Don Huber’s Kick Butt is as brutal as any Greek drama
by Kevin Crowe
At times, the words come screaming off the page, written in all caps. BUZZ BUZZ goes the alarm clock. KICK BUTT! cheers the crowd. TWEET TWEEEET! rings the referee’s whistle, after a particularly brutal penalty.
There’s quite a bit of dialogue in this epic 366-page look at collegiate football in the South. Under the leadership of athletic director Tom Hanagan, J.P. Morgan University, a school that once prided itself on academic excellence, sets its sights—and the money from its wealthiest alumni—on football dominance.
Along the way, we see scandal, drugs, homosexuality, racism, violence on and off the field, alcoholics and cutthroat intercollegiate politics. The ride’s never dull, as we’re shown a slideshow of sports clichés, woven together into a hyperbolized tapestry filled with oversexed and sports-starved characters, all jockeying for position inside the sordid inner-workings of college football. It’s especially poignant, at times, when Huber turns his focus on the distinctly Southern tendency to divine religion out of sport. And as a result, Huber explores how football mythos can spiral out of control, how all the advertorial, academic and interpersonal rigmarole can snowball into something dangerous whenever sport and culture are no longer mutually exclusive.
We’ve heard it all before, from the pencil-necked geeks who draw analogies between the brutalities of the ancient Roman coliseum and the modern-day arena. But Huber’s critique is more subtle, allowing the sports world to write its own obituary as the novel progresses. “[The coach] and his coordinators were of the school who believed it was beneficial for the players to do some real head-banging before the first game. Like training soldiers with live ammunition,” Huber writes, “it was good for morale and unlikely to result in many injuries, except to the walk-ons on whom they blooded their starters.”
In many ways, Kick Butt , which is Huber’s first novel, reads like good pop prose, the kind of writing that’ll be popular with the John Grisham and Dean Koontz schools. But in the text, somewhere behind the dialogue-heavy passages, there’s something bigger, some kind of sneaky ethos. There’s a quote to begin chapter six that sums up the author’s intentions: “…baseball represents to us our idealized selves, while football tells us what we really are….” That’s from Michael Oriard, author of Professional Football as Cultural Myth .
“Literature? That’s not where my soul is,” Don Huber says. “I like pop art. I think the pop forms have the right tempo. But they got to have depth.”
And there is depth, from time to time, when the narrator’s voice chimes in for a well-timed, but deceptively accurate, observation: “[A]fter last year’s 4 and 7 football season and the basketball team’s first-round loss in the Mid-South Conference Tournament, Tom had felt the trustees’ handshakes getting weaker, the alumni’s backslaps fewer, and the boosters’ howdeedos less vociferous.”
And, on occasion, all those all-caps interjections—the ambient sounds and the furious roars of the football fans in the stadium—become something akin to the frenzied Dionysian worshippers of Euripides’s The Bacchae . The sound and the fury, all the blind passion that is driving Huber’s characters, becomes a chorus, a character in itself.
The chorusing throughout the book shouldn’t come as a huge surprise, because Huber’s schooled in Classicism, which he teaches at The University of the South in Sewanee.
“I can’t help, as a writer, to throw that stuff in,” Huber says of the classical allusions buried inside his pop-fiction. “I do it for my own amusement, if nothing else.”
Huber’s also a professional songwriter. Alan Jackson, Dionne Warwick and Riders in the Sky have all played some of Huber’s work.
“I always keep my hand in it,” Huber says of his songwriting. “Clive Davis is looking for some stuff for Whitney Houston.”
Parts of Kick Butt have the lyrical qualities you’d look for in a good songwriter, as passages often seamlessly flow into one another, like verse. But, at the end of the day, there are still some dicey passages, some superfluous plot points and an overriding yarn that’s not necessarily hard to predict. But, maybe that’s not the point. Maybe, when the Dionysian revelers are lost in the game, those moments when the screaming chorus demands our attention, we see the frighteningly human side of sports culture, a throwback to a kind of humanity that was more barbaric and, perhaps, more honest than anything proffered by sleek romanticized or transcendental literature.
Huber has written a book that’s completely self-aware. It knows what it is. And, if read with the right lens, it’s worth reading. But, if you’re looking for high philosophy, you won’t find it here. It’s blue-collar, for the thinking workingman.