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Dancing in the End Zone: Don DeLillo, Men's Studies, and the Quest for Linguistic Healing.

That Don DeLillo's End Zone is a novel whose primary concerns are linguistic is hardly in question. In the last decade, several scholars have advanced promising arguments that have in part explained DeLillo's views on the nature of language, a seemingly independent entity that takes on a life of its own in the novel as it under-girds and informs the experiences of the characters. For instance, Francoise Hoppe (1992) has argued in Marxist fashion that the novel's central mission is to explore the impossibility of asserting linguistic authority within the context of economic and social determinism. Thomas LeClair (1987) uses a deconstructionist approach to advance the argument that social forces are not responsible for the linguistic plight of End Zone's characters, whose main problem is that language itself is unknowable and thus useless as a source for ordering or coping with life. By contrast, Gary Staroff (1985) contends that DeLillo is commenting not on the inherent failure of language, but on the specific failure of the language of games.(1)

What has been overlooked, however, is the fact that the characters in End Zone suffer not because language fails to mean, but because, as highly gendered language, it means so rigidly that the players who are trapped by its patriarchal structures cannot develop and use their own means of expression to escape its confines. This paper offers a men's studies approach to the novel, focusing on the notion that End Zone reveals DeLillo's preoccupation with examining the relationship between American masculinity and men's use of language. For the novel's action is performed by a handful of young men who continually and desperately experiment with speech as a means of coping with one of Western culture's most time-tested methods of allowing boys to gain a sense of their own identity: the game of conquest. Much as Beowulf swam against Unferth or Sir Gawain engaged the Green Knight in the challenge game, so the football players of Logos College are on a masculine journey through the sport of football. Unfortunately, the road is fraught with peril and, despite their verbal defenses and attempts to find and recapture the power of the Word, the young men are forced to confront the postmodern dilemma of American men: they can't use language to escape harmful masculine paradigms because the words they must use are the very building blocks of the history and traditions that ensnare them. To talk is to take part in those traditions and to facilitate one's own emotional demise. Ironically, the significance of End Zone is that in exposing the linguistic plight that renders its male characters silent and confused, it actually gives male readers a voice that explains their predicament, showing how the language of literature does carry meaning that can be used both to achieve cathartic and healing effects and to develop alternatives to current masculine ideals.

One of the first things the reader notices is that violence is at the core of the identity of the young men in End Zone. Every player DeLillo introduces is held hostage by morbid visions of mass destruction, nuclear war, genocide, and disturbing sexual fantasies. Gary Harkness, the novel's troubled anti-hero, admits that he is obsessed with nuclear disaster: "I liked reading about the deaths of tens of millions of people. I liked dwelling on the destruction of great cities.... Pleasure in the contemplation of millions dying and dead" (p. 20). Gary's roommate, Anatole Bloomberg, is actually invigorated via his violent visions because "life, happiness, fulfillment come surging out of particular forms of destructiveness. The moral system is enriched by violence" (p. 215). Then there is star running back Taft Robinson, who feels compelled to read about the historical murders of children even though it disgusts him:
 I read about atrocities. I can't help it. I like to read about ovens, the
 showers, the experiments.... I like kids the best. Putting the torch to
 kids and their mamas. Smashing kids in the teeth with your rifle butt.
 Firing into ditches full of kids. That's my special interest. It's the
 worst thing there is. I can't bear it.... I don't know why I keep reading
 about it. (p. 240)

DeLillo indicates that the players rely on games as accepted structural forms that provide regulation and order to the violence with which they are so obsessed. Indeed, they seem to live for games, football or otherwise, that either give them a chance to celebrate their prowess against each other, or which allow them to experiment with violence as a means by which to attain order and simplicity in their lives. The players even invent games, such as "Bang, You're Dead," for this very purpose. In this game the players attempt to shoot each other with their fingers, the point being to revel in one's ability to "kill" another person. As Gary says, "It has gradations, dark joys, a resonance. I started to kill selectively. To kill with impunity. To die in the celebration of ancient ways" (p. 32).

