The Eighty-Yard Run by Irwin Shaw, 1955
The magic trick:
Isolating one moment of the protagonist’s life as the high point before the fall
I love The Kinks, so I read Ray Davies’s unauthorized autobiography. It’s a clever twist on the standard rock-star memoir and is pretty much the best music book I’ve ever read. I bring it up here because in it Davies isolates one, single moment as the high point of his career (it’s a brief encounter with a groupie after a show when the band was just finding stardom, in case you’re wondering). It’s perhaps a silly way of looking at someone’s real life, but it’s a hell of a way to tell a story. Talk about high drama.
Well, Irwin Shaw uses the same approach in “The Eighty-Yard Run,” a little story about football were posting today to celebrate the Superbowl (and my mom’s birthday!). Actually, it’s not really about football. It’s about a lot of things. But the key is that it all comes back to one moment.
We are introduced to the glorious eight-yard run at the beginning of the story from the viewpoint of Christian Darling, the football hero, at age 35 looking back. The bulk of the story then consists of his decline and fall, which is neither surprising nor especially riveting. But I’ll be damned if the story didn’t have me in a sad and sentimental frame of mind when it reconnected at the end to that eighty-yard run. Such is the power of romance when you isolate one moment in a life’s story as the peak before the fall. And that’s quite a trick on Shaw’s part.
Her friends liked Darling and sometimes he found a man who wanted to get off in the comer and talk about the new boy who played fullback for Princeton, and the decline of the double wing-back, or even the state of the stock market, but for the most part he sat on the edge of things, solid and quiet in the high storm of words. “The dialectics of the situation . . . The theater has been given over to expert jugglers … Picasso? What man has a right to paint old bones and collect ten thousand dollars for them? … I stand firmly behind Trotsky … Poe was the last American critic. When he died they put lilies on the grave of American criticism. I don’t say this because they panned my last book, but . . .”
Once in a while he caught Louise looking soberly and consideringly at him through the cigarette smoke and the noise and he avoided her eyes and found an excuse to get up and go into the kitchen for more ice or to open another bottle.