Walkthrough: Enter the Elam-verse
by Mike Tanier
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To Whom It May Concern:
In the ninth generation after the reign of the frost gnomes, when the sparrow prince cleaved his soul to the diamond-pure heart of the Maiden of the Moors, a celestial race came forth from the heavens and bore fruit. They were the Nephalim, and they consorted with earthly women and fathered a race of giants and gunslinger quarterbacks. The descendants of the giants are still among us, and they have the power to transmute metals and see within the hearts of men, and also to fire blitz and hold dominion over non-flowering plants. When challenged by these descendants of the celestials, do not make eye contact, lest they replace your soul with that of a pit demon, and also know that the world will end on December 21, 2012, when the frost gnomes run out of timeouts and can no longer challenge the Mayan overlords.
Book Review: Monday Night Jihad
Riley Covington is a driven, passionate man. He's an expert marksman who can fly an airplane, prays roughly five times per day, and isn't afraid to resort to violence to solve a problem. He's the kind of hero America's enemies just cannot relate to, and in Monday Night Jihad, Jason Elam and Steve Yohn's wry deconstruction of the potboiler formula, Covington is on a one-man quest to stop a tight-end-turned-mad-bomber. Covington is aided on this one-man quest by a host of federal agents, quirky code breakers, gorgeous Iranian snipers, and heroic hot chocolate vendors.
On the surface, Jihad is a sanitized sub-Clancy quality techno-thriller, filled with stock characters and giant plot holes. But Elam and Yohn are clever writers who toy with our expectations of structure, storytelling, and grammar, creating a kind of un-novel that is every bit as deep as it is entertaining.
Jihad begins in 1991, when a young Iraqi boy named Hakeem sees his family killed by American bombs during Operation Desert Storm. Twelve years later, Riley Covington serves a tour in Afghanistan, putting aside his football career so he can fulfill his military obligation. While leading a squadron of thinly-characterized military archetypes, Riley sustains a serious injury. Once healed, Riley is given the chance to forfeit the remainder of his obligation so he can serve as a recruiting tool while playing professional football. Riley reluctantly accepts.
A few seasons later, Riley is a star linebacker for the Colorado Mustangs. His best friend on the team is Sal Ricci, an Italian-born tight end who came to the PFL after starring in an Italian minor league. Ricci is a bit of a mystery man, but he and Riley seem oblivious to an impending threat as several terrorists slip across the Canadian border armed with a plan to hit American capitalism where it will hurt the most: Minneapolis.
On Page 32, Elam-Yohn tip off careful readers about their intentions for the rest of the book. Sal and Riley talk trash during practice, with Sal teasing Riley after beating him for a short catch. A few reps later, Riley steps in front of Sal and intercepts a pass. "How do you say 'payback' in Italian?" he asks.
Most educated humans would answer vendetta, but Elam-Yohn let the remark drop. It's their first act of conscious deconstruction as they begin to undercut our expectations of the contemporary thriller. They create intentionally silly dialogue that seems to insult the reader's intelligence while rewarding deeper analysts who appreciate the sardonic irony.
The authors provide a similar hint when Robert Taylor, the Mustangs publicity director who has dozens of lines of early dialogue but then disappears, balks at a television producer's request for an interview with Riley. His response:
"'Sure thing. How about I get you the pope while I'm at it? Or maybe you want a shot at the O-line?' Taylor knew it would probably be a whole lot easier to set up an interview with the head of the Catholic Church than with the Mustangs' offensive line, who were notoriously closemouthed during the season."
Note the brilliant triple duty this paragraph serves. First, it provides the pope cliché, which tells readers to expect the unexpected, which is to say the completely expected. Second, Elam-Yohn explain the joke, helpfully reminding readers who the pope is. Finally, they add a completely irrelevant observation about real football, reminding fans that Elam was a Broncos player and therefore can offer inside details about the offensive line that casual fans have known for decades.
Ricci begins to act suspicious as a group of central-casting terrorists orchestrate a plan to blow up the Mall of America. The plan is mostly thwarted (a bomb detonates in a parking lot) by Scott Ross, Riley's former second-in-command turned Yoohoo-swilling government hacker and code-breaker. Ricci reacts oddly to the news, and Riley begins to wonder about his swarthy friend with a mysterious past. Elam-Yohn then reintroduce Hakeem, now a terrorist called The Cheetah, who is in deep cover in America, living a life of fame and privilege while commanding a large, well-organized terrorist cell. By page 50, even preteen readers have guessed that Sal is The Cheetah, but Elam-Yohn, flaunting the obviousness and ridiculousness of the twist, withhold the true reveal until page 255, after exhausting every possible plot contrivance (including a fake death) to make readers think they are being clumsily thrown off the scent.
