The coming-of-age tale of a boy who becomes a man through the savage rites of high-school football. Honor, loyalty, even life and death form the core of this wrenching story, while sport is the mere shell.
A newcomer to town, Billy Dyer tries out for the Spartans in the Gulf Coast city of Oleander, Fla., in 1964. He is relentless in his hitting and blocking, all the brutal fundamentals of the game. Only Sim Sizemore stands between him and a varsity slot, but Billy rebels during the team’s bizarre Mystery Night ritual, and Sim suffers a horrible injury. With Billy taking Sim’s place, the Spartans win game after game and appear headed for the state championship. Winning matters above all else to many of Oleander’s citizens, and Billy’s fierce drive and talent hold the key. But will he spill the secrets of Mystery Night and destroy Oleander football? Important men accuse Billy of off-field actions that dishonor the team and push him into a Faustian bargain that allows him to continue playing. Billy lives with his divorced and hapless father, whose desperate troubles intertwine with Billy’s. Many people fear Billy for what he knows and might do; many more admire him as long as he wins on the gridiron—but God help him otherwise. But the plot goes beyond football. Do rich men own Billy the way they own his father? Do they own the city itself? The climactic scene appears slightly contrived, written with a movie in mind, yet it brings the novel to a satisfying conclusion.
Watson has given poor Billy Dyer more trouble than any teenager should have to bear. Readers will certainly root for him, but they had better not count on a warm-and-fuzzy ending.