2016 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction
The Throwback Special
(W. W. Norton & Company)
National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Chris Bachelder: I wrote this novel for the tens of millions of ravenous readers out there who cherish both plotless literary fiction and football. No, I didn’t. The truth is that while I know some writers do conjure an audience as a generative and constraining force in composition, I don’t tend to think much about a specific reader or group of readers when I’m writing. Generally speaking, I’m interested in moving deeply and patiently into scene, and in fulfilling the imaginative potential of a premise. When I’m writing, I feel not in the presence of a reader, but rather up against the limits and possibilities of my own premise, which I hope to elaborate with precision, wit, and empathy. The book tends to have its own needs and requirements, separate from mine or a hypothetical reader's.
Every year the 22 men in Chris Bachelder’s quiet, comical masterpiece gather in the same hotel to renew their friendship and reenact one of professional football’s most gruesome moments. With tenderness and compassion, Bachelder perfectly captures the disappointments of middle-age, the solace of play, the bedtime rituals of men far from home (brush teeth, text wives), and the sacred, almost transcendent experience of the team huddle. The Throwback Special offers a heartbreaking and hysterically funny glimpse into the worried soul of the domesticated American male.
ABOUT THE BOOK
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.
About the Author
Chris Bachelder is the author of Bear v. Shark, U.S.!, and Abbott 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.
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Interview by Lincoln Michel
In 1985, legendary New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor fractured Washington quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg on a freak play. This shocking and horrifying moment becomes the focal point of Chris Bachelder’s latest novel, The Throwback Special, which looks at a group of 22 men who meet at a mediocre hotel every year to reenact the play. With this backdrop, Bachelder floats between the various men, providing insights into their fears, sorrows, and bizarre obsessions to create a portrait of modern American male life that is equal parts humorous and touching. I spoke with Bachelder over email about comic fiction, influences, and the complex rituals of both writing and sports.
Lincoln Michel: First off, congratulations on being a National Book Award Finalist! You’ve said that you see yourself as primarily a comic writer. It often seems like it’s harder for comedic writing to get critical or award recognition than other modes. Do you think that’s true, and, if so, why? Or do you think the tide is turning these days (Paul Beatty just won the Man Booker for a comedic novel after all)?
Chris Bachelder: Thank you very much. I should say first of all that I’m thrilled and surprised to be a finalist, not because I think comic fiction is unfairly ignored but because there are so many deserving books and making the shortlist feels, above all else, like an outrageous stroke of luck. I’m trying to think of it as both a great honor and the result of contingency and good fortune.
Generally speaking, I suppose there is a perception that comic writing is fundamentally light or insubstantial, that in its desire to entertain it lacks power or depth. And I think it’s fair to see that in many cases the comic mode can’t quite reach the zones of gravity and mystery that we expect for Award-Winning Literature. If I aim always for the joke, then my concerns are primarily formal or technical, and I have perhaps not fully engaged with the stuff that we want our Important Art to engage with. Humor can be a turning away, rather than a turning toward. But I think there can be a more ambitious and tonally cunning comic mode that uses humor as a way to move toward complexity. What I like is the complicated comic alloys—humor mixed with grief, with sadness, with frustration, with anger, with bewilderment. Humor can be dramatic and forceful if we understand it as the expression (rather than evasion) of powerful emotion. I’m happy that Beatty has received so much attention. The Sellout is devastatingly and wrenchingly comic.
LM: The Throwback Special was originally published in a sort of throwback way: serialization in The Paris Review. Can you talk about the process? Did it change your writing process?
CB: The book was complete and ready for November 2015 publication when The Paris Review decided to serialize it. My editor sent the book over to Lorin Stein to see if he would like to publish an excerpt, and Lorin said he would take the whole thing. Norton graciously agreed to move publication back to March 2016. This is all more astonishing luck—publication in The Paris Review and months of exposure before publication. (Also, I don’t imagine that a different set of NBA judges would have named Throwback a finalist last year.) All of this is to say that I didn’t write the novel for serialization. And I’m glad I didn’t because I think perhaps I would have tried too hard to create patterns of suspense and I’m sure I would have screwed things up.
LM: The Throwback Special is about 22 men who descend on a hotel each year to painstakingly recreate the infamous 1985 play when Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Thiemann’s leg. One of the characters hates the idea that dressing up in uniforms and recreating a historical event could be compared to Civil War re-enactment, but obviously it’s a fair comparison in many ways. Why do you think the study and recreation of historical events is attractive to so many people (especially, it seems, men)?
CB: I’m certainly not an expert on the psychology of reenactors or the culture of reenactment, but I can offer a couple of ideas. First, I think people just like to dress up. I think the uniform (a soldier’s, an athlete’s) is appealing—it’s an opportunity to lose yourself and to enter a fantasy realm. And second, I imagine that people are attracted to the idea of control and the challenge of perfectibility. The examples here are battle and football—both are complicated systems, involving chance and randomness and unpredictability. The allure is perhaps in the paradoxical attempt to control the uncontrollable, to perfect scenes that are all about the radical imperfections of our schemes. In the heart of every fastidious reenactor there might be poignant longing and fear. This is certainly the case with my reenactors.
LM: Most of us spend a lot of our lives obsessing over the details of something that went wrong—replaying every minute detail of a break-up or bad job interview in our head for example. Are these characters just doing a more elaborate version of something fundamental to human consciousness?