Eventually, Ricci and his terrorist cell blow up the Mustangs stadium during a Monday Night Football game. Ricci smuggles exploding footballs into the stadium with the team equipment, then distributes them to his comrades while pretending to sign souvenir balls. Thousands are killed by the blasts, including the Baltimore team's running back, who dies in Riley's arms just after getting tackled. Ricci fakes his own death and escapes, further enraging Riley, who hasn't caught on that Ricci is the plot's mastermind. Riley returns home contemplating American-style vigilante justice, but he gets a better offer when Ross recruits him to join an elite anti-terrorist team traveling to Italy to investigate the mysterious Cheetah. Riley accepts, and Ross re-assembles his old unit, who we've barely met, with one new addition: Khadi, a beautiful Iranian-American sniper-interpreter destined to teach Riley a few important lessons about love and Islam.
It's important for me to mention that the last paragraph contained no jokes. It was an actual plot synopsis.
The rest of the novel plays out like an elaborate game of learning-disabled cat and narcoleptic mouse, as Riley, Ross, and Khadi chase Sal the Cheetah through Europe and back to Pasadena, where Sal may be planning to attack the PFL Cup. Elam-Yohn litter the story with carefully-constructed plot holes that brilliantly undercut the narrative. The Cheetah, for example, travels from Colorado to Mexico to Italy to Mexico to Pasadena in a few weeks, an amazingly convoluted route for an international fugitive just days after a major terrorist bombing. Elam-Yohn's subversive wit can be found in other exquisitely-rendered writing techniques:
Wild Tone Shifts
Elam and Yohn usually place comic relief scenes of wise-apple federal agents just a page or two after each grisly bombing or torture/interrogation sequence. For example, with our heroes combing Europe, America presumably in mourning over the Colorado Stadium Tragedy, and a terrorist suspect freshly "persuaded" into a coma by interrogators, we get the following sequence:
"It isn't in the database, Terri," Gooey said, mispronouncing Tara's name for the thirty-second time since joining the team, thus causing Tara to have her thirty-second vision of planting the heel of her boot between his puffy blue eyes.
"Thanks ... Goofy," Tara said, immediately regretting her attempt at a zinger, which for some reason had seemed quite cutting when she'd rehearsed it in her head.
"So, no five," Tara plowed on. "And what about six? Oh yeah, that's Kasemi. Right?"
"Right-O, Tinkerbell," Hernandez confirmed.
"What? What did you call me?"
"Tinkerbell. Sorry, I thought we were doing Disney names. Didn't you, Mickey?"
"I thought so too, boys and girls," Williamson answered in a falsetto voice. "What about you, Fairy Godmother?"
"Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo," Evie sang.
In an earlier sequence, Ross and top agent Jim Hicks spend Christmas night at the office. After a page of cute character revelation (Hicks gives Ross a case of Yoohoo; Ross gives his commander a subscription to Guns and Ammo) they suddenly bare their souls to one another. Ross, a comic relief character for much of the novel, reveals that he's the child of drug addicts who sent him into dealers' houses to buy drugs as a child. Hicks reveals that he's a multiple divorcee who left his first wife after she refused to have an abortion and slapped his second wife when the pressure after 9-11 got to him. When we see Ross again about 20 pages later, he's back to being a lovable, iconoclastic techie agent, and Hicks is again an old-school Nick Fury knockoff.
Such tone shifts simply have to be intentional. Elam and Yohn rub the reader's face in them, creating cognitive dissonance that both elevates awareness and lowers expectations. Late in the novel, when the authors spend three-and-a-half pages parodying a vapid Super Bowl pregame show while terrorists descend on Pasadena and a seriously-injured Riley tries to decipher the Cheetah's plans, readers have surrendered to the power of the prose.
Earth Prime Doppelgangers
To avoid legal issues, Elam-Yohn created a fictitious alternate universe in which the PFL is America's top football league and the Colorado Mustangs are the team that represents the city of Denver. (The New York Times still calls it the P.F.L. Please don't fire me.) All of the other teams have names that closely mimic their NFL counterparts, so we read about the Oakland Bandits, Baltimore Predators, and Boston Colonials, among others.
The hastily-brainstormed, USFL-reminiscent names are just part of Elam-Yohn's plan to distract readers with surreal PFL-NFL parallels. The Mustangs lost a PFL Cup to the Texas Outlaws decades ago, their defense was once called the Red Scare, and the arch-enemy Bandits were once coached by Jim Madison, who later became a famous announcer (interestingly, youngsters still play Madden football on page 107). We've seen that their linemen don't talk to the media, and their kicker, Tory Girchwood, is so accurate that he can knock a beer out of a Bandits fan's arms with a punt.
