American soccer in the 1970s was a strange time for the sport. Maybe you’ve seen the documentary Once in a Lifetime, or read David Wangerin’s comprehensive Soccer in a Football World. There was a brief moment when some of soccer’s biggest stars converged on the nascent NASL, and expansion teams popped up around the country. Dennie Wendt’s new novel Hooper’s Revolution is set in a fictionalized version of that scene: protagonist Danny Hooper arrived in the United States to play for the Rose City Revolution of the American All-Star Soccer Association, and soon becomes embroiled in a Cold War plot involving the Brazilian superstar at the heart of the league. Hooper’s novel abounds with comic moments, offering a skewed view of soccer’s history in the United States along the way. We talked about the novel’s origins, soccer’s history, and more.
In the afterword of Hooper’s Revolution, you write about 1970s soccer player Trevor Hockey and the role that he played in inspiring the book. Was Hockey (and his style of play) the initial inspiration for the book, or was something else responsible for that?
The book was inspired by all those guys who came over. The North American Soccer League only really worked because players like Trevor Hockey, who, for one reason or another, thought playing over here sounded like a good time. Some of them wanted an opportunity to prove themselves, some wanted to make some more money, some wanted to see another country, but all of them were willing ambassadors of their country’s national sport in a strange land, and I was a willing convert. I didn’t know Trevor Hockey as a player—I had just stumbled (and fixated) upon the photograph that graces the book’s cover: a bearded, confident citizen of 1970s English football beaming at the camera, obviously happy as a man could be to have ninety minutes of fun ahead of him. At first, I just thought he resembled Danny Hooper—but then it turned out that he had left the English lower divisions to play for the San Diego Jaws of the NASL, and that one of his first games had been against Pele and the NewYork Cosmos, and I knew he had to be on the cover.
Hooper’s Revolution is set in an American soccer league in the 1970s that bears a resemblance to the real-life NASL of that time period. What prompted you to set the novel then, as opposed to a different point in American soccer history.
American soccer as we know it started with the North American Soccer League in the ’70s. There are great stories about ethnic teams putting good crowds in Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds in the ’20s and ’30s, and there were enough good players here to get a US team to the semi-finals of the 1930 World Cup—but the origin story of American soccer as we know it today is in the NASL: the occasionally full stadiums, the aging superstars, the colorful uniforms, the unusual team names…it all lingers in the subconscious of the version of the game we live with today. Fortunately (for me), it was surprisingly good soccer (YouTube confirms) too—and weird as hell.
One thing that struck me was that, for all that certain aspects of the history of 1970s soccer were exaggerated for comic purposes, it wasn’t that exaggerated. Were there any “I can’t believe this really happened” moments that you had when researching the book?
One of the benefits of growing up in the ’70s is that you seldom can’t believe anything happened. I had a pet rock and a soap on a rope. I remember Evel Knievel jumping over school buses and “Battle of the Network Stars.” Portland’s NASL team had a lumberjack mascot who lowered himself from the stadium’s rafters while revving a chainsaw. San Jose’s Krazy George mascot arrived at the game via helicopter and once ran across the field with a pair of bear cubs on leashes. None of it really seemed like it shouldn’t be happening. Some of the best players in the world were playing out their last days on fields you wouldn’t let decent thirteen-year-olds play on now in front of cheerleaders, mystical-creature mascots and wide swaths of empty seats. Readers keep asking me what actually happened versus what I made up. I made it all up—but having a team play in rodeo arena isn’t that different from asking seasoned English footballers to play 6-a-side on a carpeted hockey rink.
When writing about a sport with a set of rules as complex as soccer’s–and of the additional rules in the fictional league in the novel–how did you balance summarizing these versus relying on your readers’ knowledge of the sport?
I still have a few books I gathered in those days. One, from 1979, is called How to Look at Soccer. In its third paragraph it explains that a “goal is scored when one team is able to get the ball (round, like a basketball, but an inch smaller in circumference) over the opponents’ goal line and into the goal.” Everything you read about soccer back then thought it had to explain details like that. I didn’t want to overdo it in the novel, but I did want to remind people of that exotic, new-game feeling soccer used to have. One of the things that told me Unnamed Press was right for the book was that they told me this was one of the first soccer books they’d come across that treated American fans as if they had their own legitimate understanding of soccer and didn’t need to be lectured about the passion the rest of the world has for the game.
What are some of your favorite novels dealing with soccer?
Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch—not a novel but a memoir—is the root. The early ’90s were a dark time for soccer: English clubs were banned from playing in Europe because of fan violence from 1985-1991, the 1990 World Cup in Italy was a depressing, low-scoring slog, the US didn’t even have a real pro league. Then came Hornby, and it made loving soccer respectable and even cool. Another book of that era, 1990’s Among the Thugs by Bill Buford, needs no description other than its subtitle—“The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence”—and is as scary as any scary book I’ve ever read. The best novels about soccer that I know are The Damned United (2006) and Red or Dead (2013), by David Peace—books about the human condition that just happen to use soccer as a backdrop. I don’t know that a non-fan could get through them, but they deserve to be recognized as much more than soccer books.
The overall tone of Hooper’s Revolution is comic, but you’re also dealing with Cold War plots and spies that are willing to murder for their country. How did you find the right balance between the two?
I’m relieved you think I found the right balance—I did worry about it, but I didn’t fear it. The Bond and Bond-like movies of the the ’60s and the paranoia films of the ’70s (The Parallax View, Capricorn One, etc.) somehow always managed to use anti-Communist hysteria as a backdrop for overheated stories that used their own heavy-handedness as something pretty close to a plot device. Despite the fact that some of that paranoia and hysteria was pretty reasonable, its earnestness made it comical almost by default. I hoped that if the book maintained a slightly satirical, or at least bemused, tone throughout, I could get away with the threat of gunplay.
There’s a definite ode to Portland, Oregon as a soccer city in your novel. What would you say makes Portland as soccer-mad as it is, relative to other cities around the country?
I’m still a little mystified by it. I’m intrigued by what makes certain parts of the country crazy for certain sports. I lived in New England for a while and saw what baseball means there. I don’t know what the deal is with Maryland and lacrosse, but something is happening down there. During the 2014 World Cup final, my daughter had to play in a soccer tournament at a place in Portland called Delta Park, which is something of a soccer mecca here. I set the DVR and headed to her game, but when I got there, a group of 16-year-old boys were showing the game inside a rented U-Haul on a giant computer screen they’d brought to the park. 50 kids were gathered inside the U-Haul and under blue tarps (it was raining) quietly, intently watching the game. It was pretty cool. Some of Portland’s soccer love must be coincidence: We were lucky to get a team in 1975 and have Pele come to town, which hooked us all, and English people like the weather here. There’s also a general resistance to the mainstream in this corner of the country that seized onto soccer as another claim to Portland weirdness. Frankly, I think a game that revolves around disappointment suits the city pretty well. We just finished 146 straight days of rain. You can’t fall in love with baseball in a place like that.