The players' fascination with games of conquest as a way of providing order and meaning to their lives is usually gratified through football, a game that dominates their daily existence. The players at Logos College are completely isolated in the desert of Southwest Texas. They live in special football dorms, and there is nothing to distract them from their gridiron routine. The players refer to themselves as "exiles and outcasts," all of whom are dedicated to establishing a simple, atavistic, physical identity through the brutality of football. Many, like Gary, actually feel secure and comforted by the violence of the game: "Hit and get hit; run over people" (p. 5). "What a pretty sight. When coach says hit, we hit. It's so simple" (p. 35). Stars die violently. Elements are created out of violence ... I'm feeling very happy. Listen to these noises. Pop, pop, pop. Ving, ving. Existence without anxiety. Happiness" (p. 121).

The fascinating thing is that football has occasioned horrible experiences for Gary at other universities, which temporarily cause him to give up the sport. Unable to deal with the militaristic uniformity at Syracuse, he barricades himself in his room. Numbed by the violent repetition of drills, he suffers a spiritual crisis at Penn State; when he accidentally kills a player in a game at Michigan State, he is so disturbed that he vows to quit the game. Nevertheless, he always comes back to it. As he says, "I discovered one simple truth. My life meant nothing without football" (p. 22).(2)

Like Gary, the other players are mystically drawn to the game no matter how badly they are scarred mentally or physically. At the end of the Centrex game, the casualty list includes nearly everyone on the team. Still, the players long for the game and can't bear the thought of waiting until the next season. Gary admits that "without football, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to do" (p. 156). Billy Mast, a senior, is particularly distraught: "No more football. No more hitting. No more sweat and pain. No more fear. No more being ... cursed at by those insane coaches. No more getting kicked, elbowed or spat on. Literally spat on. It's awful. I can't accept it" (p. 179).

Even after the season is over, the players play a pick-up football game in the most brutal weather possible. There are no coaches, trophies, or conference championships. They simply play for the enjoyment of regulating violence and measuring themselves in combat. The contest starts out as a passing game of two-hand touch. Gradually, however, the players make rules that reduce their options by eliminating complex variables such as passing or end runs. They regulate their playing space by restricting the plays to simple dives into the line and decide that the players must tackle with no gloves or coats in the bitter weather, allowing them to get as close to the primal violence of the game as possible. As Gary admits, the players "find merit in the regulation.... We were comforted by the noise and the brunt of our bodies in contact, by the simple, physical warmth generated through violent action" (p. 196).

The reader is forced to ask why these players are so reliant on the physical conflict and conquest of their games for self-definition. DeLillo indicates that the answer is recorded in powerful patriarchal traditions that shape the players' lives, and especially in the language that reinforces and recreates those traditions. Indeed, the main problem for the players is that these words and rituals are not their own, and thus the destructive patterns occasioned by them elude the players' collective understanding and lead to the state of confusion in which they are ensnared. As John Kucich (1980) explains, the players' dilemma centers around the fact that the language and traditions that affect them are in fact vestiges of the political, social, and economic realities of their forefathers:
 The real problem with DeLillo's male characters is that their attempts to
 oppose the power of mainstream American culture always involves the
 appropriation of gestures or poses that they cannot legitimately claim as
 their own patterns of behavior, rather than principles or doctrines, that
 are conventionally rooted in someone else's social identity. And in this
 agony of social distance lies their impotence. (p. 337)

Even DeLillo (DeCurtis, 1990) admits that "End Zone wasn't about football. It seems to be about extreme places and extreme states of mind more than anything else."(3) Football, an extreme game played in a confined, brutal space, is simply the mechanism DeLillo uses to dissect the variables, such as language, history, and tradition, which produce the players' extreme masculine (mis)identities.

For instance, Gary's obsession with the game is due, in part, to his father's insistence that he play because, as Gary says, "He had ambitions on my behalf and more or less at my expense. This is the custom among men who have failed to be heroes; their sons must prove that the seed was not impoverished" (p. 17). In order to make sure Gary plays football, his father bombards him with cliches meant to show how football can make a man into a winner. His father tells him to "Get cracking. Straighten out. Hang in. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Suck in that gut and go harder" (p. 16). As Gary remembers, "Backbone, will, mental toughness, desire--these were his themes" (p. 16). For Gary, this patriarchal legacy, reinforced by his father's language, is too much for him to resist: "He put me in a football uniform early. Eventually, I received twenty-eight offers of athletic scholarship" (p. 18).

