Complex books transcend simple marketing. Which means that complex books are often a casualty of our commercial age. No matter how badly the publishers of Jay Jennings' "Carry the Rock" want it to be the next "Friday Night Lights" in terms of sales, it will most likely never reach such heights, because it's a better book.
"Carry The Rock" would succeed were it simply a straightforward summary of Bernie Cox's Central High Tigers' 2007 season. But the book's subtitle — "Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City" — indicate that Jennings, a former reporter for Sports Illustrated and a contributor to the New York Times, has broader ambitions.
We're just a page or two into the prologue when we realize we're in the hands of a discerning and expert storyteller. The sweeping opening gives way to a multi-tiered narrative that isn't just great sportswriting, but chronicles the history of a team, a school and a city that, 50 years later, is still trying to come to terms with its most harrowing and/or calcifying event. This is not an undemanding story about a football team; it's a rich portrait of a complicated place and its people.
There are many interesting characters in the book, but perhaps none as compelling as the fiery but principled 30-year-veteran coach Bernie Cox. By most accounts, Cox's approach would be considered an outmoded, smashmouth, three-yards-and-a cloud-of-dust type offense. It's an offense that lives and dies by its personnel, and in 2007, one that lacked the type of big, bruising running back that had made it so successful in years past.
Through the team's and Cox's struggles, we bear witness to how the nature of high school football has changed over the years. The NFL mentality trickled down to college football years ago and has now fully permeated even the high school ranks. Wins and losses have always mattered, of course, but coaches used to also teach classes. It's only in recent years that a high school coach's job depends entirely on their record since the school's success in its major sports teams are the biggest advertisement for the school itself (...as if success on a court or field equals success for your son or daughter in the classroom).
But why did Jennings choose this team and why this season? Why football at all, for that matter, to tell the story of our city? We all know the story of Gov. Orval Faubus fighting the desegregation of Central High in 1957, but what we may not know is that he chose to completely shut down all Little Rock high schools in 1958 rather than integrate further. More preposterous to our modern sensibilities, the Central Tigers still played football that season and, subsequently, were runners-up in the state championship. The Greeks wrote about their gods, and we write about our religions, secular or otherwise, and what would be a more fitting foundation for this story than a football team on the 50-year anniversary of that famous 1957 ordeal?
This is mostly a book about a football team, but the team and the school in 2007 become a bellwether for how far we have, or haven't, come. Little Rock has obviously, inevitably, been far more integrated in recent years than in 1957, just as we were more integrated in 1957 than in the days of the 1927 lynching of John Carter, which Jennings illustrates as the other quintessential racial touchstone of central Arkansas history. That said, integration doesn't equal cohesion, even 50 years later.
There may be racial collaboration on the field, but Jennings says that interracial friendships at Central are still the exception rather than the rule. More than anything, the concept of race is something that permeates everything, yet exists mostly under the surface, unaddressed, but unabated. In this regard, despite the Central High Crisis being one of the most publicized and catalogued events of the Civil Rights era, Central becomes not some racist exception, but a microcosm for almost every other high school in America. The arc of history may bend toward progress, but it's long enough, slow enough, and ebbs and flows enough, that it often doesn't look like progress at all.
Where "Friday Night Lights" is good reportage that reads like a novel, "Carry The Rock" is more like a briskly-paced sociology book. Jennings deserves a broad audience with this effort; whether he gets one or not doesn't change the fact that he has told a more absorbing, elaborate and haunting story than some simple season-on-the-brink account.
Ultimately, what Jennings portrays through his deft narrative is not what we hoped we would be at this point, but what we are. He gives us a rare and accessed look into high school football in Little Rock, but also into the lives of its people, which are as intricate and sometimes as afflicted as the city itself. It's a book about class and education, but ultimately, it's a pitch-perfect portrait of what was once our most publicized failing, yet may now be our most hidden wound.