BOOK REVIEW: 'The Sinful Seven,’ a college football Western Sci-Fi, which makes all the sense in the world

A college football western novel about ... college football.

DISCLOSURE: I worked with, in some capacity or other -- writing or editing -- all four authors of this novel for a number of years, ending in January 2019; then I broke my collarbone. That injury is unrelated to this book or this review.

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Spencer Hall, Richard Johnson, Jason Kirk and Alex Kirshner conceived of, outlined, drafted, and wrote an entire novel in 11 weeks — amidst a raging pandemic that forced all four writers out of their jobs.

The Sinful Seven is a monument to their years toiling together in college football editorial rooms and the unavoidable brainchild of that time for anyone who’s spent hours working with them, reading them, listening to them, and laughing or yelling at them. If, say, you furiously hollered “AW, FUCK,” the day you learned The Shutdown Fullcast would record no longer, this book is for you.

The Sinful Seven decidedly is a Western Sci-Fi novel in terms of tone, feel, cuisine, landscape, wardrobe, technology, alcohol, and talking animals. Like many Westerns, the story begins on the hottest day of your life, under the most blinding sun you’ve ever suffered: dust, but also somehow mud; heat waves turning the desert into a brown-yellow lagoon; a poor excuse for a train station, which is where we lay our scene.

Yes, there are portals, which will transfer people across the pages’ American West. We might call them, for lack of a better name, “transfer portals.”

But more to the point, The Sinful Seven is a late-capitalist morality play, with the NCAA’s racist, sybaritic, and anti-labor sadism trained squarely in its crosshairs. You’re gonna hate anyone wearing a nice suit, much less nice shoes.

The novel presents itself as an immediate allegory not just for the local circumstance of its four unemployed authors, but for the broader socioeconomic forces under which this country generally — and the NCAA specifically — thrive. The Sinful Seven is at once a dissertation on all that Hall, Johnson, Kirk and Kirshner achieved over their variegated sports media careers. But it’s also a singeing indictment of the gales that undid those careers: vulture-capitalist buffoonery and anti-worker decisions at the highest breaches of American corporatism.

And thus those lucrative amoebae blob onto and suffocate as well the lowest level of collegiate athletic labor: unpaid student-athletes. If the lessons to be learned here are delivered with a ham-fist, that’s entirely the point.

It’s a Western story, but it’s also a bandit story behind the story, and an officious story on top of the bandit story; it’s what we tell ourselves on the one hand, and what the NCAA wants to tell itself on the other. Mark Emmert will love it.

Though there is much humor to be found in The Sinful Seven — Irish the big, bad brute “accidentally” gets half his head blown off by an “Association” gun in Chapter One — there is far more anger in the novel at the inevitable, moneyed steamrolling of those down here who do the fucking work.

In structure, the authors have in fact written two stories, here, or maybe three. We have Book One’s focus on the titular and recalcitrant Sinful Seven, outlaws of the NCAA’s attempt at some sort of primitive order: Mary Lande, the tortoise-like ringleader and sharp shooter; Charlotte Cavellera, vigilante and stealthy and stylish in her plumed hat; Charlie Delle, pugnacious, militant scrapper from the Carolina low country. And they all like to steal shit.

And so on. Their posse will grow.

But hitched to this tale of a renegade frontier gang is a running history of the real-life NCAA’s flailing attempts at wrangling in a shoot-first-ask-questions-never sport that, for all the Association’s best efforts, absolutely refuses to follow Association rules; the cast revels in committing crimes. There’s a reason this history of collegiate football takes place on the untamed American frontier, after all — wild, unregulated, do-it-yourself — and Johnson and Kirshner’s research and historicity carry this exploitative chronicle through to the novel’s endpoint — with a sturdy assist from Kirk’s Epilogue (there are 20 pages of footnotes).

Well, Book Two concerns itself with the amnesia and erasure of collegiate football’s Black players in the sport, with the death of Iowa State’s Jack Trice as its narrative focus. Again, there’s very real anger in this story, no more so felt when Johnson carries not just the historiographic weight of the project, but also its American racist mythos: let us never forget, Johnson says, that Jack Trice’s grandfather was named George Wallace, long before that other George Wallace, who can go straight to hell.

The Sinful Seven is a tragedy, but you already knew that; the NCAA and its enforcement arm are overdetermined and ordained, a juggernaut that refuses all blockers. And yet, like Euripides and Aristotle and Shakespeare after them well understood, there exists space for comedy in tragedy. The one only heightens the effect of the other, and it’s this tension that brings The Sinful Seven home to sit on your head and marvel at the ancient absurdity of today’s NCAA and its arcane, racist, and immoral dispensation of labor “jurisprudence.” Maybe Reggie Bush would’ve been a better ask to review this goddamn thing.

And so the NCAA will just keep pumping coal into the boiler of its money train, and continue chugging along. Fucking hilarious.

Here are this reader’s rankings — based purely on the Delphic magic of the NCAA’s closeted computers — of The Sinful Seven:

CFP Post-Season Poll: No. 1 (entered the CFP rankings No. 3 but won out and returned the team you hate to national dominance; sorry).
BCS Post-Season Poll (pre-CFP era): No. 2 (Alabama claims this title).
Coaches’ Poll: No. 3 (coaches don’t read anything, and when they do read something, they treat it like it’s new and revelatory and game-changing; still, top-10, though, PAAAWWWLLL).
AP Poll: No. 1 (Clemson received one fewer vote).
Preseason AP Poll: No. 4 (in the running, no one’s scouted reserve depth, but no coaching turnover; Godfrey pissed someone the hell off).
CBS Writers’ Poll: No. 3 (Big Ten Bias).
S&P+: No. 6 (these rankings are meant to be PREDICTIVE, GODDAMMIT, we’ll see how they do in Week 5, but Bill C’s worried about TSS’s defensive radar currently).

Buy the goddamn book at sinfulseven.com.