More closely related to the players' reliance on football's asceticism are the dictates of head coach Emmitt Creed, whom Gary calls the "avenging Patriarch." Creed wields power by controlling the spoken word at Logos College, establishing his authority through the mystery and legend that surround his background. He "was born in Texas, in a log cabin or a manger, depending on who you believe," (p. 9) and has allegedly won fame "for creating order out of chaos" (p. 10). With his mythic legend bolstering his reputation as a man who knows the secrets of living, he embodies both the language and the tradition that traps the players. Like an apocalyptic prophet, he sells them on the simplicity of football's violence as a means of finding a true, fundamental language that will provide them with an ordered existence. He assures the players that "Football is only brutal from a distance. In the middle of it, there's a calm, a tranquility. The players accept pain. There's a sense of order at the end of a running play with bodies strewn everywhere.... There's a harmony" (p. 199).

Like Creed, the other Logos coaches rely on the power of militaristic language to control their charges. Marc Osteen (1990) writes that "their discourse is authoritative ... because it ... demands `unconditional allegiance.' It is fused with authority; it is a monologue--univocal, direct: it is the logos, the word of God" (p. 148). Speaking from on high, the coaches build the players up for the Centrex game by appealing to their deepest masculine fears of being dominated. As one coach screams, "They have definite sadistic tendencies. Centrex is mean. They're practically evil. And you better play mean.... They like to humiliate people.... They'll stomp blue shit out of you" (p. 95). Coach Veech conditions the players to flail their bodies violently against each other, not disregarding but embracing the pain: "I want you to bust ass out there today. Hit those people ... until they look like sick little puppy dogs squatting down to crap" (p. 28). When they make a mistake, he taunts them, asking, "What are you feebs doing out there? ... You people are a bunch of feebs" (pp. 137, 159). Coach Hauptfuhrer screams at the players to "infringe. Infringe on them. Rape that man. Rape him. Ray-yape that man" (p. 130). Coach Tweego appeals to the manhood of his charges, saying, "You're not firing out. That man is raping you. He's moving you at will. Sting him. Sting him. Sting him" (p. 120). These phrases are part of the Logos, which, in End Zone, is all powerful. Eventually, the players do succumb to the verbal onslaught, subscribing to the philosophy of their fathers and coaches and completely dedicating themselves to the game. As Gary says, "We were a lean, dedicated squad run by a hungry coach and his seven oppressive assistants. Some of us were ... simple; a few might be called outcasts; three or four, as on every football team, were crazy. But we were all ... dedicated" (p. 4).

Fittingly, DeLillo successfully undermines this masculine philosophy by detailing its adverse effects on the young men who adopt it. The physical damage suffered by the players is evident at every practice and game, where painful injuries are so prevalent that they go largely unnoticed. Of course, the degenerative effects of this masculinization process are as much psychological as physical. For example, the coaches tell Anatole Bloomberg that he must practice "self control" so that he can lose weight and become a quicker lineman. In order to please the coaches, Bloomberg loses nearly forty pounds before incurring physical and emotional problems. As he says: "I have seen my mistake. I thought the discipline of dieting would be good for me. This was all wrong. I was losing the most important part of my being. Obesity. What I had considered self-control was really self-indulgence. My self-awareness started to fade" (p. 67). In losing his self-will and his ability to express himself through eating, Bloomberg's identity is nearly transformed by Creed. Indeed, both Anatole and Gary come to realize that Creed's power lay in his ability "to deny us the words we needed. We were his chalk-scrawls" (p. 135).

Of the players who haven't relinquished their self-expression, many attempt to harness the power of language, playing rhetorical games in order to cope with the pressure of living up to Creed's high expectations. Raymond Toon copes with the pressure of performing by talking like a sportscaster, giving the play-by-play of any event that might be unfolding. Of course, Toon can't control himself on the gridiron, where his language degenerates and fails as a defense mechanism, leaving him perceptibly unstable: "Woof. Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Perfect weather for football. Time out on the field. And now back to our studios.... I'm sure glad I'm up here. D.C. Stadium in the heart of the nation's capital.... And there's more next week when the Chicago Bears, the monsters of the midway, take on the Green Bay Packers of coach something something" (pp. 138-139).

