Killerbowl by Gary K. Wolf
Self-published Kindle edition, 2017
Originally published by Doubleday, 1975
Price I paid: $2.99
Thirty years in the future, the ultraviolent sport of Professional Street Football, a phenomenally popular 24-four-hour-long athletic event, combines pro football with mixed martial arts and armed combat. On New Years day, quarterback T.K. Mann plays the most dangerous game of his life, the game known as Killerbowl!
(Synopsis from Goodreads)
I’m not sure if I’ve ever talked about it before, but I’m just not much of a sports guy. I think the most relevant sports fact I’ve committed to memory is that Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in ’61, and I only know that because a relative was born that year and told it to me once. I’m also not the sort to mock somebody for being a sports fan. You do you. They’re just not my jam.
What I do love are stories about murdersports. It’s probably because the narrative of any murdersports story is just highlighting all of the things about sports that make me uncomfortable and then cranking them up to eleven. They’re not just satirizing sports. The genre takes on everything from the nature of masculinity to capitalism to the toxicity of fan and consumer culture to the frightening human thirst for bloodletting to the mass media’s ability to control how we think and feel.
I wonder what the first story of this ilk was? Could there be some lost Roman work about a mega-colosseum where mega-gladiators…do…something? I can’t think of a way to inflate the frightening aspects of the Roman games because they were already ludicrously violent. I’ll chalk that down to a personal failing.
And in the modern era we’ve got Rollerball (1975, the same year as Killerbowl), The Running Man (book: 1982, movie: 1987), The Long Walk (1979), Death Race 2000 (holy crap that movie is also from 1975), and probably a bunch more that I’m missing all the way down to The Hunger Games, plus the occasional sequel or remake of things already mentioned.
The American People like sports, and we also like satires about how much we buy into the negative aspects of sports. Do we realize that, though? I’m not sure how many people checked out Roger Corman’s new Death Race 2050 because they were looking forward to dark satire and political commentary. I think we just like it when shit blows up and a lot of people die.
Look at me repeating old George Carlin bits.
Anyway I said that I don’t mock people for being sports fans, but the whole damn thing is really problematic. I only bring that up to acknowledge that it’s not that much worse than most other fandoms. I’m probably just as likely to be spat on by a stranger for not caring about the Atlanta Falcons as I am for not caring about anime.
So Killerbowl is about a fella named T.K. Mann, the quarterback for the San Francisco Prospectors. The Prospectors are a street football team. We learn about street football as the book progresses, and it’s got some…interesting aspects. The “field” is multiple city blocks. Plays can involve smashing through storefronts and stuff. Plays can also involve outright murder. Players have clubs and knives, depending on their position. Injured players have to stay on the field until the quarter is over. Games last twenty-four hours. One player has a sniper rifle. Death, destruction, and mayhem are the entire point.
We don’t learn an awful lot about the world outside of the SFL. Mostly it’s tantalizing clues. Pollution is rampant, gas is so expensive that nobody uses cars anymore, and the federal government has purchased large swathes of land for food-growing purposes. I didn’t get a great sense of how the economy was doing outside of SFL stuff, but honestly, when prices for things were listed I thought they seemed a little cheap. Maybe our author underestimated the power of inflation, or maybe it was intentional. No big deal. A lot of people seem to be broke a lot of the time.
Did I mention who our author is? Gary K. Wolf, author of the extremely good Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, upon which the movie you’re thinking of was loosely based. It’s a fine, fine novel, well-written and fun to read. I’ve been meaning to read some of his other books, like The Resurrectionist or the more recent Space Vulture, but haven’t gotten around to them yet.
He should not be confused with science fiction critic Gary K. Wolfe. I have also been known to confuse him with Gene Wolfe on occasion. Sorry, confused library patrons!
T.K. is good at street football, but he’s also starting to age out of it. At a ripe old 34, he’s probably the oldest player in a game for younger men. He’s also a swell guy in a game based around toxic masculinity. He’s not perfect, but, for example, a lot of his salary goes to paying rent on his parents’ old house. His parents are long since passed and are buried on the land that belonged to them for a long time. The government bought the land for farming at some point, but T.K. rents the house from them at an exorbitant price.
The story was told in an almost nonlinear way that worked well. It would bounce back and forth between Super Bowl XXI, on January 1, 2011, and the events of the year leading up to it. In the backstory, we learn about what’s motivating T.K. to play in the Super Bowl. He has a grudge against the quarterback for the opposing New England Minutemen, Harv Matison. Harv is an enormous douchebag, for one thing, but he’s also widely perceived as T.K.’s main rival. Harv plays the game recklessly, literally sacrificing his players to make big plays. One of the stats tracked in this game are the number of players a QB loses, and Harv has an average of four of his players killed per game. T.K. plays more conservatively and loses fewer players, but the people who make money off of the whole thing are starting to resent him for keeping the violence down. For this reason, Harv is a fan favorite while T.K., despite being an excellent player, is becoming something of a joke.