CB: I like the drift of this question, but I would frame the issue in terms of the collective consciousness. I have 22 characters—that’s far too many for each to be important as a unit of consciousness and desire. There is no single protagonist. The characters blend together, they do not remain distinctive. The book is trying to move toward the archetypal or primal or universal (what you call “something fundamental”). As I worked on the book, I thought of my stance as basically anthropological. I wanted to observe these men as they conduct a ritual that at first seems silly but is in fact vital (in that it grows out of genuine yearning). At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I’ll say that I ultimately thought of the reenactment as the expression of a religious impulse. The men are comforting themselves with orderly ritual.
LM: Football is a sport governed by complex rules, and the recreation the characters do each year is similarly complicated (e.g., you can’t select the same player twice in any five-year period or be on the same team more than three consecutive years). Writers are often obsessed with their own rules and rituals. Do you have a ritual to your writing? And did you give yourself any constraints or rules when writing The Throwback Special?
CB: I don’t have elaborate rituals. The essential (and boring) writing ritual is sitting down in the morning with coffee and a faith in invention and problem-solving. It’s funny, I suppose that excess can be its own form of constraint (and constraint can in turn be generative). The number of characters in the novel is excessive, but certainly it operated as a constraint. There are things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t tell a story in a conventional way, with a conventional point of view or stance. Figuring out how to work around this initial decision—a ridiculous number of characters—was simultaneously the process of figuring out what the book was about. I find that solving problems is not simply something I do occasionally as I write a novel. Rather, the novel is the solution to problems. The problems call the book into existence. I had no conception of this book until I started working through the implications of my premise.
LM: One way that The Throwback Special breaks the normal rules of literary fiction is that there isn’t really any protagonist. The roughly 200-page novel jumps between the thoughts of the 22 men who recreate the play each year, as well as several ancillary characters around the hotel. This isn’t a novel where we watch a traditional arc where a character makes choices and emerges changed. I found it refreshing and thrilling that we don’t get that, but I’m curious if you got any pushback on that when writing and publishing the novel?
CB: Well, I definitely faced some pushback from myself in the form of anxiety and self-doubt. And it’s true that editors weren’t swarming the manuscript. My agent liked the book but predicted we’d have a little trouble placing it, which we did. It took about six months. Matt Weiland and Norton came to the rescue. Matt had numerous excellent suggestions for revision—most of which I heeded—but he never pushed against the point of view or the number of characters, which I think he regarded as essential to the book. Just more great luck to find an exceptional editor and advocate at a great house who was willing to take a chance.
LM: Other than the video of the play itself, what books, films, or artworks influenced you when writing this novel?
CB: I had in mind Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers and Leonard Michaels’ The Men’s Club—novels of masculine assembly—and I found myself writing against their movement toward inebriation and mayhem. I thought a lot about the long, slow, patient opening chapter of Paula Fox’s novel The Widow’s Children—five people in a hotel room, roiling subtext, a mood of ending or change, sharp dialogue, excruciating pacing, and a roving point of view. (I just looked at the chapter again and I noticed that I stole Fox’s rain.) And then there are many small moments. A turn in one scene was modeled on a turn I admired in Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” And once, when I was stuck, I lifted a line out of Janet Malcolm’s book Reading Chekhov. I typed out the short sentence to start my scene, then found a way forward.
LM: The book is about how American men interact and ritualize with each other. You treat the men and their rituals with a lot of tenderness, but you also skewer plenty about modern American masculinity. For example, when explaining how the one man who is lean and muscular has been nicknamed “Fat Michael” you describe it as “a typical masculine joke, a crude homemade weapon that indiscriminately sprayed hostility and insecurity in a 360-degree radius, targeting everyone with hearing range, including the speaker.” What attracted you to modern masculinity as a literary subject?
CB: Perhaps this will sound disingenuous, but I was never attracted to the subject of contemporary masculinity. I never thought I had anything I wanted to say on this subject. It wasn’t as if I was a brimming vessel. For me that would seem a dreadfully unpromising way to begin a book. What attracted me initially was the Theismann injury—I don’t think I could even say why. I just felt some power and density in this discrete event. Gradually I came to see that it was not just the play itself but the memory of the play (or brutality + nostalgia). I made my way to the reenactment premise, and I was attracted by the challenge of character and point of view. So it’s not as if I had a subject and then needed to find a proper vehicle to carry it. I started with the premise and with certain technical challenges or constraints, and the subject then emerged. Suddenly I was indeed a bard of the middle-aged male, which was something of a surprise to me. In a recent piece on Zadie Smith, Jeffrey Eugenides offers a nice account of this mysterious process: “The right voice, once discovered, guides everything the writer does and supplies all necessary information and insight — often enough, things you didn’t think you knew.” The thematic material in my novel felt supplied in just this sense. I would never have sat down and said, OK, now I shall set out to explore contemporary masculinity. I suppose that’s what I ended up doing, but I almost had to trick myself into it.
LM: How long had the idea for The Throwback Special been percolating in your mind? Had you been flipping this novel in your head for years and years like the characters have been obsessing over the infamous play?
CB: I watched the Theismann injury live on Monday Night Football in 1985, when I was 14, so the memory and the images have been in my head for a number of years. It was probably six years ago or so that I began to think about the play as something potentially literary. It was just a vague idea, though, and there were many false starts. I suppose it did reach the level of obsession. I just needed to spend a lot of time watching the play and thinking about it. I think what happened is that I watched the replay so many times that the players themselves began to seem like reenactors.
Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beastsand the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction.His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, NOON, Tin House, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His essays and criticism appear in The Guardian, New York Times Book Review, Buzzfeed, Vice, and elsewhere. He is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature and tweets at @thelincoln.