Perhaps no player epitomizes the dilemma faced by the Logos team more than Gary, who feels that he is being "militarized" into a type of killing machine, and believes that the coaches are "half-man, half-pig" (p. 49) creatures that "fatten us up ..., put us in the arena together [and] train us to kill" (p. 63). Gary tries everything to break the powerful hold that the game has on him. He smokes marijuana before one game, criticizes team rituals, and walks off the field during the contest. Gary subconsciously hopes that he will be thrown off the team, but Creed makes him the captain instead, ensuring that his crippling linguistic tutelage will continue. As Gary laments, "I became depressed. I felt responsible for a vague betrayal. I was now part of the apparatus. Suck in that gut, I thought" (p. 202).

Gary, like all of the Logos players, tries to find order and simplicity in the language, violence, and Darwinian contestation of football. However, he comes to understand that "the sport is an ... illusion, the illusion that order is possible" (p. 112). As Staroff (1985) points out, "Harkness [and the other players] must step outside the realm of the game" into a world of "unponderable reality" for which his language and traditions are ill suited. "When he makes this step, he realizes that the sense of order and rationality assumed by Creed is illusory; that Creed, like his father, has betrayed him with a language that endorses experience more complex and mysterious than a game will allow." He understands that the patterns on which the players have based their identities are destructive and insists that "there must be something that we can do" (p. 241). DeLillo seems to indicate that the players' only recourse is their conscious reinvention of language and, by extension, traditional expectations, in order to reconstruct masculine myths and ideals.

Indeed, the novel is full of unusual characters who are obsessed with stretching or breaking the bounds of acceptable speech or behavior in order to find stability within their insulated world of the Logos football machine. Many of the Logos players are intellectuals whose complex phraseologies and insightful inquiries challenge the stereotype of the dumb jock. For example, Bloomberg tries to completely separate himself from history and tradition, which he calls "the ridiculous past" (p. 77). Anatole changes his name to EK Seventeen and won't even discuss his past, telling Gary that "it no longer has any relevance.... I reject heritage, background, tradition and birthright. These things merely slow the progress of the human race. They result in war and insanity, war and insanity, war and insanity" (p. 77).

Many other Logos players creatively use language to offset accepted norms. Raymond Toon comforts himself by repeating complicated economic terms even though he doesn't understand them. Conway uses scientific language to expose the frailties of humans. Billy Mast refuses to be content with the English language in any form and takes a course in the "Untellable," in which the students search for new words and ideas by which they might be able to live better. While Mast doesn't understand German, he still finds the words comforting because they are new and therefore don't reinforce reductive codes of behavior. The novel is stocked with scenes that feature the players unconsciously playing with language as a means of escape. Consider the following interchange between Gary and Jimmy Fife.
 Fife: "I've had conversations with the guy. He's pretty interesting, albeit
 a little bit stereo."

 Gary: "What do you mean--stereo?"

 Fife: "I mean psycho. Did I say stereo? What a funny word to use."

 Gary: "You said albeit a little bit stereo."

 Fife: "Did I say albeit. That's incredible, Gary. I'd never use a word like
 that. A word like that is way out of my province."

 Gary: "But you used it."

 Fife: "I must have been speaking in tongues." (p. 203)

In a sense, all of the players want to speak in tongues, developing their unique brand of personal expression that will bring them relief and stability. As LeClair (1987) writes of the players: "Without stable identities as sources of actual communication the characters often seem, like one character's favorite cliche, `commissioned,' as it were, by language itself" (p. 107).

Of course, Gary is the player who most freely utilizes language as a means of trying to escape the masculine identity in which he is ensnared. Gary admits that "I'm a chronic ball-breaker. I bull-shit myself" (p. 26). Indeed Gary is constantly creating ephemeral, alternate realities through his imaginative use of language in order to fool his teammates and give himself momentary relief from his actual reality. Even during the tense game with Centrex, Gary manages to spar verbally with Roy Yellin, who is about to go into the game to face a particularly tough opponent: "He'll kill you. He killed Cecil, didn't he? He'll drive you right back into the bench. Seventy-seven is going to eat your face. You'd better fake an injury. It's your only hope. If you try to play against that horrible thing, he'll send you home in pieces. He did it to Cecil and he'll do it to you" (p. 127). Gary finally tells the frantic Yellin that he is "only kidding," admitting that "it helps me relax" (p. 127).

