Any summary of the plot of the End Zone is bound to confuse those who compare the brevity of the synopsis to the hefty weight of the book itself. Keep in mind that what the book lacks in traditional “story” is more than made up for in the dialogue that drives that narrative.
Gary Harkness narrates his own central part in that narrative which begins with the surprising news of Taft Robinson transferring from Columbia to the much smaller Logos College deep in the heart of Texas. Robinson is a talented football player who excels at the position of running back. He is also black. The time is the early 1970s. And that makes Taft Robinson the first black player in the history of the Logos football team. Coach Emmett Creed is responsible for recruiting Taft away from Columbia and his strategy pays big time.
Overnight, Logos becomes a powerhouse with only one real competitor in the conference: West Centrex Biotechnical Institute. The bulk of the narrative that comprises Part I relates to a great expenditure of dazzling dialogue on the subject of the Big Game between the two rival. That part of the narrative not concerned with how Logos plans to beat their nemesis is divided between two particular people and the twin obsessions of Gary Harkness: his position as star halfback of the football team and the looming threat of nuclear annihilation that is just the touch of a button away. To better deal with the latter, Gary audits a class in modern warfare taught by Major Staley who doubles as the campus ROTC commander. When he’s not listening to Staley’s lectures about the number of warheads at the disposal of the American and Soviet militaries and estimating casualties which might be left in the wake of those buttons getting pushed, Gary stops by the Major’s hotel for expositions upon the metaphysical dimensions of the looming nuclear threat.
The other person who is prominent in Part 1 is Myrna Corbett. Myrna shares a class in geography with Gary and is also currently his best friend. The two enjoy picnics and demonstrations of their affinity for nihilism. A pair of sisters, Esther and Vera Chalk, often join them on these outings which always result in freewheeling dialogues that do very little to move the plot along, but go a long way toward establishing their characters.
Meanwhile, Tom Cook Clark, an assistant coach, commits suicide.
The second part of End Zone manifests itself as the central narrative supporting the titular thematic premise. Basically, what goes on here is the equivalent of listening to the audio of a broadcast of the football game between Logos and Centrex. The game is exciting and provides a rich texture upon which to support the novel’s broader scope and more expansive thematic concerns about war and annihilation as the author hardly backs down from confronting the standard cliché of such athletic events that transform play into a metaphor for battle. At the same time, the text makes it remarkably easy to visualize nearly every second of the Big Game.
The Big Game over and done with, Gary Harkness experiences a crisis of depression. The letdown offers Harkness the chance to philosophize further on the metaphysics of football and nuclear war, but things take a concrete turn when the Mrs. Tom Wade, President of Logos College and the widow its founder, is killed when her small plane crashes. Amidst the desolation of the emotional letdown and the twin tragedies of death bookending the game, Gary has only Myrna’s friendship and Staley’s teaching to look to for comfort and meaning. Meanwhile, Taft Robinson has come to the decision to give up on football and turns his focus toward books about Holocaust atrocities committed against kids.
Gary winds up slipping deeper and deeper in his nihilistic despair to the point where he must be hospitalized. The future remains unclear and the Big Game seems like forever ago.