Havel’s novel is far less successful than Richard Wright’s Native Son in weaving its issues into a compelling narrative. The book is almost comically overlong at nearly 900 pages, loaded with scene after scene that reiterates established information without delving deeply into the psyche of any of its characters. DeShawn’s inner workings never receive the attention that his physical size does, and no other character manages to leave a lasting impression. Odd and unnecessary narrative choices, like DeShawn’s inexplicable abandonment by his parents, erode the verisimilitude of the story. Havel’s aims are ambitious, and the issues he broaches are very real, but this book is too flat to live up to those lofty goals.
An elaborate but uneven social novel about the rise and fall of an underprivileged athlete.