New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2016. 224 pages. $25.95.
Every November for the past sixteen years, a group of twenty-two men have gathered at a two-and-a-half-star hotel chain off Interstate 95, “recognized in online reviews for its exceptional service, atrocious service, pretty fountain, and bedbugs,” to reenact one of the most gruesome injuries in NFL history. In 1985, Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann ran a trick play known as a flea-flicker in which he handed off the ball to running back John Riggins, who then tossed it back to him. The play was supposed to trick defenders into following Riggins, but it failed. New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor was the first to reach Theismann, jumping onto his back and dragging him down. As Theismann struggled, several other defenders piled on, and his leg bent sideways at the knee, snapping beneath him. It sounded like two muzzled gunshots going off, Theismann later recalled.
This grisly moment is at the center of Chris Bachelder’s novel The Throwback Special, which takes its title from the name the Redskins gave the play. But the play itself is not the novel’s subject; it is instead the means through which Bachelder, in one hilarious scene after another, investigates the disappointments and shortcomings of the middle-aged men who gather every year to reenact it. The novel moves meticulously over the course of roughly twenty-four hours—from the time the men arrive at the hotel on a rainy Friday afternoon to the event itself the following evening—and recounts the many rituals the men enact as they prepare to recreate the play (without the bone-breaking, of course). There is the lottery, in which the men draw ping-pong balls from a pillowcase and select whom they will impersonate. The following afternoon, they gather to analyze film, reliving the moment of injury over and over again. A deliberately disorganized exchange of football equipment takes place in the hotel hallways. Everything must be done exactly as it has been in the past, even when it no longer makes sense or there is a better way—a vaguely religious impulse that gives the proceedings an air of sacrament, even as the performance is entirely ridiculous. “The cumbersome burden of the equipment was essential to the rite, as was the notion of quest, as was the act of bestowal, as was the inebriated sociability among fellow wanderers,” we are told of the equipment exchange.
Outside of a few minor details, we never know how the men came together or why they started the tradition. There is no backstory. The men are so generically named—Carl, Peter, Jeff, Steve—as to seem almost identical. Aside from a few defining characteristics, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Of Trent, this year’s commissioner, we are told that he has “gained a lot of weight, maybe thirty pounds,” but in the next sentence, Bachelder is careful to conflate him with the rest of the group:
The change was not remarkable. The men had reached an age when they gained and lost significant things in relatively short periods of time, and it was not unusual for someone to show up in November having acquired or divested weight, God, alcohol, sideburns, blog, pontoon boat, jewelry, stepchildren, potency, fertility, cyst, tattoo, medical devices that clipped to the belt and beeped, or huge radio-controlled model airplanes.
Eventually, I stopped trying to differentiate between the men. It seems that this is Bachelder’s intention—to make these characters archetypal, rather than rendering them as individuals. Instead, the men “make the same masculine sound, [a] toneless song of regret and exclamation.”
There is, however, one characteristic they all share: a low-grade disappointment with the way their lives have played out. Their disappointments are not especially grave—in fact, they are rather commonplace. In one scene, the men compare “devastating commute times with a kind of pride, converting liability, momentarily, into triumph.” In another scene, two of the men lie in bed and lament their aches and pains: “Both men found themselves using the railing when they climbed stairs. Neither man could put on socks while standing up. They had both lived in the paradise of a painless body for years without realizing it.” In one of my favorite scenes, three men jockey for position at a wall of urinals, and when it becomes awkward, they complain about the fact that their wives would prefer them to pee sitting down.
Bachelder is expert at mining moments such as these—of masculine awkwardness and vulnerability—to great comic effect, using an omniscient narrative voice that roves among the men, offering penetrating psychological insights. Take, for instance, a scene during the lottery, when the men make fun of Fancy Drum, the homemade barrel from which they usually draw ping-pong balls. The men uniformly disapprove of Fancy Drum, which they find ostentatious and unnecessary. Yet when Fancy Drum is broken, they feel its absence: “The drum . . . had become part of the way things were done, and its excess, it might be said, had become part of its necessity. [The men] felt exposed somehow, or denuded by the loss of ceremony. This anxiety caused them to be garrulously nonchalant about ceremony.”
Along with rites and rituals, confession plays a large role in the novel. In the opening scene, Robert confesses to Charles, a counselor of adolescent girls with eating disorders, that when his young daughter fell and broke her arm, he felt, “for just a second, this awful sense of certainly not gladness but maybe approval. Because I thought that it would be a good lesson . . . about the way the world actually works.” In another scene, Andy sits in his car with George, who holds Andy from the backseat, coaxing from him the story of his divorce. “This was a good configuration. This could work,” Andy thinks. “As long as the windows remained fogged, as long as the rain made that sound on the thin roof of the car, as long as George’s face was invisible in the mirror, as long as George gripped the tops of his arms and did not try to rub his shoulders, Andy felt that he could talk.” Later, in the “Fracture Compound”—the name given to the room where the linebackers stay—George stands on the back of a man named Gary. Of this moment, we are told: “With a librarian standing on his back, with dulcimer music in the air, with the cold rain still tapping the window . . . Gary had the rare opportunity to break down entirely. He felt he could really lose it.”
In an interview with NPR, Bachelder notes that what interested him most was not the play itself, but the “play plus time.” When Theismann suffered his career-ending injury, the men were young. Now, however, they are middle-aged, and with passing time, the play has taken on new meaning. In this sense, the play is a dividing line, a marker separating then and now. Had the novel focused solely on the iconic play, the result may have been more coarse and conventionally masculine. But Bachelder’s focus on the passage of time softens this context, giving the novel something more like the tone you might expect from a story told by a middle-aged man: helpless, loveable, frequently silly, and tinged with barely suppressed frustration and regret. This is of great importance to The Throwback Special, whose very title suggests the sort of nostalgia that gives the novel its energy. Following their arrival, the men congregate inside the hotel, waiting to check in “within the formidable purview of [an] enormous clock” that “bathes the lobby in time.” In this same lobby, the fountain—of youth?—so exalted in online reviews has run dry, and more than once the men have occasion to consider the coins which lie corroded in its basin, like the wishes they may represent.
In years past, the men might have been more carefree. Now, in middle age, they are besieged by physical and emotional maladies they have no control over. Given the novel’s emphasis on masculine vulnerability, it is unsurprising that the men should find security in the protection of football gear, as well as within the confines of a ritualized tradition—the reenactment of a single catastrophic play with an outcome they are powerless to change. They have reached the age when they can see what their lives are going to be, for better or for worse. Analyzing film, the men observe the players as they break from the huddle and jog to the line of scrimmage. Joe Theismann is still uninjured; Lawrence Taylor has not yet ended his career. “The things that had not happened yet were greater than the things that had happened,” Bachelder writes. Year after year, the men relive this moment before the catastrophe, knowing any efforts to stop it are futile: “There’s one thing we have to do,” says a man in the offensive line room (called the Sty), “and we will just fail so bad at it.” Yet, the novel argues, this failure is a success, for it offers the men an “opportunity to approach perfection”—if only for a moment, in an act of make-believe. While this might make the novel sound symbolically fraught and sorrowful, in fact it is frequently hilarious, in a way you would not expect a novel about middle-aged male insecurity to be. There is no rage or condescension. The novel is not a satire, as it easily could have been, in the hands of a less compassionate novelist. Instead, Bachelder finds his protagonists both genuinely amusing and human, and he makes even their mundane aches and pains at once tenderly funny and moving.