Getting Folks to Come Out to Your Kickball Game: Dennie Wendt’s American Soccer Novel

Witness the Hooper men at their most intimate, their most prolix:
You won’t forget it. When it gets to the bizarre American All-Star Soccer Association (Wendt’s name for his weird and wacky version of the North American Soccer League), the book becomes more outrageous. North Beef, Colorado, was excited to host a nearly Major League team and offered its rodeo stadium to house the North Beef Cowhands (a team of imported Romanians). There’s plenty more in that vein, but the novel is really three in one: a jokey Cold War thriller with a nominal romantic interest; a short, wry portrait of lower-division soccer — and life — in 1970s Britain; and an extended parody of the NASL, featuring, among others, Pele as Pearl, the Soccer Bowl as the Bonanza Bowl, the Miami Toros as the Florida Flamingos, and the New York Cosmos as the Giganticos. The self-indulgent descriptions of the teams’ absurd development get in the way of the plot but, while distracting, are done so explicitly that the author’s glee shines through. So, for me, the knowing caricatures of the teams, towns, and players of lower-division English and Scottish soccer are familiar. It’s in that genre that Wendt’s novel works best. This is comforting, because my initial thought after enjoying the book was, “Who on Earth but me would buy this?”
The truth is that I’m over-determined as the book’s target demographic. But now a novel about a Soviet attempt to assassinate a Brazilian soccer star during the United States’s bicentennial celebrations seems somehow timely — and hardly more far-fetched than a Putin-era attempt to elevate a crotchety reality TV star to the presidency. He’s a number five (center back), who is brought from a team in England’s minor professional soccer leagues — the comically constructed East Southwich Albion — to the United States in order to strengthen Portland’s Rose City Revolution. Here the town leader sent to welcome the visiting team explains how he sees the afternoon kicking off:
Well, now, before you boys play your game, we’re staging a little bit of a rodeo for the kids here in town. It’s charming. The plot is functional enough to drive the characters through the bicentennial United States and — even though it’s NASL-era soccer — embodies enough love for the game to appeal to major soccer fans. Was the only way we could imagine getting folks to come out to your kickball game. In 2017, Danny Hooper may be surprised to learn that that is a significant audience. Times have changed since Hooper’s revolution. This happens after he demolishes the leg of a promising young Welsh winger in a Cup game. I miss you, Dad. But — from Portland to New York, from Chicago to Los Angeles, and from Montreal to Orlando (to choose just a few cities with soccer franchises) — there are now proper, fluent local fans of all ages cheering on their local heroes and despairing at their teams as Europeans and South Americans have been doing for a century. As a tough, bearded, English soccer-playing Dan myself, someone who grew up avidly watching muddy 1970s FA Cups but whose dreams of being a “football” missionary were dashed by the vagaries of the American college system, I am far enough from professional soccer players to admire them, but close enough to all the events to recognize them. About the same time, the Cowhands will come out the shutes down at the other end and we’ll just go ahead and play ball. MAY 12, 2017
CONDITIONS ARE SURPRISINGLY PERFECT for Dennie Wendt’s debut novel, Hooper’s Revolution. So anyway, they’re inside there havin’ a high ol’ time right now, and we’re gonna try and keep the energy cracklin’ after the barrel races by havin’ you all come out from the chutes down there under the grandstand. It concerns the adventures of bearded soccer hard-man Danny Hooper. Rose City head to play the Colorado team who, at the end of the previous year, had left Denver. I played number four and number six. Footnotes proliferate, describing how teams came to be formed. The three elements work very well separately, but because they each have a slightly different attitude, they sometimes jar when they intersect. The best fan fiction — whether about the New York Yankees, Leeds United, or Star Trek — has broken through the self-publication bubble and made it onto the lists of independent presses. Nor could the people upon whom Wendt based his characters have imagined that, four decades on from 1976, a whole generation of North American children would grow up native players of soccer. The coincidence of a political swing against Russia and a social shift in favor of soccer bodes well for this comic novel. —
Dad? It’s funnier, though, when the juxtaposition of the world game and American insularity is simply left to play out. I’ve been to Portland and East Southwich — and I’ve met their fans. ¤
Dan Friedman is the executive editor of Forward.com, a contributing editor to 8by8Mag.com, and author of a new eBook about 1980s rock group Tears for Fears. The tight-lipped relationship between Hooper and his father likewise rings true. Some footnotes become chapters, and some of these chapters even have their own footnotes. When he first conceived of Hooper’s cockamamie plot, which centers on US soccer in the Cold War era, Wendt could hardly have hoped that Russian-US relations would be at the forefront of people’s minds by the time the book came out. Barriers have lowered and fan fiction of all sorts has proliferated. The dense, dour, depressed atmosphere around the team and its specifically low expectations are nicely drawn. I miss you too, son. I now see middle-schoolers with Messi Barcelona shirts in the Kmarts of Knoxville, Tennessee, and men with Arsenal leisure shirts on the streets of Manhattan. The exotic 1970s import of the NASL, upon which Wendt’s AASSA is based, has transformed into the somewhat prosaic, but firmly established, MLS (and USMNT). Of course not. At the same time, a good proportion of the nation’s youth follows the English Premier League and the Champions League, with an eye on La Liga. Publishing too has transformed during this millennium.