Bodies collide on a green field. Even in a still photograph, the impact is audible; the mind fills in the shock waves. Marketers have used it for decades – the primal lure of the full body impact of dueling males – American football. The compulsive lure of combat appeals to something deep within even the most passive or intellectual. Despite mounting evidence pointing toward the long-term physical and mental damage caused by football injuries, despite the voices that decry the violence and culture of machismo, the popularity of football is undeniable. What drives us to support a sport so destructive of its participants? What drives players to overcome the pain of impact, to ignore the possibility of an infirm future? How does the culture of combat affect the boys and young men whose worth becomes synonymous with a game?
In his new young adult novel, Pop, Gordon Korman explores the culture of football from within the framework of a small town high school team. Wrapped in the story of a young man’s transition into a new town and new football team lies the darker tale of a middle aged athlete’s decline into premature dementia and the toll his past takes upon his family.
If Marcus Jordan had to move to a new town in the dead of summer, at least he was moving to a high school with a first class football team. However, he hadn’t counted on the insular team’s reluctance to accept a newcomer even to tryouts or on the outright hostility of Troy Popovich, the starring quarterback. Marcus’ transition into his new home is further complicated by the advances of Troy’s on-and-off girlfriend Alyssa and by his hard hitting practice sessions with an enigmatic middle-aged man named Charlie. Charlie may be the most incredible athlete Marcus has ever known, yet there is something odd about a grown man who runs away from a broken windshield, and who can never show up when he is expected.
Marcus soon discovers that Charlie is Charlie Popovich, former NFL linebacker and Troy’s father. The disparate jigsaw pieces of the puzzle that is Charlie fall into place as Marcus begins to realize the extent of the damage Charlie sustained during his football career. In his depiction of the three athletes — Marcus, Charlie, and Troy — Korman unravels the dangers, fears, and lure of football. Charlie, “The King of Pop,” pays for his fearless career on the gridiron with the loss of his present. Unable to distinguish between his past as a high school prankster and his present as a middle-aged father, Charlie hangs in the limbo of Alzheimer’s. Gifted with a brilliant throwing arm, but hampered by a fear of contact, Marcus must confront his demons in order to pursue his football dreams. Will Charlie’s lessons in accepting and even loving the “pop” override the evidence of damage caused by the sport they both love? In many ways, Troy, though a minor character, has the most compelling story. His conflicts between his love for his father and the sport and his loathing for and fear of what his father has become drive Troy’s actions.
Having grown up with Gordon Korman’s lighthearted MacDonald Hall series, I found myself drawn in and taken aback by Pop. While the voice is vintage Korman — casual with a hint of smart-aleck — the characters of Pop are confronted with the very real consequences of their actions in a way that his early characters never were. Wisps of Korman’s early creations mingle in the characters of Pop. The pranks played by Marcus and Charlie evoked memories of Bruno and Boots, Alyssa’s voice could be that of a post-adolescent Cathy. Like those of us who remember Gordon Korman’s early books, and like Korman himself, his characters have grown up and entered the real world.
The plot of Pop never lags. Korman transitions from one entertaining or tense twist to the next without letting up. A fast, compelling read, Pop kept even this non football fan engrossed from start to finish.
Pop is suggested for ages 12 and up. While the book contained nothing that I would be uncomfortable having my 10-year old daughter read, its focus on high school sports and adolescent dilemmas would likely be beyond the interest of a younger child. Personally, I look forward to handing Pop to my son when he is a few years older. Pre-teen and teenage boys seem to be largely overlooked by the marketers of young adult fiction; Pop fills this gap with gusto.