Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: "The Throwback Special" by Chris Bachelder

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to NetGalley and W.W. Norton & Company for making it available!

One weekend every November, a group of 22 guys get together at a hotel. They aren't friends during the year, but there is rarely a question that they'll miss this weekend.

The purpose? They gather to reenact (although they hate that word, since for them it connotes people dressed in war uniforms holding guns) what is known in football history as "the most shocking play in NFL history": on November 18, 1985, Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken on live television by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. The injury ended Theismann's career, and was replayed several times that night on television, although commentator Frank Gifford warned those "with strong stomachs."

The weekend isn't just a casual game of touch football. Every year one of the men becomes the commissioner, and each man gets to choose which player (of those Redskins and Giants players who were on the field for that play) they will play that year. They watch the film of that play, room together by position, and even dress in authentic uniforms, down to wristbands or taped body parts. Some of the men take the weekend and their roles very seriously, while others would rather be anywhere else but know they're obligated.

If your eyes have already glazed over because you're not a football fan, rest assured that Chris Bachelder's The Throwback Special is less about football and more about life. The men have been playing for a number of years now, and most are approaching or are solidly entrenched in middle age, experiencing all of the stresses and problems which come with it, from physical ailments, difficulties and/or concerns with their children, financial challenges, marital woes, etc. These are men who bear the weight of life on their shoulders, and while this weekend should serve as a release for them, they can't seem to shake everything that's going on in their "real lives."

This is a really interesting and sensitive meditation on the burden of manhood and growing older, as well as the dissatisfaction and the disappointment that comes with it. Bachelder has a great ear for dialogue, which imbues this book with a great deal of sensitivity and humor. The challenge is, there are so many characters that it's hard to keep all of them straight—there's Fat Michael (who isn't fat in the least) and Bald Michael (who is bald), Adam and Andy, and many others—and while some of the characters are more vivid, it takes a little time to remember which one you're reading about.

I'm a huge football fan and we even have Redskins season tickets, so this book definitely appealed to me, but you don't need to know the first thing about football to enjoy The Throwback Special. If you're a guy dealing with growing older and the challenges of life, or you know someone like that, this book may interest you. It's very different than I expected it to be, but it definitely captivated me.

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