For Gary, the final byproduct of this language experimentation is the subversion of traditions or societal norms. A brooding intellectual, he certainly overturns the reader's expectation of what a football player is like. He isn't concerned about winning, "has serious lapses" (p. 234), smokes pot before a game, and loses focus on the field to "make minor discoveries that have no bearing on anything" (p. 234). He doesn't win the big game, and he doesn't get the pretty cheerleader for a girlfriend. Instead, he falls for an obese science-fiction junkie, Myna, because she "posits herself as the knowable word" (p. 218) and because she is "anti-historical' (p. 218), electing to be fat because she doesn't want to deal with the traditionally female responsibility of being beautiful. Gary makes love to Myna in the library instead of the bedroom. He plays war games with Major Staley in a hotel room instead of a classroom, and he refuses to take part in the traditional pre-game football preparations. In short, Gary does anything possible to upset traditional expectations in his attempt to move beyond the sanctioned patterns of masculinity that trap him and the dominant traditions and linguistic forms that keep those patterns in place.

Significantly, however, none of the players' linguistic attempts to transcend tradition are successful. John Johnston (1989) reminds us that "in End Zone, time is marked by the sudden and aleatory intrusion of death and silence on body and word ... events that seem to menace and disrupt the language-body relationships." To be sure, one player is killed in an auto accident, a coach commits suicide, and the college president dies in a mysterious plane crash. Anatole continually taps his hands against any wall he can find, admitting that he's "an anguished physicist" (p. 214). Even Gary admits that "we thought Bloomberg was crazy" (p. 216). Toon loses all control of his faculties during the Centrex game. Conway is ignored and avoided because of his obsession with insects. Billy Mast admits that he doesn't actually learn much in his course on the "Untellable" (p. 181). Myna loses weight and becomes beautiful, saying that she had to "face herself as a person" (p. 228). Of course, Gary collapses and has to be rushed to the hospital. As Francoise Hoppe (1992) writes, "End Zone may be read as the failure of ... voices trying to assert their authority" (p. 385). Eventually, all of the voices "lapse into silence" (p. 385).

In all, DeLillo offers only one rather flimsy masculine alternative, embodied in Taft Robinson, that is even remotely successful. Robinson simply quits the team, exclaiming that he's "all through with football. I'm after smaller things. Less of white father watching me run" (p. 233). He abandons the notion that Creed is somehow connected to the all-knowing, comforting Word that can produce order and the simple life, confessing that "we taught each other nothing" (p. 238). Robinson's strategy relies on isolating himself in his room and forging a new identity by controlling the language that circulates in the room. He has a radio, but listens "only at certain times of the day for certain periods of time. When time's up, I bring it into silence" (p. 239). He strictly monitors the language in his room, sometimes going "whole days without saying a word" (p. 230). Language becomes "a spiritual exercise. Silence, words, silence, silence" (p. 240). He keeps an old marmalade jar only because he likes the words on it, saying with finality that "a new way of life requires a new language" (p. 234). Though desperate, Robinson's words and actions seem to evince more hope than critics like LeClair, Hoppe, and Staroff would have us believe. For, despite informing the reader that it will take some time for Robinson to solve his fascination with child-killings, DeLillo indicates that his experiment with education and language control is at least a step in the right direction for young men caught in a reductive linguistic and behavioral paradigm. As Robinson confirms, "I'm through with football. I feel better every day" (p. 238).

