Football fans may want to punt ‘Throwback Special’ – USA TODAY

7 months ago Comments Off on Football fans may want to punt ‘Throwback Special’ – USA TODAY


Why 22 ordinary middle-aged men would meet at an I-95 chain hotel for the 17th annual reenactment of the NFL’s most gruesome football play is no clearer by the end of Chris Bachelder’s new novel The Throwback Special (Norton, 224 pp., ** out of four stars) than why Didi and Gogo are still waiting for Godot. But more on that later.

Like these men, anyone who witnessed the play on Nov. 18, 1985, even on Monday Night Football, will never forget it. With the home-team Washington Redskins and rival New York Giants tied 7-7, Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann calls a flea-flicker, The Throwback Special. The play goes horribly wrong. Giant’s uber-linebacker Lawrence Taylor crushes Theismann like an empty beer can, snapping his right leg, ending his career.

What a premise, right? Bachelder calls it a “grisly cultural touchstone.” But don’t go putting on your cultural jockstrap just yet. The novel is barely about that play, not really about football. Rather, it’s a wry, occasionally insightful, often cleat-dragging, third-person narrative about men of a certain age and their mid-life challenges, their habits, fears, disappointments and angst.

Not friends otherwise, these guys bond once a year. They like being part of something beyond their mundane lives — studying film of the play, wearing football uniforms, rethinking strategies. It’s a weekend timeout from the realization that the second half of their lives is racing toward the two-minute warning.

Rituals here are sacred. Chad, Andy and Nate meet at the dumpster for their traditional smoke, though they’ve stopped smoking. Gil falls victim to the shaving-cream trick. Carl gives everyone haircuts. Fat Michael hides under a stairwell — typical for the guy playing Theismann.

Life has turned a dark corner for each of them. Divorced, Jeff believes all marriage provides is “the sense that your life is witnessed by another person.” Nate is sexually attracted to illustrated women in children’s books. Gil wants a TV remote control that automatically channel surfs. Trent came home to find his daughter having sex; Andy found his kid inhaling whippets … and on and on.

An essayist and author of three other novels, Bachelder has earned his credentials for searing satire on life in America. But this scrapbook novel has issues. What little plot there is, it’s as fractured as Theismann’s tibia. Suspense? Only whether there’ll be any. It takes 22 players to replicate a football play. But it’s hard to follow that many characters in a novel, and hard to fully develop so many characters as well.

Bachelder’s talent shines in moments like Trent in the hotel laundry room and Derek searching for an HDMI cable. But he tests readers’ patience with ponderous ploys like the endless description of each guy’s T-shirt and snoring style, and the inventory of the hotel’s lost-and-found.

While droll, hilarious this novel is not — unless you knee-slapped through Waiting for Godot. Which returns us to why this intriguing but flawed novel is akin to Samuel Beckett’s play.

Both are edged with bleakness and absurdity. Characters wait for something that will make their routine lives meaningful. Waiting for Godot is a masterpiece; The Throwback Special is not that special.

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