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Review: In ‘The Throwback Special,’ Chris Bachelder tweaks middle-aged male insecurities

Author Chris Bachelder
(Jennifer Habel)

In the small town where I grew up in Texas, high school football — Go, Hillsboro Eagles! — was so essential to our culture that, to this day, when old friends get together I inevitably suffer through painfully detailed recollections of games that should, by all rights, have been long forgotten by now.

So I was simultaneously repelled and attracted by the setup for the novel “The Throwback Special”: middle-aged men meet to reenact one single play from one single football game. They remember it the same way some of us remember John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger explosion or 9/11. To wit: “November 18, 1985 — Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, 36, suffers a career-ending compound fracture of the right leg on a sack by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor during a telecast of ABC’s ‘Monday Night Football.’”

No explanation is given about the reenactment tradition, how it started or why. It isn’t performed to reimagine the outcome or to analyze what went wrong. We know only that the group has been converging on the same hotel for 16 years, dedicating a single weekend annually to the re-creation of that fateful play — forgoing the actual bone breaking.

Cover of the book "The Throwback Special" by Chris Bachelder. Published by W. W. Norton.

Cover of the book “The Throwback Special” by Chris Bachelder. Published by W. W. Norton.

(W. W. Norton)
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However ridiculous this might sound, the book functions as a powerful, intelligent, and entertaining entry into the Literature of Masculinity, standing somewhere at the crossroads of Tom McCarthy’s masterpiece about repetition, “The Remainder,” and Donald Antrim’s “The Hundred Brothers,” with an added dash of the 1986 Robin Williams-Kurt Russell film “The Best of Times.”

“The Throwback Special” is full of genuinely funny insights. Chris Bachelder works a kind of poignant comedic magic, expertly locating and drawing out central truths about life in this age and at this age (middle age, that is) at every minuscule opportunity. Early on, two of the men stand in the rain checking their phones. “Each, as it turned out, had a favorite meteorological website — chosen by chance and maintained by habit — and neither could quite accept the validity of rival predictions. Ignoring the real weather, they squared off about the conjectural weather.”

Some funny books draw their humor from the ways in which they expose us to the absurdity of other people. Others, like this one, make us laugh while wincing, confronted with the absurdity of ourselves.

This year, like every year, is the same except that the men have lost the use of the hotel’s conference room, which is being occupied by a corporate group convincingly called Prestige Vista Solutions.

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Most of the book takes place at the hotel, where the men act out one tradition after another in preparation for the Big Moment, including a drawing rife with rules in which the men choose which of the football players they will stand in for, the greatest honor going to the two men most central to the story, those portraying Theismann and Taylor.

The large cast — consisting of 22 football players, a handful of hotel employees, some fellow guests at the hotel and a few members of Prestige Vista Solutions — means it’s all but impossible to keep everyone straight, excepting a few key players. This can only be by design. In a cast so big that you’re not expected to track them, one is better able to enter the fray, inserting oneself into those crowded hotel room huddles, shoulder to shoulder with men — or types of men, anyway — that we all know … or are.

Football is often the last thing on their minds as, upon their reunion, the men talk and think, think and talk, complaining about injuries and marriages, confessing failures, mulling disappointments, particularly in their children, who seem sensitive, allergic and incapable.

“Trent had come home to find his daughter going down on a boy. Jeff had come home to find his daughter going down on a girl. Andy had come home to find his kid doing like this with an aerosol can of whipped cream. … Bald Michael had come home to find his son hurting a cat.” “'I hate to say it about my own kid,’ Nate told Vince in the stairwell, ‘but he’s about the sickliest little thing I’ve ever seen.’”

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Among their many opinions and anxieties, none is more poignant than Jeff’s observation that the real function of marriage is simply to have someone watch you, postulating that life becomes meaningless without at least an audience of one to notice when you switch breakfast cereals. “People say they want privacy, but they would actually like a camera out in their cold backyard at midnight, pointed through the kitchen window while they make a school lunch for their kids. They want someone to just notice. … Otherwise, he said, honest to God, we’re all just like penguins at the North Pole, doing it all for no real reason.”

In another instance the narrator bookmarks a single moment, freezing the scene before it passes to point out that this is the moment the men are having the most fun, this moment is the reason they return every year. Naturally, none of the players notices before it disappears in a flash.

“The Throwback Special” reads with the clarity of a weekend viewed through the lens of a brilliant documentarian, an insider equipped with a hand-held camera moving unfettered from hotel room to lobby to parking lot to football field. Bachelder catches glimpses and scenes, a panorama of masculine ego, insecurity and camaraderie, skewering the men in their absurd struggles while also acknowledging that the struggle is real, that sometimes 30 years isn’t enough time for broken bones to heal.

Smith is the author of the forthcoming novel “Arcade.”

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The Throwback Special

Chris Bachelder
W.W. Norton: 224 pages, $25.95


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