Dec/Jan 2008

The Puck Stopped Here

Revisiting "Cleo Birdwell" and her National Hockey League memoir.

Gerald Howard


If you are looking for signed first editions of the canonical novels of Don DeLillo, you need to be prepared to shell out roughly $375 for White Noise, $200 for Mao II, $175 for Underworld, and $160 for Libra. In contrast, a signed first edition of the 1980 autobiography Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League, by Cleo Birdwell, will set you back $425. How did an obscure book by a total unknown outstrip four of the most highly regarded works of fiction of the past three decades? Because, as DeLillo cognoscenti know, Cleo Birdwell is Don DeLillo, and ever since the paperback edition of Amazons went out of print in the mid-'80s, he has not allowed the book to be republished, nor has he acknowledged its authorship. This is not likely to change: In the late '80s, when I briefly served as his editor, DeLillo adamantly refused my keening requests to reissue it (it was hard enough as it was to get him to let us republish his terrific first novel, Americana [1971]); later, he prevailed on the editor of the Viking critical edition of White Noise (1985) to delete Amazons from the list of his publications.

This is a shame because, throwaway entertainment though it is, Amazons is also a total laugh-so-hard-you-reach-for-your-asthma-inhaler hoot. Before he was anointed our prose laureate of American dread, DeLillo was equally acclaimed for his superb comic gifts for spot-on mimicry and absurdist literary vaudeville. Amazons came between Running Dog (1978), a novel about the media frenzy ignited by a rumored porn film made in Hitler's bunker, and The Names (1982), the book in which terrorism moved to the center of his work. It represented a liberating holiday on ice from those darker themes and allowed him the freedom to make fine sport of the twin American obsessions of sex and professional athletics. Light on its feet and lethally funny, it demonstrates by contrast a proposition put forth late in the book: "It is only the large subjects and the big, sweeping themes that make cheap sentences possible."

Cleo Birdwell, the narrator, who putatively becomes the first woman to play in the NHL, is part Billie Jean King, part Candy, a ravishing woman in a hockey jersey moved to pity and serial fornication by the power of her beauty to reduce men to drooling supplicants. The hockey in Amazons is pro forma, but the sex is frequent and lovingly elaborated on. No chaste Ms. cover girl, Cleo jumps into the sack with every major male character in the book: Rangers general manager Sanders Meade ("If a man's name sounds right whether you say if forward or backward, it means he went to Yale"), who is unmanned by the words Watergate and Iran; head coach Jeep Larousse, whose foreplay involves long, soulful precoital speeches delivered in French, a language Cleo cannot understand; Archie Brewster, a globetrotting tennis pro and strip-Monopoly adept; and Shaver Stevens, a teammate afflicted with the Oliver Sacks–ready Jumping Frenchmen's Disease, which presents as the involuntary need to perform deep knee bends and is treated by five weeks of uninterrupted coma-level sleep in a Seinfeld-esque "Kramer Cube." Most notable among her bedmates is Murray Jay Siskind, of later White Noise fame, a New York sportswriter who lugs around a nine-hundred-page manuscript on the Mob infiltration of the snowmobile industry, a major-league have-Wüsthof, will-travel foodie who can discourse knowledgeably on the textural differences between unripe brie on a Bremner wafer and ripe brie on a Carr's water biscuit, and an olfactory-centered voluptuary who is brought to the peak of erotic arousal by Cleo's loving descriptions of the traditional rites of Christmas in her bucolic hometown of Badger, Ohio.

As Amazons makes its meandering way from hotel rooms to hockey rinks to nowhere in particular, DeLillo executes expert riffs and satiric drive-bys on such targets as the American taste for gaseous philosophizing ("Isn't pseudo profundity exactly what we need in these troubled times?"), idiot sportscasters (one of them complains that he has "a swimming pool shaped kidney"), post-women's-lib styles of male seduction ("I'm not afraid to be tender . . . I'm a man at last, which means I'm not afraid to cry"), T. Williams–style southern gothic ("We want something just short of buzzards on the portico picking apart the carcasses of baby deer"), and business visionaries ("He says the future belongs to homosexual communications satellites . . . Gay news, gay weather, worldwide"). He also indulges his virtuoso ear for cracked American speech. Here is James Kinross, the front-office Madison Square Garden dinosaur, waxing nostalgic about old-time street violence:

