- Dan Jenkins' Needle
Drama critic Maurice Charney has written that comedy "provides a form of awareness by which we may understand and deal with a puzzling reality" (5). Dan Jenkins' Billy Clyde Puckett echoes Charney when he says that "laughter is the only thing that'll cut trouble down to a size where you can talk to it" (Life 272-273). Billy's country-shrewd remark could serve as his creator's underlying assumption in his sport-centered fiction and journalism. Indeed, Dan Jenkins has fashioned a lucrative career out of deflating sportsworld, lampooning the excesses and foolishness of organized sport so that we can "talk to it," doing so from a position of common sense and, paradoxically, deep affection. In his fiction, he reveals himself as a satirist very much in the American grain, a Mark Twain of the NFL, the Soumwest Conference, and the sports media. Larry L. King, a fellow master of redneck prose, has said in private conversation that some of the funniest moments in his life have occurred simply listening to Jenkins read and comment on the morning paper over coffee and cigarettes in Manhattan. In his recent journalism, especially his regular monthly column for Playboy, Jenkins has become our Mencken, outrageously and unabashedly prejudiced, jaundiced, eccentric, ornery, taking well-aimed [End Page 125] slapshots at all sorts of tomfoolery across the spectrum of contemporary sport. And who is Jenkins' audience? The same audience the satirist has always written for, what Louis I. Bredvold calls the "invisible church" (260) of good people, people like Puckett and his circle, Shake Tiller and Barbara Jane Bookman, who "nominated pretension as the gravest sin of all" (Life 49) way back in elementary school in that haven of good sense, Fort Worth, Texas.
Perhaps all humorists eye folly from a haven of good sense, a known locale, familiar and comfortable, from Will Rogers' Oklahoma, Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon, or Woody Allen's Manhattan, providing both a center and a stance. In short, a provincial quality inhabits much of our best humor, along with an attendant nostalgia and more than a touch of suspiciousness toward the outland and its outlandish behavior. Jenkins' psychic headquarters, despite twenty years of exile in New York City, is Texas in general, Fort Worth in particular. His frequent homecomings are likely the result of compelling urges even deeper than the perfectly understandable craving for an edible chicken fried steak with cream gravy and biscuits. Even if, as Billy Clyde says, Fort Worth is becoming a homogenized noncity "where people in the future were only going to communicate by word processor or over strawberry Margaritas at Happy Hour." Fort Worth was "once the world headquarters for white socks, Western music, and Tex-Mex food, an honest town where a man wasn't considered drunk unless he was lying down in a livestock pen and couldn't speak his native language," but "one day soon, if the planners had their way, everybody in Fort Worth could step gingerly into a restaurant specializing in fern salads and carrot boats" (Life 74).
Standing behind Jenkins' Fort Worth looms the tradition of southwestern humor, that tradition that the major scholars of American humor claim is the most distinctively and natively American. As Walter Blair has pointed out, the nineteenth-century Southwestern Humorists such as Johnson J. Hooper and A. B. Longstreet were journalists who tailored their colloquial, locally colored tall tales of Georgia and Arkansas for an Eastern seaboard audience (64). Much of the appeal of the Southwestern Humorists, and that of the Local Colorists like Joel Chandler Harris as well, lies in their use of American vernacular speech, characterized by Walt Whitman as "native grand opera" (qtd. in Rourke 141). In the hands of a master such as Mark Twain, Jesse Bier rightly suggests, American oral idiom becomes a literary language of "powerful subtlety and eloquence" (12). Reviewing Semi-Tough, David Halberstam praises Jenkins' style, "black-white-rural-Southern, our richest national language," as reminiscent of Ring Lardner. But in Lardner "we were looking at the bush ballplayer. In Jenkins, the ballplayer is not so bush, and he is looking at us" (22).