Every man to his taste. When Dan Jenkins' Semi-Tough came out some years ago, I read it as a tender, old-fashioned love story that Jenkins had cleverly camouflaged with a football backdrop, a lot of hip Texas talk and a certain amount of raunch that made it an instant bestseller. It was also hilarious. If you were on a space mission at the time, get a copy and read it. Or read the sequel, just published: Life Its Ownself: The Semi-Tougher Adventures of Billy Clyde Puckett & Them ( Simon and Schuster, $15.95). It's even better.
The recipe is the same, though Jenkins spiced up this dish with considerably more raunch. A little too much for me or, probably, Father Hesburgh, but that's my hang-up; it's certainly not Jenkins' and probably not yours. Billy Clyde Puckett and his buddy and teammate Shake Tiller are still in love with Barbara Jane Bookman, though Billy C.'s got her now. The background is NFL and TCU football as seen live and on TV, and the half-dozen plots meet and mate and produce some of the funniest scenes and lines your normal, sex-starved sports fan could wish for.
But Jenkins is after something more here, which is why this is superior to Semi-Tough. When Barb, Shake and Billy Clyde were in the third grade at Daggett Elementary in Fort Worth, they formed their own private club as a response to the idiocy they observed in "grown-up behavior." In later years, they decided that "you shouldn't live out your favorite songs too seriously," and came to believe that "a chicken-fried steak and cream gravy at Herb's Cafe could duke it out with any phony Frenchman who ever wore a chefs hat." They "nominated pretension as the gravest sin of all."
Behind all the bawdy one-liners, the belly laughs and burlesque in Life Its Ownself is Jenkins' steady attack on phoniness, on sham and hypocrisy in human affairs. He has disguised it as neatly as he handled the romance in Semi-Tough, but it puts him in a line of succession that began with the great English satirists of the 17th century and continued through Finley Peter Dunne and Ring Lardner.
The plots in Ownself give the three protagonists opportunity to mock pretension in a lot of contemporary areas. Billy Clyde as running back and Shake as pass receiver have won a Super Bowl for the New York Giants and, as tight buddies, have been depleting the supplies of J & B in the city's best bars for years. ("We were as close as you could be without buying each other jewelry," says narrator Billy Clyde.) But Billy C.'s right knee is destroyed in a game with the Redskins, and he becomes a TV color man. Shake quits the NFL to raise ribald hell with it in print. Barb's wit and beauty captivate Madison Avenue and network biggies. ("Few people ever blitzed Big Town quicker than Barbara Jane. She kissed it on the lips and backed up the trucks.") She becomes a cover girl and a sitcom star. Billy C. gets involved in a scheme to use Big Ed Bookman's oil millions to buy his alma mater, TCU, a national football championship without Walter Byers' smelling a rat. Shake catches an NFL "zebra" and a 44-22-38 born-again stripper in an over-or-under betting scam.
The marriage of Billy Clyde and Barb falls apart. The NFL players' union decides to win free agency from the owners by turning games into sewing bees. Barbara Jane is up for an Emmy; Billy C. is up in the booth; TCU is up for No. 1; the TCU coach delivers an X-rated halftime speech that's the most inspired since Rockne invoked the Gipper, though no presidential hopeful is likely to star in the reruns of any movie that might ensue. And there's lots more. As he gags his way through these story lines and fills the creases with sex and booze, Jenkins sticks a lot of needles into a lot of skins. If I have a complaint, it's the same that bothers me about so many current diversions in print, in the movies and on the tube that are otherwise original and clever. The theory seems to be that if you can't figure out a way to end it right, just end it. There's always next time.
Life Its Ownself ties up all the loose ends one way or another, but, unfortunately, it takes the easy way out in the last chapter. Maybe Jenkins was also thinking "next time." I'll buy that—especially if it means we won't have to wait as long for another sequel as we did for this one.