Wednesday, November 15

Knights of Hill Country

by Tim Tharp
Knopf 2006

Kennisaw, Oklahoma is the hill country here, a town with little left to offer but excitement that comes from Friday night high school football. As the Kennisaw Knights begin their fifth season undefeated they see the path ahead of them as destiny, the stuff of legends, the unbeaten kings of eastern Oklahoma.

For senior linebacker Hampton Green the brass ring is that his best friend Blaine gets picked up by one of the big colleges so that he can piggyback along. Friends for as far back as they go, Blaine and his family took Hampton under their wing and brought football to his world when his family fell apart and his mother drifted into an endless series of boyfriends and drinking. In return Hampton has given Blaine his unflinching loyalty, acted as his wingman on various extracurricular adventures and, for the most part, gone along for the ride with the understanding that without his best friend he'd be nothing.

But something is stirring deep inside Hampton. As his star continues to rise on the gridiron, as his ability to "freeze" moments and see plays with crystal clarity allows him to make key game-winning plays, his friend Blaine's status drops as aggression and emotions get the better of him. Blaine fails to recognize (or at least acknowledge) that Hampton's efforts are increasingly overshadowing those of others on the team and begins to grow restless as the crowd starts shouting Hampton's name at games.

Attempts to set Hamp up with the hottest girls in town fall -- because as a star he deserves the best, according to Blaine -- confuse him as he becomes enamored of the slightly geeky girls who works in the library. Game after game Hamp proves he's the one on his way out of town on a football scholarship while Blane becomes more desperate with each flub at each game. Hamp emerges from his cocoon and his best friend's blind loyalty with the humility and clarity of young man coming into his own. And in the end Blaine has known all along that football was all he ever had, the only hope available for escaping the dead end known as Kennisaw, and that he'd live the rest of his life as the one who destroyed any chance of the Knights' status as legends.

While I can't bring myself to watch "Friday Night Lights" on television I can't help wonder about the similarities. Substitute texas for Oklahoma and add a touch of one of those primetime soap operas like "The OC" and I think you've got the formula. It's unfortunate for this book because while not the least obvious of plots ever constructed it deserves not to be buried beneath the cultural weight of a television show.

Hampton starts out a bit dim, and his relationship with Blaine is a bit like Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men at first blush. While that might have made for an interesting update -- Of Knights and Men, you could say -- it's much better to have gone down the middle and shown us Hampton's evolution. Fortunately Hampton's "boy howdy" and "I done it" affectations drift further apart after the first couple of chapters, as does his ability to "freeze time", when the story begins to pick up steam. That Hampton remains genuinely humble as he crawls out from under Blaine's oppressive shadow is perhaps the most appealing aspect of his character. Hamp doesn't become smarter so much as he grows comfortable with the intelligence he's possessed all along, the intelligence his best friend (and teammates) have tried to beat out of him. Loyalty comes face-to-face with the independent thinking outsider and, yeah, loyalty always loses in the end.

On the downside Blaine isn't so much a tragic character as an obnoxious one, and that's unfortunate. His unredeemable nastiness is so surface that when he finally acknowledges that he's going to spend the rest of his life as the butt of Kennisaw jokes until he dies left me unmoved. Perhaps that was the point, but I would rather the author had taken the time to make Blaine more... do I want to say tragic? The lesson is there, why not make the guy more pathetic so there's no doubt in any reader's mind (and I'm thinking the boys who would read a football novel here) that Blaine isn't just an ass but something to be shunned in all settings.

There's also a creeping subplot involving racism that probably could have been better developed as well. It's Hamp's discovery of the town's racist past, and its link with the football team, that serves as the catalyst for his breakthrough. Hamp's thoughts are perfunctory at best and I felt the opportunity to capitalize on exploring the issue -- without becoming preachy or didactic, mind you -- would have been a welcome addition.

I approached the book with some trepidation because I was sure from the first page I would hate it. Well, maybe not hate but something close to that. As I read on I started to spot people poking out from the edges, the characters who closely resembled the people I went to school with back in the day. Even in Hampton I was reminded of this guy Gary who was one of the toughest linemen our school ever had who quit mid-season because he'd lost the taste of going out onto the field and hurting people. That was the story we got, that he quit after the third or forth game in a row where his actions sidelined his opponents with injuries. He may have become the greatest player in our school's history, perhaps even gone pro, but instead he dumped the team and in the spring took up track and field. I think in the back of my mind I had a secret hope that Hamp would do the same thing, but then it wouldn't be Tim Tharp's story it would be mine.

Perfect for a snow day post-season. Leave the TV off.
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