Donald Antrim is perhaps the master of the novel in which men are crammed into confined spaces — a group of psychotherapists in a pancake joint (The Verificationist) or 100 brothers in a library (The Hundred Brothers). Chris Bachelder contributes a gem to the genre with The Throwback Special, in which a football team’s worth of men descend upon a hotel to conduct an annual ritual based on a football game that occurred 30 years ago.
The men loiter in “concentric arcs” around the hotel’s lobby fountain as they wait to check in, “not unlike the standard model of the atom;” they gather to eat pizza in a cramped room smelling of “sweet tomato sauce and warm meat;” and when they find another group of hotel guests descending on the continental breakfast station, they “[lurk] at the boundaries of the dining area, anxious about resources.” All this clustering is a prelude to the formation of a football huddle, “a perfect and intimate order, elemental and domestic, like a log cabin in the wilderness…they could perhaps sense in the huddle the origins of civilization.” (Zog, you go deep while Durc and Plarf sneak up on the mammoth from the blind side.)
Bachelder’s portrait of middle-class, middle-aged males revolves around football, in which we find a unique combination of brute force, obsessive strategic organization, and improvisation. Full disclosure: In my version of hell, scowling football coaches pace up and down the River Styx, their steady barking of martial commands only interrupted to consult their laminated sheets on which every possible variation on the off-tackle running play is written. My distaste for the sport’s phony militarism notwithstanding, Bachelder’s “football” novel is an eerie, witty work dissecting a modern-day sacrificial (sack-rificial?) ritual. Though the curious rite described herein takes place in a “two-and-a-half-star chain” hotel off of I-95, it taps into our ancestral roots; the novel’s epigraph is taken from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, a treatise on the “primacy” and “sacred earnestness” of play across cultures.
The group of men meet to recreate a famously disastrous, and violent, football play. (Bachelder’s first novel, Bear v. Shark, was structured around a more absurdist agon.) During a 1985 game against the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins attempted a flea flicker — quarterback hands ball to running back, running back tosses ball back to quarterback, who looks to pass the ball downfield. The trick was clumsily executed, the defense wasn’t fooled, and quarterback Joe Theismann was carted off with a career-ending compound fracture courtesy of the Giants’ Lawrence Taylor, the fearsome outside linebacker who seemed shaken by the bone-crushing damage he has inflicted. The TV commentator Frank Gifford warns his audience before cutting to the replay: “And I’ll suggest if your stomach is weak, just don’t watch.”
These men did watch as boys, and something about the play’s cataclysmic failure, the collapse of the best-laid plans of mice and offensive coordinators, lodged in their adolescent psyches. The novel opens on the 16th year of the men reenacting the snap. We don’t find out how these performers, who lead relatively humdrum lives devoid spectacular drama, established the group or found each other; illuminating the society’s origins, it seems, would dampen its mystery. The men are not really friends; socialization is confined to the reenactment weekend. Some of their familial or professional troubles are recounted, and Bachelder does flit in and out of their psyches, but in general the men, partly because there are so many of them, remain purposefully flat. It is the ritual that matters — the men’s role in it and their behavior leading up to it. The description of one man breaking in his new mouthguard tells you everything you need to know about him.
At times, The Throwback Special has the feel of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which itself explores the transporting thrill of re-creation. This pleasure lies in the chance to asymptotically “approach perfection” by getting closer and closer to the historical model; or in submitting to the play’s “choreography of chaos and ruin;” or in the suspense that all great drama, even when we know the outcome, generates: “He had liked the sense that anything at all might happen, even though only one thing could happen.”
A blend of comfort and tension lies at the heart of this ritual, faith in its power and anxiety about its stability. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga mentions the fragility of play, the ease with which its sustaining illusion can be shattered or its cordoned-off space violated. Though the men have at it for nearly two decades, one worrywart has the “anxious sensation that the ritual, seemingly so entrenched, was in fact precarious.” The conference room in which they usually conduct the lottery has been usurped by a vaguely-named company, Prestige Vista Solutions. (“They just despoil the environment and establish tax havens and seize conference rooms,” gripes one of the deposed reenactors.) The hotel fountain is initially dry. A jersey, and a player, is missing. There are murmurs that this will be the last year, which opens up the “ancient wound of seclusion” in some of the more insecure men. Each wrinkle contributes to a disturbing sense of impermanence, the fear that the mythic ceremony they have devised is not eternal.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how the ritual at once reveals and promises to assuage male neuroses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lottery scene, in which the men draw lottery numbers from a giant drum to determine the order in which they will select their roles. Bachelder shrewdly anatomizes the various psychological types: those who find “nobility in ruinous failure” tend to choose a Washington player who is “essential to the calamity,” a member of the crumbling offensive line for example; others are drawn to the Washington offense “out of a keen, if unrecognized, identification with disappointment and culpability and bumbling malfunction;” the “aesthetes” opt for players based on some aspect of some sartorial accessory or distinctive posture; men who “craved the familiar comfort of anonymity and insignificance” yearn to play an insignificant role in the recreation — a retreating Giants cornerback for instance — but “overcompensate for their shameful desire by choosing the most significant player available.”
