Commentary Magazine


Literary Blog

Peter Gent, 1942–2011

Peter Gent, a backup wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys who went on to write novels about professional football, has died in Bangor, Michigan, of pulmonary disease. He was 69.

After a five-year career in Dallas, during which he caught 68 passes for 989 yards and four touchdowns, Gent retired to write North Dallas Forty, a 1973 exposé in fiction. Life in the NFL had left Gent deeply divided. “In one sense, you’re a folk hero,” he said. “But you’re really someone else’s property: your life subject to change by a single phone call.”

North Dallas Forty was about eight days in the declining football career of Phil Elliott, a receiver for the North Dallas Bulls. Before he is suspended by the NFL commissioner for drug use, Elliott is benched in favor of a young hotshot, although he knows he is the better pass-catcher. From that vantage point, Elliott serves up reflections about his teammates and their fans:

Looking up into the stands at the mass of gray dots that were faces, perched atop flashes of colors that expressed their egos, I suddenly realized how peculiar we [players] must look. I thought of Al Capp paying six dollars a head to watch and scream while trained mice scurried around in panic.

The novel was widely read as a roman à clef rather than an exposé — the fast-living quarterback was obviously modeled on the Cowboys’ Don Meredith, the robotic coach on Tom Landry — and though it was later filmed with Nick Nolte playing Gent’s role, North Dallas Forty was a victim of its own timeliness. It ceased being a scandal when Meredith and Landry ceased being gossiped about. Its social commentary wasn’t original or particularly sharp even when its football was still news.

In 1984, in one of my first published reviews, I briefly summarized Gent’s third novel The Franchise in the New York Times Book Review:

Peter Gent, who used to catch passes for the Dallas Cowboys, now writes novels full of rage and bitterness at pro football. “I don’t want revenge, I want the truth known,” one of his characters says. That could serve as Mr. Gent’s motto. The Franchise, his third novel, is a long and thickly woven work — his most ambitious to date. Its title refers to both an expansion football team named the Texas Pistols and to Taylor Rusk, the quarterback who within three seasons turns his team into a Super Bowl contender. The story is focused primarily on the behind-the-scenes struggle to control the new Texas franchise and the league. Characters barter and cheat and sell each other out, engage in “creative financing” and obtain stolen game plans, but there is remarkably little depiction of action on the field. In fact, the central puzzle about The Franchise is the question, for whom is it intended? Football fans will be disappointed by the lack of football and dismayed by Mr. Gent’s relentlessness in tracing the corruption of a sport that finances itself upon “the working stiffs,” that is, the players and fans. Those who love literature will wince as the book alternately reads like a screed, then like an attempt to resurrect the proletarian novel. But the authority and command with which Mr. Gent writes are nonetheless impressive. Unfortunately, in The Franchise he has not submitted that talent to the strictures of plot and selectivity that might have made this a more satisfying novel.

Gent’s best book is probably his touching memoir The Last Magic Summer: A Season with My Son (1996). Although he was in position to do so, he never wrote the definitive football novel, which, indeed, remains to be written. Rest in peace.



Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »





Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.