Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 14th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository
Finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction
A slyly profound and startlingly original novel about the psyche of the American male, The Throwback Special marks the return of one of the most acclaimed literary voices of his generation.
Here is the absorbing story of twenty-two men who gather every fall to painstakingly reenact what ESPN called “the most shocking play in NFL history” and the Washington Redskins dubbed the “Throwback Special”: the November 1985 play in which the Redskins’ Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants live on Monday Night Football.
With wit and great empathy, Chris Bachelder introduces us to Charles, a psychologist whose expertise is in high demand; George, a garrulous public librarian; Fat Michael, envied and despised by the others for being exquisitely fit; Jeff, a recently divorced man who has become a theorist of marriage; and many more. Over the course of a weekend, the men reveal their secret hopes, fears, and passions as they choose roles, spend a long night of the soul preparing for the play, and finally enact their bizarre ritual for what may be the last time. Along the way, mishaps, misunderstandings, and grievances pile up, and the comforting traditions holding the group together threaten to give way.
The Throwback Special is a moving and comic tale filled with pitch-perfect observations about manhood, marriage, middle age, and the rituals we all enact as part of being alive.
To paraphrase Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.”
This is the story of a group of 22 middle-aged men who get together, once a year, to re-enact a single, disastrous football play, and let that song out, just for a brief moment of their lives.
The idea behind this story almost seems a bit absurd. This group of men has created a fairly elaborate ritual where they spend a weekend together in a very middling hotel and replay one memorable football scrimmage from 1985. The night that quarterback Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins suffered a career-ending compound fracture while being sacked by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. In the replays, you can hear the bones snap, and it’s still enough to make you sick to your stomach.
And this bunch of guys replays that tape over and over, so that they can get their parts just right for their actual replay on the field.
It’s a gathering of men who otherwise would have nothing in common. We don’t know how they originally came together, or why. All we know is that this is their one moment, every year, to be someone else, and to experience a little piece of the world through someone else’s eyes playing someone else’s part.
And through the rituals of the weekend, they reconnect with each other, and with themselves.
Escape Rating B: I found this book quietly interesting, but I’m not the intended audience. Although the friend who recommended it certainly is. I do remember that play, it was during a period of my life when I used to regularly watch football. I don’t anymore, and for the reasons why, take a look at my review of Monsters. I just can’t get past the cost.
The Throwback Special is, as I said, a very quiet story. We don’t know how these men originally got together. We also don’t see any more of their regular lives than they choose to reveal to each other over the course of the weekend.
What we do see, and what is fascinating, is the way that they each interpret and reinterpret every single event and every word that is said to them, or that they say to one another. Every moment is evaluated and reevaluated for threats, implications, and inevitably misunderstandings. Every man seems to be worried every second about how they perceive and are perceived by the others. Every interaction is analyzed for its possibilities of one-upsmanship and being set one-down in response. No matter how successful and in control any of them appear to be, the reality is that they are all insecure and uncertain every minute.
And they hide all their humanity behind a borrowed uniform and a worn helmet, while letting just a tiny bit out.
As a woman, I don’t know whether this portrayal of the men’s thoughts and fears is real or imaginary. But if there is a partial reality hidden there, it makes me sad. And it does what literary fiction is supposed to do. It makes me think.