He’s Obsessed With Sports and Politics. His Novels Are, Too.

Yet as much as O’Neill draws from contemporary life in his fiction, he sees a distinction between his novels and short stories and his essays. His books “are inevitably political, too, but I hope not in a didactic way,” O’Neill wrote. “One of the basic objectives of writing — or of painting, or making music — is to make an interpretable thing of language that will transcend one’s normal dreary take on the world.”

Sandy Tait, a friend of O’Neill’s who helps to fund and coordinate grass roots campaigns, put it simply: “You see the writer in his political articles as opposed to seeing the engaged citizen in his literary works.”

“There are just so many Joes,” Tait continued — Joes who are witty, clever and combative, but above all, someone who “believes deeply in fairness and justice, and can’t just sit on the sidelines.”

However mysterious or inchoate the story of “Godwin” seemed years ago, O’Neill has a cogent perspective on it now. He sees the writing co-op, he said, as “liberal democracy, a dream of the collective, whereas the Wolfe side of it is more buccaneering, dealing with capitalism, neocolonialism.”

Mark’s globe-trotting allows the story to touch on Benin’s legacy of slavery, the exploitation inherent to professional sports, racism — some of the ugliest possibilities in the realm of human behavior. Yet it’s Lakesha, the novel’s avatar of idealism, who gets the book’s first word and also its last: “There is so much to look forward to.”

Joumana Khatib is an editor at the Book Review.

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