Sunday, October 22, 2006

Lost At Sea

You know how you can feel lost at sea when the fog rolls in and the sky is closed off and there’s no sense of water or land or distance, nothing except fog all around you--dense and gray and smothering--and you can’t tell where you’re heading?

That’s a little how it feels reading Robert Lipsyte’s newest novel, Raiders Night, a brutal, hard-hitting portrait of high school athletics and the desensitization that occurs among varsity football players in a world where victory is all that matters.

Lipsyte, the author of such classic YA novels as One Fat Summer, The Contender, The Brave, and The Chief, is a master of nuance and dramatic tension, and in Raiders Night he portrays in frank, crisp, unadorned prose the moral ambiguities of a high school football star’s life in chilling detail.

Take a look at this passage from early in the book when Matt Rydek, co-captain of Nearmont High’s football team and the focal point of the story, arrives at a party held as the season is about to begin:
Matt floated into the party a step behind Brody, who opened holes in the crowd with his smile. Brody reached out for guys to tap fists and girls to feel up. Ever since he was in PeeWee, All-Brody had acted like he was walking on a red carpet, but nobody ever seemed to mind. He could say anything to anybody. Guys trusted him in the huddle and girls couldn’t keep their hands off him. He had left the football in the car. He was looking to score tonight.
That sense of floating comes not only from Matt’s sense of himself as above the crowd--the victorious football hero carried on the shoulders of adoring fans--but from the pain pills (Vicodin) that he takes, along with steroids, to maintain his place in the stratosphere of high-school “gods.”

Here’s the next paragraph, as Matt makes his way into the party:
The beer and Vic buzz carried Matt over the upturned faces. “Yo, Matt... Lookin’ good, my man... Where’s Amanda?...Ready for hell, hoss?” He felt the words more than heard them, like hundreds of fingers plucking at him. Good thing Brody’s driving tonight. Matt grinned back at people, winked, tapped a few fists, squeezed a few soft arms that came out of the crowd to encircle him like snakes and then fell away, brushing the length of his body. He smelled perfume and armpits. He waved back at Pete, in a corner with Lisa. They talked about everything. Pathetic, Matt thought, then wondered what it would be like to have someone you could really talk to.
In these early passages Lipsyte shows readers the temptations of a world where the gods can have anything they want and raises the story's central question: will Matt ever emerge from this drug-induced haze, step off his pedestal, and actually see the corrupted world that he inhabits... and that he has taken a part in creating? In other words, will Matt come to his senses before it’s too late and someone gets hurt... or worse?

But it’s a challenge for Matt to wake up. That's because waking from this dream-like state may mean losing everything people tell him he wants in life: the adulation of the crowd; the adoration of the girls; the chance to play Division I college football at a powerhouse like Michigan; maybe even turn pro. These dreams aren't his dreams, yet Matt's not able to walk away from them to follow his own dreams. That's because he still hasn't confronted the personal--and emotional--price that he must pay to achieve such dreams.

Long ago Matt gave up his own dream of playing baseball to placate his father, whose dreams of glory as a former Ryder football player remain unfulfilled. Now Matt's not just a member of the team, he's one of the team's leaders... and he believes (or thinks he believes) that loyalty to the team is an unbreakable commandment, just as he believes it’s necessary to win in order to receive a highly touted offer from a Division I school.

On some level that he’s not yet aware of... but which he gradually becomes aware of over the course of the story... Matt knows that attaining and holding onto power through corrupt means may cost him and his friends their souls. But it's only after one of his teammates is abused during a team pre-season training camp ritual, and Matt does nothing to stop it before the ritual gets out of hand, that his growth as a character begins.

At this point, early on in the story, he’s still in a fog, his moral compass essentially numb. He is unable to see the truth or to stand up against the corruptness of the system, a system which he and his friends have come to enjoy because of the privileges that it entitles them to as football heroes. And the question persists as the plot unfolds: will Matt ever find the true courage to be himself and to stand up for what he knows, on the most basic human level, is right?

Here’s how Matt explains what has to happen to the player who suffered the abuse... and which the team is covering up for fear that news of it would destroy the team’s chances to finish the season and go all the way to the championship final. The boys–Matt and Chris–have been given tickets to a Yankee game and are driven in a limo to the stadium as part of an unspoken bribe to keep them quiet about the incident. On their way home after the game, they have this conversation:
Chris nodded mechanically. Matt turned on the mute until the driver pulled into the park-and-ride off the highway where Dorman had left his car. As soon as the coach was out of the limo, Chris opened the minibar and grabbed three little bottles. He flipped one to Matt.
“You buy that defense shit?” Chris cracked a bottle open and sucked it right down.
“Whatever it takes.” Matt was tired.
“What does that mean?” He cracked the second bottle.
Matt wondered if he was supposed to stop him from drinking it. “Look, Chris, you got to get past the past, pay the price. You want to play?”
“You don’t understand.”
Should I say I do, that I know about your crazy mother, that you’ve got to make a choice if you don’t want to wreck the team? Suck it up. We all do.
“We all have problems.”
“What’s yours?” said Chris. It sounded more like a question than a challenge.
“Got all night?”
That seemed to satisfy him. “You trust Koslo?”
“What’d he want?”
Chris’s face was twisted. “I can’t tell you.”
The limo pulled up in front of small house on a quiet old street. Chris drained the second bottle and dropped it on the floor. He got out without saying good night.
Matt drank his little bottle.
Here, Matt is still numbing himself, drinking to flee from his responsibility as the team's co-captain and from his growing self-awareness that the longer he remains silent about the abuse that he witnessed, the more difficult it will be for him to live with himself.

Again and again, Matt turns away from helping Chris until the plot reaches its climax, and Chris seeks revenge for the act of abuse that the team members forced upon him. No longer can Matt stand idly by, a passive observer, waiting for someone else to act. Yet even this act (which others perceive as heroic) fails to cleanse his soul... because he knows that he could--and should--have done something sooner to prevent Chris from seeking revenge.

Here’s how Lipsyte describes Matt feeling afterward:
He was a hero, and it felt bitter and wrong. Kids honked and waved on the drive to school. It took him almost fifteen minutes to make his way from the Super Senior parking lot to the big front doors, usually a two-minute walk. Kids wanted to shake his hand, talk to him, touch him; one jerk actually wanted him to autograph his photo on the front page of the local paper. It was his football picture. He pushed past the kid. In the lobby, teachers and staff applauded when they saw him. Mandy ran over and threw her arms around his neck. Cameras flashed.
You saved our lives.” She whispered into his ear, “I love you, Matt.”
It felt phony, dirty. He unpeeled her and trotted to homeroom.
How will Matt redeem his soul?

In the thirty pages remaining, the fog lifts, and the boundaries of land and water become clear again as Matt must choose between the team’s present needs and his own future.

His compass, numb for so long, begins to point north, and the reader, nearly overwhelmed with grief and sadness for all that’s happened in this story, can’t help but root for Matt, hoping he will choose to do the right thing ... and finally emerge from the fog.

For more information about Robert Lipsyte, check out his website at

1 comment:

jo'r said...

Matt reminds me in some ways about Keir, the central character in Chris Lynch's book, "Inexcusable." Both are football jocks with drug and booze problems and numb moral compasses. Matt seems to be complicit in destroying a friend; Keir does the job himself. As numb as he can be. The lasting impact of Inexcusable was devastating, but that's the power of the book. I like it that Lipsyte holds out some hope at the end, but keeps it nicely understated, which seems realistic for his story. Sounds like a good book to read.