Review by Budd Bailey
The sports book industry has made plenty of money over the years publishing stories about a team and a particular season. In fact, it’s easy to wonder how many books are started … only to have something go terribly wrong along the way, and never get finished or published.
“Across the River” is another of those books that did make it across the finish line, and happily so. Kent Babb here writes about a 2019 high school season, and all that entails.
The team in question is Edna Karr High School in New Orleans, but not the New Orleans that tourists come to visit every year. This is the New Orleans that is across the river from the French Quarter and Lafayette Square. This is the New Orleans that features almost suffocating poverty, a place where the murder rate is almost off the charts.
There aren’t many success stories on the other side of the bridge. Karr’s football team could be called one of then, especially on the field, since they had a great run of success in the late 2010s. Even so, the coaches – including head coach Brice Brown – realize that disaster can be right around the corner at a given moment. They win a few and lose a few in terms of individuals, and hope they can make an impact. Even so, they never know what it means when a cell phone rings late at night and early in the morning – but it’s probably not good.
Babb spent a lot of time in New Orleans researching the book; he counted 19 trips to Louisiana during the course of the year. That commitment shows up throughout the publication. He obviously worked hard to earn the trust of the people around the program, and it shows throughout the book.
So we get a good luck at what happens when a team’s former star quarterback is murdered one night, and there’s no trail toward solving the case. We see what happens when one of the players lives alone with his single mother, and that mother goes off to prison for a while. And we take a look at people with dreams, who are living in a place where dreams go to die. Some of them – players and coaches – are interested in moving to the next level. A college scholarship or coaching job might change everything in terms of their life’s prospects.
One of the biggest surprises in this book is that there isn’t a great deal of text devoted to the actual football games. Some of the early contests are handling almost in passing, as the preparation for those games and the response to their outcome receives more space. It’s a surprising approach under the circumstances, but some of the details probably aren’t missed too much.
Books that cover the intersection of sports and culture always interest me. Tthe prototype in this area for high school is “Friday Night Lights.” So much of this unfiltered look at urban football was of interest. Still, it should be said that this is not a particularly easy read as it takes a little time to get through it. The football talk about plays was a little over my head; it’s never easy to know how much jargon to include. The same could be said about language that reflects the youth of today as well as African American culture. I’m not too in touch with either, which is probably my loss. There are quite a few characters in the story, particularly among the students, and it takes a little effort to separate them while reading. And if you don’t like profanity in your book and prefer something closer to standard grammar and usage, well, you have the wrong volume.
The other day, someone told me that he worried about some of the excesses in the culture of high school sports. My response to that was anything that engages young people in school activities is good. Sports can keep kids in the classroom, and teach them some lessons they wouldn’t get from a textbook. The same applies to several other extracurricular activities, which is why they shouldn’t be the first item cut out of the budget when money gets tight.
“Across the River” gives an upclose look at life in the inner city. Don’t look away; you might learn something.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)