We learn as the story progresses that there’s more to it than that. Harv is cheating. He’s cheating on behalf of IBC, the network corporation that runs the SFL. Its president, Pierce Spenser, holds that audiences want even more bloodshed. They don’t care who wins or loses, they just want to see people get maimed and killed on live TV. His big plan is to recruit one player from every team who will receive extra information so that they can have big plays that lead to mayhem. This amounts to a speaker in their head, relaying information on the state of the game while they play.
When T.K. learns about this development, he has to deal not only with the fact that Harv is the cheat for the Minutemen, but with the fact that there’s somebody on his own team that is cheating, too. He doesn’t know who it is, and that bothers him.
Every chapter of the backstory bits is titled with the date. I’ve never seen a book structured like this. Parts of the book are counting down to other parts of the book while each occurs simultaneously as part of the narrative. The bits taking place during Super Bowl XXI are also on a sort of countdown, because they’re titled with the time of day, telling us how much time is left in the game because SFL games are played from midnight to midnight. We get suspense from two angles, and it works just fine.
T.K. struggles with the fact that this clandestine information cost the life of one of his oldest friends, Eddie Hougart, at the hands of Harv Matison. He’s approached by a group of people who want to stop the SFL altogether, a group led by Senator Cy Abelman (D-Oregon). T.K. promises to help them, but only after Super Bowl XXI is over and he gets his revenge on Harv. This perplexes and upsets Senator Abelman. Abelman has proof that something fishy is going on at IBC. His efforts to expose the plan are defeated by a conspiracy, though, that leaves him the laughing stock of the nation. IBC knows that T.K. was working with them (he’s been banging a woman who works for them, unknown to him), and they set about making sure that he gets killed in a game.
Interspersed with the story are little bits of ephemera. News articles, television transcripts, and even a scholarly journal (generously funded by a grant from IBC), all of which argue not only the SFL is harmless entertainment, but that in some cases it’s essential to the health of the nation. There’s all this babble about how people need an element of risk and excitement in their lives, something that SFL provides for them vicariously. Without SFL, argues the scholarly journal, people would begin to go insane. Some in the media go so far as to argue that the people who oppose the SFL, people like Senator Abelman, are in favor of the destruction of the human race.
The final pages of the book, now that we’re all caught up, take place during Super Bowl XXI and immediately afterward. Most of the football stuff that comes up has been covered before, and it’s really satisfying.
The game is tight. Players keep getting lost on both sides. This is almost entirely Harv Matison’s fault. He sacrifices his own players to showboat, but he also kills T.K.’s players because he has insider information. T.K. himself gets seriously injured, enough that he should, by all rights, be taken out of the game. His arm is completely mangled. I believe he fell off a building. He grits his teeth and re-enters the game, though. The remaining players are Harv Matison for the Minutemen, T.K. and his sniper (actually a “hidden safety”) for the Prospectors. T.K. realizes that this means his hidden safety is the spy or narc or cheater or whatever you want to call it.
This character’s name was D’Armato more often than not. Sometimes it was D’Amato. This Kindle edition had some serious OCR issues. Words would be misspelled, letters and numbers would get swapped around (a player with the number I0, for instance, was not uncommon), and sometimes, for no reason at all, sentences would decide that they were written in subscript. To make things worse, the epilogue to the book had some scanned images of text to help preserve formatting. Some of that scanned text consists of team rosters. In that scanned text, which I would assume is immune to OCR problems and comes from the paperback itself, the character’s name is “D’Armatto.”
T.K. kills his own player and takes his gun. That’s his right as quarterback. He tracks down Harv Matison, who has a total baby wetpants reaction. If T.K. kills Harv, he wins the game. That’s another one of the rules. If one team is killed off entirely, the other team wins, no matter what the score. T.K. can win it all right here.
He chooses not to. He marches Harv off the field to the mobile studio, where he threatens everyone in there, including the head of IBC who is running things. He gets them all to confess, on air, that they’ve been cheating and fixing games, leading to real, actual human deaths, to make more money. And then he leaves.
Did T.K. win? It’s up in the air. We don’t see any real resolution to this. In fact, what little we get points in the other direction. The end of the story is a cut to a husband and wife watching the game on television. They are both infuriated that the game was cut short by T.K.’s actions. They are both confused and annoyed that T.K. used their precious time as viewers to make some kind of speech. The male of the couple peppers his speech quite thickly with homophobic slurs. He also decides to write his senator to complain about this turn of events. He goes to bed and then writes that letter the next day.
And that’s the end of the book.
Great big cynical ending? Yeah, that’s what I think. True to life? Arguable, but I’m willing to err on the side of the affirmative. Some days I don’t have a lot of faith our crazy old species, and today is one of those days. This is what happens when I read Twitter.
So it’s a depressing ending to a terrific book. I enjoyed it a lot. I was expecting some dumb action with hyperviolence, sort of a Penetrator sports novel, but I got a lot more than that. I’m glad I did.