An uproarious yarn of an underdog team and its overdog owner takes in a shadowy criminal cartel, a stolen Dal and the social tensions of a nation
In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner before the start of a preseason game. The decision, he explained, was a silent protest at what he saw as a culture of police brutality, racial inequality and a systemic bias against minorities within the criminal justice system. The take the knee protest has since gone viral. It has been adopted by more than 200 players, threw the 2017 season into crisis and outraged Donald Trump, who derides the protesters as treacherous ingrates and wants them all to be fired. Previously a well-oiled bastion of monopoly capitalism (exclusively white-owned, yet disproportionately reliant on black talent), the NFL is in danger of becoming a revolutionary hotbed.
Sergio de la Pavas freewheeling Lost Empress is a novel implicitly born out of these ongoing upheavals. Boldly billing itself as a protest, the book takes hold of American football and duly hot-wires it to the national grid, so that the sparks jump across a matrix that extends from stadium sport to the prison system to a shadowy criminal cartel known as the Absence. Reading it is a little like being accosted by a brilliant conspiracy theorist on the night bus home: assuming we go with the flow and ward off the occasional moments of outright exasperation, we may just come away converted.
Ostensibly Lost Empress spins the tale of Nina Gill, the barbed, ballsy daughter of a Texas plutocrat. Nina longs for ownership of the Dallas Cowboys but is instead bequeathed control of a hardscrabble New Jersey team called Paterson Pork, which competes in the largely defunct Indoor Football League. Undeterred, she sets out to break the NFL stranglehold, moving to poach its star players and announcing a rival 16-game season during which a mascot in a pig costume comes to blows with a mascot dressed up as a crab. The outcome, Nina explains brightly, will decide which side receives the ball first.