The Throwback Special: A Novel by Chris Bachelder (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016. 213 pp)

Chris Bachelder is the author of Bear v. Shark, U.S.!, and Abbot Awaits. His fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Believer, and the Paris Review. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Cincinnati, where he teaches at the University of Cincinnati.

Rhythms and Rituals

We are a species addicted to rhythm and ritual. In college, we sit in the same seat day-by-day and class-by-class. At work, we grab the same coffee order and check our emails around the same time. As parents, we do our best to create rhythms and rituals for our children. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner at specific times. Bedtime antecedes bath, toothbrush, and storytime. When the rhythm cracks, all hell breaks loose.

While reading The Throwback Special, I kept thinking about the human desire for rhythm and ritual.

All-22 on One Play

Lacking a central protagonist or point of view, the novel depicts 22 men who meet annually to reenact the fateful play from a Monday-Night-football rivalry. Deemed the throwback special, after the flea-flicker trick play, the reenactment highlights the failed play the Washington Redskins executed against the New York Giants. A catastrophe, the play ended when Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacks the quarterback of the Washington team, Joe Theismann. In the wake of the fateful play, the crowd silences and the announcers observe in horror. The way Taylor falls on Theismann results in a compound fracture and the end of Theismann’s career.

Every year, this group of friends reenacts the play. With an involved lottery the group picks positions:

“The rules and restrictions of the lottery, formulated by Steven at its inception, were simple, clean, and egalitarian: Each man writes his initials on a ball, and places the ball into approved container. When all balls are mixed in the container, the commissioner draws each of the twenty-two balls, on ball at a time. The man whose ball has been selected then has three minutes to choose any available player from either team. The following restrictions apply: (1) you may not select a player who has already been selected; (2) you may not select the same player twice in any five-year period; (3) you may select a player from the same team for no more than three consecutive years; (4) you must serve on the Redskins offensive line (which includes tight end Donnie Warren, but does not include tight end Clint Didier) at least once every five years; (5) you must serve in the Giants defensive backfield  at least once every seven years; (6) you may not select a player whose physical dimensions are so radically different from yours as to inhibit your performance or to introduce basic issues of credibility (this restriction is enforced by the commissioner); (7) you may not choose Lawrence Taylor more than once in any eight-year period; (8) you must make your selection in a timely way, or it will be made for you by the commissioner; (9) you may not select a ‘toucher’ (Donnalley, Riggins) in consecutive years, or the year after being Theismann; (10) you may not, of course, select Theismann. The man whose initials are on the final ball remaining in the container will be Theismann. None of the rules for selection (above) apply to the player who is selected as Theismann” (69-70).

Then, the group practices its respective roles before executing the play to the last detail.

Clinging to Ritual as We Age

But reenactment isn’t the point of the novel. Outside of some philosophical explorations of football, The Throwback Special focuses on the influence of age on these 22 men.

But the philosophy of football IS interesting:

“The plays that are called from the sidelines are speculative, abstract. The line of scrimmage is the narrow barrier between those abstractions. When the ball is snapped, the barrier dissolves and the two plays begin to act upon each other. We have confluence! From two plays the play comes into being. Each team’s playbook fantasy takes on terrestrial form. The play lives a fleeting life, like certain unstable isotopes. Each play attempts to assert dominance over the other play, by force and deception. This is why football is the most scientific of sports. A game is a series of discrete experiments. Hypothesis, observation, results, analysis, conclusion” (58).

And yet, these are aging men, trying their best to keep their lives afloat, clinging to rhythm and ritual as a hope to remain rooted.

“Disappointment was the freight of expectation. Unbeknownst to the men, this was what they came here for, every year. They were enjoying their morning, but they did not realize it. The good moments, it is true, were always this way, interstitial and unacknowledged. They craved occasion, but did not understand it. Halfway through their lives—considerably more than halfway, in several cases—the men knew nothing of their own vast contentment” (163).

And truly, isn’t that what rhythm and ritual represent? A desire to have rooted foundations within our lives to keep us sane and focused on those things which truly matter to us? Without it, life becomes chaos. Who wants that?

The lack of a core protagonist makes The Throwback Special hard to follow despite its short length. Nevertheless, it’s literary qualities make it a worthy read.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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