The Short Version: A group of middle-aged men gather for their annual tradition of recreating what’s still regarded as perhaps the most brutal play in all of football history: The Throwback Special, when Joe Theismann’s leg was broken in primetime. Over their weekend stay in a nondescript hotel, they all feel their age, their concerns, and their lives in the context of this ritual reenactment.
The Review: I was still reeling from the conclusion of Super Bowl LI as I finished this book – a book I’d thought to read as a timely companion to this most commodified of sporting events. But the frustration I felt about that impossible comeback by the Patriots was nothing compared to the frustration I felt regarding this novel – although it is a frustration I’m not sure I would’ve felt even a few years ago.
The fact that this book was a National Book Award finalist – in a year that also included Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, no less – is rather astonishing. This is not to diminish the subset of America who are middle-aged men… but jesus. This book? Really? It’s a bunch of middle-aged white men (there are a few appearance by younger characters and there is one African-American man, whose racial musings do not feel organic so much as they do hamfisted (written, as they were, by a middle-aged white guy)) dealing with their declining bodies and declining faculties by recreating, meticulously, a moment that was perhaps their first encounter with the reality of a body’s fallibility. Maybe it’s just the way the landscape of the world has changed in the last few months, but forgive me if I’m tired of hearing about middle-aged American men not going gently into that good night.
My other major problem with this book is, actually, its brevity. With a cast of some 22 (eleven players on each squad) plus some peripheral appearances, there’s a lot going on – and not a single one of these men stands out to the reader. You may remember a couple of small particulars – one of them cuts hair, one of them has just discovered a tumor, one of them is a loudmouthed hippie – but I couldn’t tell you who was who. I could barely differentiate them while reading, let alone after the fact, and I can’t tell if that was part of Bachelder’s intention or not. Did he mean for us to experience this whirling mass of fading masculinity in a semi-anonymous way, letting the collective experience of These Men (as opposed to any one in particular) stand in for the general collective experience of Most Men? If so, what is it we’re supposed to derive from this collectivisation? These men, all of them, live the Thoreauian lives of quiet desperation – and, yes, I get that that’s the reality for the large, overwhelming majority of this country. These middle-managers, floundering dads, failed businessmen, men who peaked at a moment when they weren’t ready, men who keep themselves in excellent shape but for what purpose… I’m the exception to the rule, my colleagues and comrades are the exceptions to the rule.
At least… for now, anyway. The world is changing, so rapidly and so wonderfully, that it’s hard not to see this as another last-gasp of the white patriarchy. I imagine a future that is richer than this, as a proudly multicultural (in every sense of the term ‘culture’) majority rises in this country. The American Dream might’ve failed these men but the hope has got to be that it won’t fail us, the ones coming up now with a spark of vigor and a breadth of vision that outstrips those who came before us.
Yes, this book is meant to make these men look a little sad – and, boy, do they look a little sad throughout nearly the entire book – but Bachelder gives them a moment of mythic potency when they actually take the field and recreate the play, the one single play. Any critique that the author was aiming for is hamstrung by the fact that, when they step to the field, they become something greater than they were. It gives them life, rejuvenates them, even in the face of all their problems and their troubles. It’s why they’ll never be done, not really, and they’ll always have another year. And that perpetuation, that IV drip of the mythic and the majestic into otherwise dull gray American sadness, is what makes this book so irritating to me. I do not begrudge these men a moment of happiness – but I do begrudge the author’s attempt to extend even further the slow decline of the American white male. For all the philosophical musings and ordinary-Joe conversations that float around this novel – some of which are even downright interesting digressions – I can’t help but think that it’s all in service of propping up things that should just deflate already.
It was a thought I had while watching the Super Bowl last night, watching this American pastime that is now on borrowed time – it can’t survive much longer, not in its current state, can it? Concussions, violence, runaway salaries… But every time I think something is finally changing, that we as a country are about to turn the corner, the beast that makes up our historical structure of power – a beast that I, admittedly, am a part of by virtue of my birth – flails again and the future gets pushed back another year, another four years, another two terms. Maybe I can’t dissociate this novel from our current socio-political climate – but maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Rating: 2 out of 5. I’ll give Bachelder credit: he’s an interesting writer. There are moments, virtual flashes, of gripping brilliance to this novel: a man washing a stain out of shirt in the middle of the night in a hotel fountain; the rotating image of the hotel’s sixteen security cameras; the reenactment seen through the eyes not of the men but of the young tech employees also staying at the hotel. But the point of this novel is one I just can’t get behind. I don’t need to read stories of declining ordinary middle-aged men, not anymore. Give me a new twist on the tale, tell me a story we don’t hear so often, give me something that looks to the future instead of yet another novel that, at its core, longs for a time when men were men and America stood tall on top of the world. This book tries to undercut that message but it fails – because at its core, it cannot escape wanting the same thing: a time when books like this mattered, instead of being a relic even as it debuts.