Sports Illustrated’s archives: Don Delillo and William Faulkner

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There was a time -- 1972, to be exact -- when Don Delillo wrote for Sports Illustrated. ‘End Zone'-- his novel about college football and nuclear warfare -- had come out that year, and maybe the editors thought he seemed both literary and sporty. Or maybe the editors of Sports Illustrated didn’t care if he was sporty or not; they’d gone just plain literary before. As in Nobel Prize literary: 17 years earlier they’d hired William Faulkner.

Above are the covers of the respective issues, which makes Sports Illustrated seem like it had become a very different magazine in the intervening years. But the writing by the two fiction masters is surprisingly close. In fact, it’s kind of hard to tell which is which.


A. Then it was filled with motion, speed. To the innocent, who had never seen it before, it seemed discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools. Then it would break, coalesce through a kind of kaleidoscopic whirl like a child’s toy, into a pattern, a design almost beautiful, as if an inspired choreographer had drilled a willing and patient and hard-working troupe of dancers—a pattern, design which was trying to tell him something, say something to him urgent and important and true in that second before, already bulging with the motion and the speed, it began to disintegrate and dissolve. B. The gambler’s life is a rhythmic tale of numbers, premonitions, symbols and dreams. He worships magic, and is magic’s willing victim. He wins and loses in seasons. But within all these cycles and prismatic mysteries, he must fight to maintain a fingerhold on ordinary reality. In the past, when CJ gambled much more heavily than he does now, when it was getting away from him and threatening to lead to a form of nondrinker’s delirium tremens, when he was afraid of seeing pterodactyls come flying out of his TV set—yes, in those days of superstition and bad acid magic, it finally came to him that he was traveling beyond action and into the realm of the unreal. He came out of it like a diver surviving a rapture of the deep, and since then he has lived in a state of carefully controlled enchantment.

To find out who wrote which paragraph, you’ll have to look after the jump.

The answer: William Faulkner wrote paragraph A in a piece called ‘An Innocent at Rinkside,’ published January 24, 1955. Don Delillo wrote ‘Total Loss Weekend,’ from which paragraph B is taken, for the issue that came out November 27, 1972.

I was surprised at how much Faulkner sounded like Delillo, particularly at the end there, although I suppose it would be more proper to say how much Faulkner presaged Delillo, who obviously came later.

There was a giveaway, though, in that Delillo would not be likely to write about himself as an ‘innocent’ at a hockey, as he once penned a fictional autobiography as Cleo Birdwell, the first woman to play in the NFL. Cleo was a complete invention, and Delillo has removed the book (‘Amazons’) from his list of publications, so his relationship to hockey is, well, complicated. But he’s no ice hockey novice.

Both pieces, in addition to being entirely available online -- very cool! -- are included in the 2004 collection ‘Sports Illustrated: 50 Years of Great Writing.’

Thanks to the twitter feeds of panopticist and Maud Newton, which led me to Delillo’s article.

-- Carolyn Kellogg