Playboys and a Working Woman

Semi-Tough

by Dan Jenkins
Atheneum, 307 pp., $7.95

Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright

by Steven Millhauser
Knopf, 305 pp., $6.95

The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories

by Doris Lessing
Knopf, 308 pp., $6.95

Dan Jenkins is just playing around in Semi-Tough, his novel about a New York Giant running back and his friends during the week before a Super Bowl. He has written not a real novel, but a pretty good book of jokes. Here is Billy Clyde Puckett, hero-narrator, when asked what it’s like to play pro football: “Aw, we don’t like it so much. Mainly, we just like to take showers with niggers.” And Big Ed Bookman, Fort Worth oil man: “I just don’t give one goddam how many transplant cases are walking around healthy. They’re supposed to be dead, like God wanted ‘em to be.” To which Shake Tiller, wide receiver and Billy Clyde’s roommate, answers: “If God had wanted man to drink more, he’d have given him two mouths.” Jim Tom Pinch, newspaperman, defines a NBA basketball game: “Ever twenty-four seconds ten niggers jump up in the air.” Barbara Jane Bookman, Shake’s girl, daughter of Big Ed, and childhood friend of Shake and Billy Clyde, as she is taking off her levis at a party the night before the Super Bowl: “It might not be the best you’ve ever seen. But, well. Some people say it smells better than a soft new Italian loafer. And some people say it tastes better than strawberry shortcake.” To which Shake answers: “What her wool actually is, is semi-tough.”

The book is almost all one-liners and anecdotes, and so long as it is innocently that, Semi-Tough is semi-good. No one is going to like all the jokes, but anyone who reads a book about pro football by a Sports Illustrated writer is going to like quite a few. The assumption is that we want to listen to the best running back in the game, especially if he will talk about singles living in New York and LA, about the vagaries of his teammates, about racism, ad agencies, and Texas. The book is fine so long as it tries to capitalize on that assumption. Billy Clyde, Shake, Barbara Jane, and her parents go to a restaurant called Beef Jesus:

Hi there,” said the waiter. “I’m Jesus Harold. I’ve come back to serve you.”

Big Ed spoke half to Jesus Harold and half to his menu.

I don’t know where you came back from, young man, but it looks like you didn’t grab anything but your underwear when you left,” he said….

To start,” said Jesus Harold, “I’ve got avocado and aku, cold, of course, with Macadamia nut dressing. Very nice. I’ve got spinach and mushroom pie. Unbelievable. I’ve got asparagas soup, cold, of course, with some heavenly little chunks of abalone in it. I’ve got celery spears stuffed with turkey pâté. Incredible. And I’ve got civiche without pitted olives. It’s terribly marvelous.”

Big Ed looked up at Jesus Harold and said:

Now tell us what you’ve got to eat.”

I was on Big Ed’s …

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