Author explores middle age and the power of performance in ‘The Throwback Special’

1474654469886Author Chris Bachelder, whose 2016 book, the Throwback Special, was a finalist for the national book award will speak on the campus of Central Michigan University this week.

Bachelder’s latest book unpacks the anxieties and hopes of a group of middle aged men who gather every year to reenact a football play: the throwback special.

Bachelder met with CMU’s Ben Thorp to talk about his book.

Ben: I did not know anything about the throwback special, I did not know anything about this particular moment. Will you tell us about it?

Chris: Sure. This is November 1985, a nationally televised game, Monday night football: the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. The quarterback for the Redskins, Joe Theismann, they run a trick play: a flea flicker, early second quarter from mid field. A first in ten play. The giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked Theismann, kinda caught him from behind, sacked him and fell across his body in a way that broke Theismann’s leg in a particularly gruesome way. Anybody who did see it, and I did as a fourteen year old, remembers it well and can’t unsee it.

Ben: Your characters spend the rest of the book, they gather once a year to recreate this act, to recreate this thing. There’s not really an explanation throughout the book of why it is that they are doing this. Why is it important for them to go over this moment again and again and again?

Chris: Some readers are frustrated by that and would like to know the exact reasons but I was hoping that it would make sense. The men might not even be able to articulate it themselves, frankly, there is much in the book that they can’t articulate. But I think there is a sense of yearning for a community, for belonging, for ritual, for tradition, I think it’s this nostalgic or even religious that sends them back every year for this thing.

Ben: One of the moments that seemed really important to me because it’s clear it’s important to these characters which role they get to play on the line of scrimmage, who they are going to reenact. You talk about how there is not a whole lot of self awareness but we have this moment where the character Derek, who is African-American, is worrying about who he is going to play and what that is going to say about race. Talk about that.

Chris: There are several episodes with him throughout the book but the one you’re talking about is the most vital probably. A lot of the men, they have a lottery and determine who gets to pick first who they get to reenact.  He’s just thinking through in complicated and developed ways about what it would mean to choose Lawrence Taylor. To be the villain in this drama. To go sack the white quarterback and break his leg, the wavy-haired good looking quarterback from Notre Dame. What it would mean for this character Derek to select Lawrence Taylor and become this player. A lot of the white men select Lawrence Taylor and don’t have second thoughts about the racial dynamics at play here.

It was a way, I thought, and I hoped once I was finished and was thinking about it to explore privilege a little bit. It was the other characters privilege not to explore the racial dynamics of this play.

Ben: Yeah, because really these seem like a way for these guys to understand who they are and put themselves into a context. Talk about what happens when the narratives we’ve designed to understand ourselves start to fall apart.

Chris: Yeah and maybe that’s… that’s a great point. Maybe that is at the center of this ritual in a way. That in middle age they, I think middle age is the time when you start to understand the narratives you’ve told yourself about your life and it’s a time to check your ambitions, or to check your ambitions against realities. It’s a central pull for them to gather.

Ben: Chris is there any of this you want to read for us today?

Chris: Oh sure. You wanted a shorter piece?

It would be difficult to overstate the men’s enthusiasm for continental breakfast. To be clear, their zeal had little or nothing to do with this particular hotel’s version of the standard spread. As petulant online reviewers made very clear the hotel’s breakfast was not in any way exceptional or distinctive. It was a completely average continental breakfast and this is why the men loved it. The breakfast involved no surprises and no risks, it involved no deliberation and no ordering, no indecision and no regret. With plastic tongs they heaped large quantities of known sweet rations onto their styrofoam plates. Everything tasted like it looked. There were no interesting spices or herbs, no local flavors, no subtle variations on classics, it was a bounty of carbohydrates and the items never ran out. There was always more and it was always free.

Continental breakfast made them feel, made many of them feel, as if they were getting away with something. And at the same time they felt like it was a form of recognition, and at the same time it was but a tiny portion of what they were owed. And so it was that the long table of processed food and crop dusted fruit was for the men simultaneously gift, reward, and restitution. Their appetites were severe.

Ben: Thanks so much Chris.

Chris: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it very much. I appreciate your interest and your very good questions.