Published in 1972, End Zone
is award-winning American author Don DeLillo’s second novel. End Zone
follows college football star and self-proclaimed “exile” Gary Harkness as he embraces his two passions: football and total nuclear war. DeLillo is known for his skill at manipulating the intricacies of language. In End Zone,
he explores issues of war and nihilism and the multifaceted power of words, drawing attention to the similarities—and differences—between war and football.
Gary, the story’s first-person narrator, describes himself as a “lazy” teenager who resisted following his father’s oft-repeated character-building maxim, “Suck in that gut and go harder.” Teacher, coaches, and even a girlfriend or two encouraged Gary to do better, but he was like a “piece of string that does not wish to be knotted.” Gary’s father, a pharmaceutical salesman, played football for Michigan state. While he stayed primarily on the sidelines for his sports career, he has greater ambitions for Gary. He tirelessly molds Gary into an all-state football star, and Gary receives many college scholarship offers.
However, Gary has a habit of self-sabotaging his college prospects. He is thrown out of Syracuse University after barricading himself in his room with two packs of Oreos and a girl named Lippy Margolis when he volunteers to help her hide from the world. Gary quits Penn State because of the endless repetition of football drills; the daily “drift of identical things.” He spends that winter at home with his parents. At the University of Miami, a class on “modes of disaster technology” spawns his obsession with nuclear war. Gary finds he enjoys reading about the deaths of millions of people; he becomes fascinated by words and phrases like “dose-rate contours,” “kill-ration,” and “spasm war.” Nonetheless, Gary becomes depressed and returns home again. As an “aging recruit” at Michigan State, he and two other players converge hard on an opposing safetyman during a game, and the student dies the next day. Gary goes home that night and spends seven weeks in his room.
Gary reaches the understanding that his “life meant nothing without football” and that Logos College, in isolated West Texas, is his last chance. Gary adds, “I liked the idea of losing myself in an obscure part of the world.”
At Logos, Gary and the team train under Coach Emmett “Big Bend” Creed, whose philosophy on football is “It’s only a game, but it’s the only game.” Creed recruits Taft Robinson, the first black football player at Logos. Taft is famous for his speed. Gary’s teammates comprise a few who are more “simple” than others, a few “outcasts” and “exiles,” and a few who are “crazy.” Offensive tackle Anatole Bloomberg is a “voluntary exile of the philosophic type” who is there to “unjew” himself because he is tired of the guilt. Reserve back Billy Mast struggles to memorize a Rilke elegy in German for a course he is taking on “the untellable.” Defensive line coach Rolf Hauptfuhrer describes Gary as “the more complicated type.”
Gary audits Air Force ROTC classes taught by Major Staley, the ROTC commander. His “aspects of modern war” course fuels Gary’s passionate interest in massive nuclear annihilation. Gary becomes friends with Myrna, an overweight girl in his geography class, when he is awed by a mushroom cloud appliquéd on her orange dress. Myrna asserts that she is the same inside and out—a sloppy emotional overweight girl. She believes that being beautiful confers an obligation and could cause one to lose oneself. Together with sisters Esther and Vera Chalk, Myrna and Gary go on picnics and discuss the world. The deaths of teammate Norgene Azamanian in an auto accident and the suicide of an assistant coach make Gary reflective.
Logos has a successful football season, beating most of their rivals. The big game arrives against West Centrex Biotechnical Institute. Gary describes the match in detail, likening it to a battle: “The special teams collided, swarm and thud of interchangeable bodies, small wars commencing here and there, exaltation and firstblood…the breathless impact of two destructive masses, quite pretty to watch.”
After the match with Centex, and nearing the end of the football season, Gary’s depression increases. Myrna suggests that Gary smoke pot before the final game. Gary does, and takes the field feeling “ponderous.” When a “huge individual in silver and blue” comes at him, Gary falls at the player’s feet, and beings untying his shoe. Gary walks off the field, feeling “exceedingly hungry.” Mrs. Tom, the college president, is injured in a plane accident and dies after a few weeks in a coma. Taft Robinson shaves his head and gives up football. Taft begins reading books about the Holocaust, specifically about Nazi violence committed against children. He declares, “I like to read about atrocities…atrocities in general with a special emphasis on kids.” Taft realizes it is a horrible focus but can’t seem to stop.
One day, Gary drinks a glass of lukewarm water. It is the last food or drink he will have for several days. He concludes: “High fever burned a thin straight channel through my brain. In the end, they had to carry me to the infirmary and feed me through plastic tubes.” The novel ends with uncertainty about Gary’s future.