So I read about this little novel when it was shortlisted for the National Book Award last year, but it took me months to find a copy at a Bay Area bookstore; I finally found a used copy at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and snatched it up. I read it last week in about three days, and it was just a delight.
As I read, the writing reminded me of Joshua Ferris, in its absurdly-blunt-while-also-subtle observational comedy, but it simultaneously reminded me also of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, insofar as various of Bachelder’s characters reminded me of Frank Bascombe, Ford’s famous multi-novel protagonist.
The premise of The Throwback Special is what really caught my eye. It’s a novel about a group of middle-aged men who get together annually to re-enact one particular football play. Specifically—and football fans will know the play—they re-enact the play in which Joe Theismann’s leg was broken when he was sacked by Lawrence Taylor on 18 November 1985. I’m not a huge football fan, but I’ve heard mention of this play, and seen clips of it, various times. Now, it’s such an odd premise for a book, but Bachelder does a tremendous job of building an entire novel (albeit a slim, quick read) around one weekend of weird male bonding, all leading up to a five-second event.
Before embarking upon reading this novel, I thought that here would be a fun, easy read incorporating sports, but once I was even a smidge into it, I knew that there was some serious depth here. These guys are all ridiculously unique and peculiar, all caught up in their assorted messed-up lives, and all very seriously into their annual get-together. The novel is much less about football, or about the re-enactment of this play, than it is about the state of modern American manhood and fatherhood. As a man who’s nearly 40 myself, perhaps this is part of why I found the book so profound and charming.
The novel is just littered with these various perfectly specific and odd bits of storytelling. One example that Bachelder produces close to the beginning of the novel is the story of the man whose daughter broke her arm and who felt a twinge of not satisfaction, not joy, but some kind of retribution that this little human whose beck and call everyone jumps to finally got brought down a peg by the universe.
It’s in this way that the novel really shines. There are all of these small stories within the framework of the larger story, and they’re just priceless little gems. Another example: the guys, all holed up in one particular hotel room one night, order some pizza, and the delivery guy who brings the pizza hangs out with them for a while, and tells the story of how his marriage fell apart. He and his wife had met on a dating website, and fallen in love, married, started a family, and then later, via a class-action lawsuit, they discovered that the website they had used was a fraud, insofar as, rather than matching customers with one another via a complicated algorithm of attributes, as the service claimed, they were simply matching people based on looks, and the man’s wife found that this took all the magic out of the relationship, and she rather quickly fell out of love with him. It’s absurd and hilarious and sad and so precisely true.
Another portion of the book that I want to highlight briefly is the chapter called “The Lottery.” So the men have an elaborate lottery system that they use each year to assign folks to play the role of different players on the field for that year’s re-enactment. There are a whole litany of subtle rules at play here, but the lottery process serves to highlight all these brilliant, subtle psychological reasons for why each man makes the selection he makes, a lot of it having to do with competitiveness and some of it even having to do with race.
It’s great, great stuff, and it won’t take much of your time. Read it.