Review: Godwin


Joseph O’Neill

Pantheon, June 2024, $28

How did I get this book: NetGalley ARC

There are two things to know about me before I begin this book review: I have been thinking about race, business, and sports since former NBA star and Portland Trailblazer Rasheed Wallace gave a blistering interview to The Oregonian in 2003, and I started writing this review in the notes app on my phone at a midweek Timbers 2 Open Cup match. So I am squarely in the audience for Joseph O’Neill’s novel Godwin.

But first, that Sheed interview. It came in so hot that the Portland daily ran a content warning of sorts to let readers know that the editors chose to let his word choices, including multiple instances of the n-word, run in print when he was directly quoted. The article noted that at the time, most of the league’s decision-makers were white and 80% of the players were black. I don’t have current stats, but I’m willing to be the numbers are still close to the same after two decades, despite efforts toward change.

Wallace, who was twenty-nine years old at the time of the interview, said, “I’m not like a whole bunch of these young boys out here who get caught up and captivated into the league. No. I see behind the lines. I see behind the false screens. I know what this business is all about. I know the commissioner of this league makes more than three-quarters of the players in this league.”

Not long after this interview was published, I was in Marseille on vacation during Olympique Marseille’s run to the UEFA Cup final, the year that none other than Didier Drogba played with the team. That was when I learned that soccer, as Danny Rojas says on Ted Lasso, is life.

But man, do I hate the business end of soccer. Transfer windows give me the creeps, and not because I’m afraid of losing great players from my favorite teams. The language around the business of sport is awful and dehumanizing. I checked the transfer news on today and found these in the headlines: “Jamal Musiala is reportedly not for sale this summer” and  “Bayer Leverkusen slap HUGE price tag on star Wirtz.” Not at all offensive on the surface, and Wirtz had fucking nailed a hat trick in a historic win for Leverkusen just days before. But it’s the same language used to describe bars of soap or cars or smartphones: for sale, slap a price tag on it. Players are often referred to as “product.” I don’t like it.

As always, get that paper, players. No grudges there. But sometimes, especially when Black players are involved, it feels a little to close to placing a man on a platform at the market and examining his fitness for purpose. This might just be me. No one else seems to take much notice or be at all bothered by it. I’m not even sure of Sheed’s own take on this twenty years later. But I suspect, after reading Godwin, that something like this has crossed Joseph O’Neill’s mind.

But O’Neill doesn’t start with Godwin, or even with the guy who’s going to go find Godwin. He begins the book in 2015 with Lakesha Williams, a Black woman who has built a successful business for freelance technical writers in New York City. Lakesha treats her team of freelancers like family, and they mostly return the sentiment. She and her cofounder bring in business then match clients and projects with the tech writer who has the right skill set and availability to get the job done. The office hums with friendly efficiency and flexible hours. I guess this is the third point to know about me: I’ve been part of a collective like this for book editors for more than a decade. It is a typical Obama-era workplace setup, and O’Neill details its workings in almost anthropological detail.

Lakesha’s sections are the perfect balance for the sections starring Mark Wolfe, a white man and freelancer who works with her. He’s not social, he’s not “family” in the way Lakesha likes her team to be (it’s telling that she calls him Wolfe rather than Mark), but he specializes in writing successful grants, which bring in a lot of revenue for him and the collective. The second section of the book switches to Mark’s point of view, where the reader learns that he has a younger half brother in England who fancies himself a fledgling soccer agent with a lead on the next huge thing out of Africa: a kid named Godwin.

On the advice of his wife, and after causing a scene at work that leads to a strongly suggested leave of absence, Mark heads to the UK to find out what kind of scam his brother is running. He knows nothing about soccer, but when he sees the phone footage of Godwin on a rural pitch surrounded by mountains, he’s convinced enough. This bit of footage is in itself valuable, and it leads Mark to a European agent on the other end of his career and looking for a last big score. It leads almost all of them, at one time or another, to Africa in search of Godwin.

One of the strongest themes that undergird the novel is the many ways in which European and American governments and corporations have plundered the people and resources of Africa through slavery, mining, soccer, and more. There is a scene on the beach near Dahomey where local young men on a training run nonchalantly pass the Door of No Return. The last time I remember encountering this landmark of the Atlantic slave trade in a novel was in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, where it was anything but a commonplace reminder of the past.

More than a novel with a rising plot, climax, and denouement, O’Neill is telling a tale, spinning a yarn. Mark’s story ranges across three continents, while Lakesha’s stays planted within a web of office politics that blindside her. There are asides about World War II, the evolution of soccer tactics in the twentieth century, the slave trade, global refugees, climate change, endangered species, the challenges of midlife, and anything else the characters care to contemplate. Underneath it all, the meaning of family—biological, found, adoptive, and bought with cash—burbles, alongside the machinations of business, even when it purportedly means to do good in the world.

If you, like me, don’t care much for office politics, you might find Lakesha’s chapters too full of petty intrigue. If you, unlike me, don’t care much for global football, you might find Mark’s chapters mired in too much sporty detail. If you, like me, do care a quite a bit about global football, you might notice that the NWSL, the American women’s soccer league, is misnamed at one point. But trust me when I tell you that O’Neill brings all of it together in the end. Lakesha’s business and the power moves of a young upstart matter, and Mark’s attempts to find Godwin matter. But the kicker comes at the very end, when O’Neill ties it all up with a darkly hilarious bow of a punchline. If you pick up this novel, do not put it down until the end.

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