Sport and Fiction 2: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

This is one of the most interesting sports fiction books I’ve read. Like the best books in the genre, it isn’t about the sport in question at all – well it’s about a few elements of it: ritual, memory/nostalgia, and repetition. These are key elements of all sport and some of the reasons why we watch and participate in sport. They shouldn’t be underestimated.

Sports fiction isn’t about sport at all, but about people. The people, for the most part, outside the white lines who want to look in. People like so many of us.

I think Chris Bachelder gets that.

Here’s the story. Twenty-two middle-aged men gather in a two star motel every fall to painstakingly reenact what ESPN called the most shocking play in NFL history and what 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.

The book is fairly short and that works – in a way it needs to be. Even thought there’s a cast of 22 men, Bachelder doesn’t really treat them as individuals at all, but as components of a larger whole. A bit like a team, in a way.

The point of view flits from one to the other in a way that creative writing teachers would frown upon (the term is ‘talking heads’), but I think the author is doing that deliberately to emphasise the homogeneity of the group, rather than the differences. Some readers will baulk at that but I thinks it’s a really interesting ploy and worth going with. He also flits in and out of omniscient narrator. This is very unusual and experimental, but it’s also well disguised.

I like the structure: six definitive sections. 1. The Arrival, 2. The Lottery (a major ritual when they allocate the roles to be played in the re-enactment), 3. Night, 4. The Fountain (how to remove blood from a jersey), 5. Rites and 6. The Play.

The Play is very short and this is the only ‘sport’ as such in the book, if you can call it that. And, while, ostensibly, it’s the reason they all get together year in year out, in reality everything that comes before – all the rituals – is more important. The Play (the re-enactment, though they don’t like the word because it’s associated with ‘loser’ military re-enactments of the civil war etc.) is also told from the point of view of a complete outsider who is watching from a distance and has no clue what’s going on – even though we do. By doing this the author gives it a perspective and a distance, which works as it closes out the book.

The book is very funny – laugh out lout at times, even about the darker moments. Here’s an example:

Trent had come home of 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.

‘Yeah, whippets,’ said George, the public librarian. 

Tommy had come home to find his dog had eaten a package of diapers. The surgery was twenty-five hundred dollars, and now he had pet insurance. Nate had come home to find his wife Skyping with a man in a military uniform. Bald Michael came home to find his son hurting a cat.

And so on. You get the drift.

It’s a disarmingly compassionate look at middle-aged masculinity and the losses that are inherent in that particular state. Which is perhaps one of the reasons it appealed so much to me, as a middle aged man.

It also brilliantly relates the way men engage with each other in a group – especially men of a certain age. Roddy Doyle does this too, in pub settings especially.

All in all a great achievement.

Little wonder it won a Paris Review prize for humour and was finalised in the National Book Awards.

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