No football detail is too minute or irrelevant for Elam-Yohn to twist into the tortured logic of their mirror-verse. A 46-10 blowout by the Chicago Stockmen in PFL Cup XX is referenced. Los Angeles' inability to field a PFL team is brought up. The reader is left reaching for parallels that might not exist. Is the dead Predators running back Jamal Lewis? A Predators offensive coordinator also dies -- did Elam have any beef against Jim Fassel? And what about Ricci? The reader is forced to believe that Elam looked over at Shannon Sharpe with suspicion at least once during their years together.
Late in the novel, Tyrone Wheatley is inexplicably name-dropped, one of the few individuals (Chad Hennings is another) who exist in both universes. The mention shatters any assumptions the reader had that he, or anyone else, is in control of the story.
Boldly Dichotomous Narrative Choices
The characters in Monday Night Jihad never curse or make any sexually explicit remarks, a unique feat in a novel crammed with football players, federal agents, and evil criminals, all being pushed to their physical and emotional limits. When Jim Hicks gets off the phone with a clueless Homeland Security Director, the hardened career soldier calls the politician a "pompous, stuffed shirt, windbag, fancy tie-wearing good-for-nothing." Elam-Yohn are writing for the Christian bookseller audience, so toned-down language is expected. But in a novel with a body count in the thousands, where suspects are interrogated with knives at their throats, federal agents are decapitated, and the hero is tortured with electrodes on his nipples, the absence of a simple "ass" or "dammit" causes massive meta-cognitive de-centering for the reader.
Elam-Yohn's studied homage to thriller tropes extends to the tough guy-showdown dialogue, which doesn't need obscenity to be just as inane as you'd find in any potboiler or action flick. There are dozens of tough-guy showdowns: agent-on-agent, interrogator on terrorist, linebacker-on-tight end, and so on, and each comes with stereotypical, giggle-inducing dialogue.
Near the end of the novel, Hicks challenges the clueless Homeland Security Director, who doesn't want to assign extra security to the PFL Cup just because one stadium has already been bombed and Riley ascertained top-secret plans while being held prisoner. "What do you want? Are you expecting an engraved invitation to the Jihad party at the PFL cup? BYOB – bring your own bomb!" This is the literary apex of the novel: a completely implausible scenario, a cliché-ridden confrontation that plays out like a bad Dirty Harry imitation, and a tasteless, obvious, unfunny joke uttered by one of the heroes. The authors finally reveal their ultimate goal with this bit of dialogue: they make us hate terrorists, not just for blowing things up, but also for inspiring predictable action novels.
We've only scratched the surface of Monday Night Jihad. We didn't cover Elam-Yohn's brilliant name for the terrorist organization (The Cause!); Sal and Riley's six-page theological argument, in which the clean-living American military and sports hero barely battles a fanatical killer with a crappy nickname to a draw; the dozens of characters whose subplots never achieve resolution; the authors' constant use of past perfect tense; or the scene where Sal's American wife romantically tears out his back hair with tape on their honeymoon. It's all sublimely subversive and giddily postmodern.
Elam and Yohn leave us with one final question: why make the hero of your novel a linebacker if he doesn't do any linebacker stuff? Riley never tackles a terrorist or puts a swim move on a would-be attacker. He never designs a strategy that resembles a blitz or a Tampa-2 (St. Petersburg Deux in the PFL) zone. What's more, Riley's skill as a pilot is established in an early scene, but he doesn't fly any aircraft when fighting terrorists. And the expert marksman only fires shots at point-blank range. Monday Night Jihad is ultimately impenetrable in its deliberately awkward structure. I predict that future installments of the Riley Covington saga will branch into Thomas Pynchon territory. Alas, I don't think I'll have time to read them.
Stick to Football
Reading and writing about Monday Night Jihad was so much fun that I plan to make schlock-entertainment reviews a once-in-a-while feature of Walkthrough. Inspired by the I Watched This On Purpose series at The Onion, I am introducing Stick to Football. The premise is simple: I watch or read some tangentially football-related piece of pop culture fluff, then write a comprehensive review. It won't be a weekly feature, but it will make a great segment when football news is slow or my life has gotten too fast. Filler, in other words. But funny filler.
I need your help to make this work. Suggest books, movies, or other endeavors by football players who should have stuck to the gridiron: novels by kickers, movies by Brian Bosworth, and so on. I'll make a list and keep chipping away at it until my sanity fails.
One more thing: if you hated this week's Walkthrough and something with a little more football, pick up the current issue of ESPN The Magazine for another on of my glossaries, this one on pass routes. I'm also working on a piece about Philadelphia sports history which I hope will run in the Sunday New York Times with my game capsules. Something for everyone, except deep plant operatives disguised as tight ends. I'm looking at you, Fasano.
UPDATE: Tyndale House Publishers was kind enough to send us a photo related to the book that I felt was worth adding. You can view that photo here. -bb