Anybody come into our neighborhood, we'd crack their fuggin heads open. I opened more heads than a brain surgeon. We used to break aerials offa cars and use them for weapons. Swish, swish. Whip one of them across somebody's face, he's gonna be looking at glass eyes in a jeweler's tray. We used tire irons, we used chains, we used windshield wipers, we used entire steering wheels. We ripped entire steering wheels out of cars . . . it was fuggin urban mayhem. And you're telling me I can't call it pussy?

Amazons came into the world more in the style of a put-on than a hoax. DeLillo wrote the book in collaboration with Sue Buck, a friend and colleague from his Ogilvy & Mather days and a dedicatee of White Noise. She apparently provided such hockey expertise as was needed and the raw material concerning Cleo's idyllic Ohio childhood. DeLillo's editor at Knopf, his publisher at the time, was insufficiently amused, and so the two were allowed to sell the book elsewhere on the condition that DeLillo's authorship be hidden. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston picked Amazons up and proceeded to publish it with deadpan skill, slyly eliding the question of its factual nature. They hired a willowy model-actress to pose in full Rangers regalia for the four-color back-cover author's photo. This game gal also consented to travel to Chicago for the Ameri­can Booksellers Association convention, where her appearance at the booth to sign galleys, again in a Rangers uniform, created an aisle-clogging sensation. As a result, Holt printed twenty thousand copies, roughly double DeLillo's usual run, and had to go back for a second printing of five thousand copies. Reviews were appreciative of the book's off-center humor (one inevitably called it "puckish"), and then a sharp critic for the Worcester, Massachusetts, newspaper decided that, simply on the basis of style, Amazons had to be by Don DeLillo. The cat got fully out of the bag when critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt repeated the assertion in his review in the New York Times. The book sold seventeen thousand copies net, by far the best sale for a Don DeLillo novel until White Noise, and Berkely paid sixty thousand dollars for reprint rights, very good money for 1980.

A pseudonymous novel more than doubling a great American writer's sales and income—funny, huh? Here's another funny thing: Jumping Frenchmen's is a real disease. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, "Jumping Frenchmen of Maine" was first observed in 1878 among French-Canadian lumberjacks and is "characterized by an unusually extreme startle reaction." Its causes may be genetic or perhaps "an extreme conditioned response . . . possibly influenced by cultural factors." Or as Sidney Glass, the leading expert on the syndrome in Amazons, puts it on the Carson show, "John, disease is abnormal. Nobody knows why people get sick."

One last funny (and telling) thing. Toward the end of the season, Cleo and her teammates learn that the Rangers have a new owner and general manager, Ahmed ben Farouky, a Saudi petrodollar tycoon. Shortly thereafter, bed checks by men with Arab headdresses are initiated at home and on the road. Married players find their houses broken into and their wives's cosmetics, bikini panties, and birth control missing (along with their liquor). (Meade cravenly explains, "They're pretty ethnic people.") Finally, Cleo is informed by the Saudi manager that "the men in the Gulf" have reached a compromise: "You must wear a veil when you play." A full-length veil, which, as Cleo sarcastically observes, will be a distinct handicap on the breakaway.

What a card that Don DeLillo is. As Cleo Birdwell repeatedly advises, we just have to try to see the humor in the situation.

Gerald Howard's last piece for Bookforum was "Reasons to Believe," on the work of Philip Rieff.

zacber

November 4, 2012
9:32 pm

I just finished the book, and enjoyed reading your piece.

A couple factual corrections:

The word DeLillo uses is actually "sentiments", not "sentences", in the quote: "It is only the large subjects and the big, sweeping themes that make cheap sentences possible."

And Shaver is treated with five months of uninterrupted coma-level sleep, not five weeks.

Comments are open to registered bookforum.com users only. Please login to post.
Don't have an account yet? Please click here to register for a free account.

Advertisement