Success is difficult to define. In the modern American landscape, it’s a term that’s become more or less synonymous with wealth rather than any sort of achievement. In the podcast The Relentless Picnic, the hosts remarked on the seeming absurdity that one could be considered a born-success. Fortunately, that’s not a problem for Nineteen, the protagonist of Eugene Marten’s latest book, Pure Life. The problem is the price he paid to get it, and how shallow it ended up being. Battered and bruised from a career as a professional football player, Nineteen, as he is only ever referred to in the novel, finds himself on an increasingly chaotic journey into the jungle of human darkness for a bit of relief. With this anguish comes moments of searing clarity and beauty, but like Nineteen’s journey into the dark night of the soul, the book is an arduous affair.
Pure Life opens with a history of sorts, prefacing Nineteen’s life to this point. After a decent career as a quarterback for an unnamed NFL team (though many real-life teams and players are named), he’s accumulated what many Americans would think of as the trappings of success, alongside some serious brain trauma. The money quickly fades, but unfortunately, the scars never do. The abuse incurred over years of professional play has more than taken its toll, and slowly sends Nineteen into a spiral he is powerless to escape.
“The problem […] is that the good times don’t seem to last,” Nineteen tells his doctor in a moment of lucidity that becomes only rarer as the novel goes on. After working himself onto the roster due to some “lucky” injuries and a deep knowledge of the playbook, Nineteen continues to climb the mountain as far as it will take him. But his fate is only to go so far, as he misses out on a shot at a Superbowl in a crushing defeat he ruminates over for the rest of the book. Rather than a ring, he’s left with a shallow life of the American dream and a worsening mental state.
This sad tale—of a professional athlete crippled gradually, then suddenly—is becoming only more common as we learn more about the lasting effects of concussions and the symptoms of brain afflictions such as CTE. Marten is deft at rendering the brutality of this game few bat their eyes at in American culture. Pure Life is certainly a visceral book: he frequently describes violence such as the crunch of ribs on turf, never to set quite right again—violence that only escalated as the book progresses. Yet Marten also manages to cover the emotional toll of men shuttling across the country for one last chance to make a team and keep their dream alive, and the people who these broken men leave in their wake.
The novel follows every sad step as he loses his wife and family, and the trappings of wealth fall away. Soon, Nineteen starts experiencing brain fog and blackouts. Desperate for a cure, he decides to seek stem cell treatment in Central America. Unfortunately for him, this is another dead end, as the clinic he’s placed his hope into is closed by the feds only days after he and his Mary-Kay-employed girlfriend arrived. Lost, Nineteen decides to get lost and causes a fight with his girlfriend before embarking on a self-destructive drinking binge through some unsavory neighborhoods.
Through a few chance encounters, he decides to go deeper into the wilderness, as a tour guide offers him access to a traditional healer in a remote village visit, so long as he agrees to partake in a jungle tour (lending his famous name to the guestlist as a form of promotion). As expected, things go awry, though the degree to which the shit hits the fan manages to shock in a book filled with the dark side of humanity. Nineteen and his fellow tourists find themselves captives to a band of pseudo-military tourists who claim association with the Kaibiles, a particularly notorious special forces wing of the Guatemalan armed forces.
Pure Life is a compelling trip into the heart of darkness, but the journey is marred by its meandering pace. It’s true to character, jumping from scene to scene as Nineteen experiences lapses in continuous memory, but gets bogged down a bit as not just Nineteen but the book itself seems to forget where it’s going at times. Marten has a rare ability to cut to the bone—which leads to some stunning passages, evocative of Cormac McCarthy with more punctuation—but these moments are buried in backstory or entire sections that feel adrift. It’s a sobering journey, but one I’m not sure is worth taking.
by Eugene Marten
Published May 03, 2022
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.