Chris Bachelder’s “The Throwback Special” is 2016’s first Great Book, and, despite being about football and being set in a dingy hotel, it is almost transcendentally tender.
Centered around a group of 22 men who gather each fall to re-enact the five-second football play in which Lawrence Taylor sacked Joe Theismann, breaking his leg and ending his career, the novel (winner of the Paris Review’s Terry Southern prize for humor) is a hilariously sorrowful rendering of American masculinity and a wise, patient examination of American culture.
Almost entirely absent is any propulsive plot: “The Throwback Special” is not a meandering book but accrues its oomph from observation and a richness of detail basically unmatched in contemporary fiction.
“From the lobby behind them came the waves of masculine sound, the toneless song of regret and exclamation,” Bachelder writes, and even better than the frequency of such graceful renderings is how lightly the wisdom is offered.
One of the men, Robert, tries to articulate a feeling of not joy or pleasure but almost “approval” that his daughter has fallen and broken her arm, gratitude that his daughter had learned something “about the way the world actually works.” The book is festooned with such moments and observations. (“Any weather, when sustained, begins to feel like an interrogation technique.”)
In a strange trick, Bachelder populates the novel with so many characters — 22 are required to re-enact the football play, after all — that, while each isn’t plumbed in the depth one might find in a Jonathan Franzen novel, the characters are rendered clearly and vividly.
And, because we get only their first names, their deepest internal aspects, their fears and anxieties and joys feel elemental and uniting: Not only are they like each other, but they’re like all of us. Bachelder is at his most powerful in making such seemingly simple American men appear so pathetic and desperately good.
“Tommy, like other men, had somehow actualized himself while pretending to be someone else,” Bachelder writes toward the novel’s end, and while “The Throwback Special” is littered with such koan-ish passages, the lessons or messages from the novel itself feel, at its conclusion, entirely clear.
Whatever else it is, “The Throwback Special” is a book beautifully bent on celebrating the holy ordinary of American life, the remarkable that arises from the banal and the sort of low-level grace that some of us — Chris Bachelder maybe more than anyone — seem able to find thrumming beneath everything.
The real beauty of the novel seems to witness Bachelder articulate it all so well and, maybe, hopefully, to be reminded again to keep seeking that grace.
Weston Cutter is from St. Paul and teaches at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.