According to James Riemer (1990), a men's studies approach to fiction should yield at least two items: "a revision of the way we perceive men and manly ideals" and "instances when characters break out of the confines of stereotypical masculine behavior." This paper has sought to show how End Zone itself fulfills both functions for male readers. For, while the reader remains skeptical about whether Robinson will actually be able to have any practical success with his Invisible Man-like policy of isolation, he does get a sense of DeLillo's view of the fundamental problems surrounding American masculinity in the late twentieth century. End Zone's value lies in the fact that it dares to assert that some young men are systematically harmed by a masculine code of behavior which, based on violence, pain, and conquest, is continually manufactured by the language and traditions that inform American life and that unfold with particularly striking drama in American games such as football. Still, DeLillo does more than simply just expose the problem to the reader and end with a hollow plea from Gary that "there must be something we can do" (p. 242). The very existence of the novel and the private, healing reading experience it offers men indicates that the "something" may be the writing of novels and other pieces of literature that address men's concerns and which, at least on one level, stand in the realm of the private, outside of history and apart from societal codes, conventions, or institutions that hamper men in real life. This is what End Zone does, encouraging men to harness the power of language and to cultivate an unique male voice whose promise of liberation rests in the fact that it forces male readers to come to grips with unpleasant and often unspoken realities.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Donald L. Deardorff, II, Department of English, Cedarville College, Cedarville, OH 45385 or


(1.) For gender studies perspectives on DeLillo and his works, the author recommends John Kucick (1980) and several of the articles that appeared in the South Atlantic Quarterly's spring 1990 edition, which is dedicated solely to analyses of DeLillo's works.

(2.) Sociologists Michael Messner (1992), Alan Klein (1993), Donald Sabo and Ross Runfola (1980), and Michael Kimmel (1996) confirm that dependence on sport for masculine identity and self-worth is hardly unusual among adolescent males. These authors give detailed accounts of how boys are conditioned to accept sport as a training ground wherein they can validate their manliness in front of peers. These authors also demonstrate the shortcomings of the masculinization process by using personal accounts of several men who have suffered negative consequences as the result of their relationship with sports. These include an addiction to violent behavior, physical ailments, and impaired relationships with wives, parents, and other men.

(3.) DeCurtis (1990) sheds light on what DeLillo is trying to do in End Zone. The intensely private DeLillo almost never gives interviews, and DeCurtis' article represents one of the few times the author has voiced his literary intentions or commented on his own fiction.


DeCurtis, A. (1990). An outsider in this society: An interview with Don DeLillo. South Atlantic Quarterly, 89(2), 290-293.

DeLillo, D. (1972). End zone. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Hoppe, F. (1992, November). Voice and authority in Don DeLillo's End Zone. French Review of American Studies, 54, 385-393.

Johnston, J. (1989). Generic difficulties in the novels of Don DeLillo. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 30, 261-275.

Kimmel, M. (1996). Manhood in America: A cultural history. New York: Free Press.

Klein, A. (1993). Little big man: Bodybuilding subculture and gender construction. Albany: SUNY Press.

Kucick, J. (1980). Postmodern politics: Don DeLillo and the plight of the white male writer. Michigan Quarterly Review, 27, 328-341.

LeClair, T. (1987, Spring). Deconstructing the logos: Don DeLillo's End Zone. Modern Fiction Studies, 33, 105-123.

Messner, M. (1992). Power at play: Sport and the problem of masculinity. Boston: Beacon Press.

Osteen, M. (1990, Winter). Against the end: Asceticism and apocalypse in Don DeLillo's End Zone. Papers on Language and Literature, 26, 143-163.

Riemer, J. D. (1990). Rereading American literature from a men's studies perspective: Some applications. In H. Brod (Ed.), The making of masculinities: The new men's studies (pp. 289-299). Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Sabo, D., & Runfola, R. (Eds.). (1980). Jock: Sport and male identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Staroff, G. (1985). The failure of games in Don DeLillo's End Zone. In W. L. Umphlett (Ed.), American sport culture: The humanistic dimensions (pp. 235-245). Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

Donald L. Deardorff, II, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of English at Cedarville College in Cedarville, Ohio. A member of the American Men's Studies Association since 1996, he specializes in representations of men in literature and society. His primary field is contemporary American literature, but he also has interests in critical theory. He dabbles with writing fiction and poetry and lives with his wife, Julie, in Xenia, Ohio. (

DONALD L. DEARDORFF, II Department of English Cedarville College Cedarville, Ohio3
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Publication:The Journal of Men's Studies
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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