Even when I was a little kid, I hated the idea of coming in first place. Not that it was actually a problem I had to deal with as a practical matter. But it always seemed to be that second place was better than first place. It probably owes a lot to my love of stories. In general, I hate it when a good story ends. A second place finish implies more chapters. Although as I learned from Irwin Shaw in “The Eighty-Yard Run” (pdf), often the best stories end with the hero bringing up the rear. Sometimes, second place is the best that you’ll ever do. Sometimes, not even that.
The story starts with Darling on the football team in high school. He catches a pass in practice and runs for an eighty-yard touchdown. He feels great that day. He is in love with his girlfriend who will eventually become his wife. His whole life is ahead of him. And it’s going to be great! Except that it isn’t. That eighty-yard run is the high point of his life. Of course, the story is more complex than that. Fundamentally, it is about a man coming to grips with the fact that his life has been going down while his wife’s has been going up. He doesn’t begrudge her success, although he fears he will lose her because of it. He just wonders why even as he fell and she climbed he couldn’t have taken her hand and joined her.
It’s hard to read more than one or two Irwin Shaw stories in a row. In me, anyway, they bring out an intense feeling of loneliness. It’s the feeling that you’ve lost something, but you can’t quite locate what it was. There is a sad, even terrifying feeling, that you are alone and always have been. It seems like such a modern idea. After all, didn’t people have actual friendships in the past? Aren’t there vast collections of long letters that William Hazlitt wrote to his many friends. Now all we have is mindless time wasting: the Facebook picture of your dinner, the snarky tweet about someone I’ve never heard of, the sentimental blog post about loneliness or whatever it is I’m writing about.
But what’s most interesting in “The Eighty-Yard Run” is that Darling isn’t pathetic. His life certainly has not turned out as he wanted. But whose has? After a couple of years of graduate school, I realized something: by the time people got their PhDs, they didn’t care. There was a certain time when each of of us realized that we could do it; mentally we were already there and the rest was just bureaucracy. What mattered was the struggle not the resolution. But most of us got the damned thing because we were already so close. These kinds of rites of social status are never worth having once you can have them. They don’t signify accomplishment; they signify disillusionment.
Shaw’s entire story is told 15 years in the future, when Darling sells sports equipment to high schools. He is at his old high school and he relives the eighty-yard run, doing it himself on the same field. A young high school couple see him and doubtless think he’s a freak. He walks up to them and says, “I—once… I played here.” He’s embarrassed, but wise enough to laugh at himself. The kids just stare and he goes back to his hotel. Alone. But if Darling had gone on to play pro ball, at some point he would have the same experience. In the end, we all die. And we are all forgotten. Even this entire culture will be completely forgotten.
What ultimately matters is how we treat each other. And in general, that’s pretty bad. It’s not surprising. Everyone has to divide up their time with trying to make eighty-yard runs and listening to others tell us their stories of eight-yard runs. But we have a society—a culture—that reinforces this. I saw an episode of Wheel of Fortune recently. At the end of the main game, some woman had won $30,000 in cash and prizes, a guy came in second place with about $8,000 in cash, and another woman didn’t win anything at all—she went home with “parting gifts,” which I always imagine as being a year’s supply of dishwasher detergent. Then they went to the “bonus round” where the woman who won the most got the opportunity to win even more. That seems odd to me, but entirely typical of who we are.
Humans are almost indistinguishable. Albert Einstein or your average bus driver: throw them into the wilderness and they’ll do about as well. But we’ve set up a social order that makes a very big deal out of very little differences. The Darling of the story who is just a traveling salesman is no different than my hypothetical ex-pro football player. But our myths requires us to lie. “Oh yes! The ex-pro could run the 40 a tenth of a second faster!” Is that who we are? Because that strikes me as a very strange kind of myth to believe in. What’s more, it is exactly the opposite of the religion that 80% of us claim to follow. And also the opposite of the very idea of democracy that we claim to cherish. The problem is not you. And it is not me. It is us. We are killing us.