Friday, November 6, 2020

"The Redshirt"

Corey Sobel is a graduate of Duke University, where he was a scholarship football player and received the Anne Flexner Award for Fiction and the
Reynolds Price Award for Scriptwriting. He has reported on human rights abuses in Burma, served as an HIV/AIDS researcher in Kenya, and consulted for the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations. He has written for numerous publications, including HuffPost,, and Chapel Hill News.

Sobel applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The Redshirt, and reported the following:
From page 69:
show up to camp and it’s like someone hands you three balls and says, “Juggle, asshole,” and you never juggled in your life, but you gotta do it anyway. Getting homesick?

—Not really, sir.

He turned to that Polaroid.

—I grew up three hours away from here and still got so lonely I’d call my grandma every night. That’s her. Raised me after she already brought up nine kids.

I was learning smiles were rare with Coach Hightower. If he was pleased by something, he’d do a little shoulder shake, as if the laughter had snagged on something inside him.

—So, what? he said, turning back to me. You just come up to shoot the shit?

—No, sir. I wanted to see what else I needed to do to make the twos.

He nodded.

—You’re gonna find I ain’t sentimental—I don’t put someone on the field because I’ve known them all these years. Fade’s got the best physicality and the best grasp of the defense, so he’s one. Chase has the physicality, but he’s shaky as shit on execution. Two. I know you’re a smart player, Miles, that’s why we brought you here. So now I need to see how physical you are. Especially since you’re a little lighter than we’d like.

He stopped to think.

—Oklahoma is Saturday morning. You show me you can hold your own with the big boys, I’ll start getting you some reps with the twos.

“Oklahoma” was the first full-contact drill of the season. It would be the first time I tackled as a college player, and on Saturday morning the tunnel that led to the practice fields was nothing less than a birth canal, with me inching through the dark of preexistence toward a blinding light.

As it’s a novel about a college football team, The Redshirt is chockfull of dialogue—talk during meetings, bullshit sessions in the locker room, late-night confessions in the team hotel the night after a training camp practice. In that sense, this page does get at how talky the book is, and more specifically captures a basic dynamic that drives much of that conversation: the interplay between the dominant coaches and the submissive players. In this instance, the two people speaking are the bullying linebackers coach, Radon Hightower, and The Redshirt’s narrator, Miles Furling, an undersized freshman linebacker. Miles has taken the elevator to the top floor of the football building to press his advantage with his coach and convince him that he deserves a chance to practice with the second team defense. Coach Hightower, in so many words, is here reinforcing that he alone controls Miles’s fate, which Miles knows perfectly well. This insistent, redundant reinforcement of the team’s hierarchy is integral to football culture, and The Redshirt at base is a story of what happens when players become skeptical of that structure and decide to push against it. All that said, Miles is a quiet, observant narrator, and where Page 69 falls short in representativeness is that it doesn’t get at how much of the book is comprised of Miles thinking, obsessing, and silently worrying about his place on the team—which is to say his place in the world.

But I am still fascinated by this test. As soon as I agreed to write this column, I was reminded of a quote from The Great Gatsby in which Nick Carraway says, “personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.” What’s so brilliant about this idea is how it gets at the fact that personality in itself doesn’t exist in some absolute sense, but is rather comprised of consecutive moments—smile, sigh, eyebrow raise—that the people who observe them smooth over, join together, and conceive of as what we refer to as the “self”. I think novels function the same way; so, it’s not that page 69 of my book (or any book) contains some special essence that you can extrapolate to all the other pages, but rather that it is one moment in a larger network of moments that the reader (if the writer is any good) experiences as a whole. Readers fictionalize just as much as novelists do.
Visit Corey Sobel's website.

--Marshal Zeringue