Regardless of one’s temperament or build, it would be almost sacrilegious not to pick Lawrence Taylor first. Derek, the one black man in the group, simultaneously yearns for and dreads the prospect of winning this first selection, which would force him to “[wade] into the psycho-racial thicket” of picking the star linebacker. In past reenactments, men have played him as a “with a kind of wild-eyed, watch-your-daughters primitivism,” profiting from the reenactment to indulge in a “transgressive racial thrill ride.” Derek wonders how his pick will be interpreted by the other men, and whether or not he could change things by adding some depth to the character:
Selecting Taylor — it was so clear — would not be an opportunity for racial healing and gentle instruction, but an outright act of hostility and aggression. He, Derek, would not control the meaning and significance of Lawrence Taylor’s sack. Centuries of American history would control the meaning and significance of Taylor’s sack.
(That one of the teams still clings to its offensive name adds another element to the “charged racial allegory.”) Derek’s ethical dilemma vanishes when another man wins the first pick and selects L.T., “beating his chest with his fists” and thereby signaling the kind of nuanced portrayal he is likely to produce.
Taylor’s partner and antagonist in the consummating sack is Joe Theismann: “By tradition the man playing Theismann and the man playing Taylor stayed away from each other, like a bride and groom before a wedding.” While failing to pick Taylor would signal weakness, no player is allowed to pick Theismann; the honor falls to the man with the lowest number. The quarterback is a kind of pharmakos, a sacrificial victim at once polluted and holy. While the other men share beds, “it was customary for the man playing Theismann to sleep alone…[a] mildly punitive…form of exile or symbolic estrangement.” Theismann himself, we are told, described his injury in Christ-like terms, his shattered leg bearing the sins of his bumbling linemen; the men who have played him all testify to the intensity of voluntarily offering up themselves to the rushing horde.
Theismann submits to the group’s channeled violence, which is a concentrated form of the scattershot, hostile humor that defines certain kind of male relationship and the “typical masculine joke, a crude homemade weapon that indiscriminately sprayed hostility and insecurity in a 360-degree radius, targeting everyone within hearing range, including the speaker.” One man arrives to the hotel and circles the parking lot in his car, “blasting his horn and shouting community-sustaining threats and maledictions.” This aggressive bantering masks an underlying sincerity: to insult is to love. As Bachelder writes,
…each man…was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.
That this passage happens to refer to the men’s feelings for an inanimate object — the much-maligned lottery drum — makes the men at once more ridiculous and more poignant.
If describing the admittedly silly ritual in such elevated ways seems bombastic, that is partly the point. Serious play depends on a complete adherence to the arbitrary nature of its established rules. Therefore, the reenactment seems puerile to anyone looking in from the outside, including the several Prestige Vista Solutions employees who witness it. These outsiders adopt an ironic stance, but their irony, along with the reader’s, fades when we finally witness the men’s solemn play.
One might have imagined that the emergence of an online kommentariat would have made The New Yorker’s 2010 “20 Under 40” Fiction Issue, released last week, an even bigger buzz engine than its 1999 predecessor. For some reason, though – high humidity in the mid-Atlantic? the preponderance of Knopf and FSG authors? the preexistence of a Granta theme issue with significant overlap? the nebulous formulation “writers who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation”? – the magazine’s list of the best young American fiction writers has met mostly with polite golf clapping.
To be sure, it’s hard to begrudge these 20 terrific writers their honor. We’ve been excited to read in the issue new work from friends (and interested to observe the generational influence exerted by 1999 honoree George Saunders). But, as the accompanying Comment suggests, “to encourage . . . second-guessing is perhaps the best reason to make lists.” And, wishing to see more such second-guessing, we’ve decided to rise to the bait and offer our own, non-overlapping, list of young-ish writers to watch.
The exercise gave us a new appreciation for The New Yorker’s editorial staff: It turns out to be damn hard to figure out who to call American. (There’s also a shocking number of writers who are 40 this year: Brady Udall, Nathan Englander, Ed Park, Danzy Senna, Paul LaFarge…). It’s nice to be reminded, however, as we all wring our hands about the future of fiction, of the preponderance of of thirtysomething talent out there. So, with apologies for obviousness, we hereby present an informal, unscientific, alternate-universe “20 Under 40” list.
Calvin Baker’s three works of fiction range fearlessly across the expanse of American experience from the Middle Passage forward. In Dominion, one of several recent novels to tackle the antebellum period, Baker finds his own, hybrid solution to the challenge of voicing the past.
Jesse Ball’s first two novels, Samedi the Deafness and The Way Through Doors, both reviewed here, show off a fabulist sensibility that’s somehow both minimalist and maximalist – Paul Auster by way of The Arabian Nights. Ball won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for fiction in 2008.
Chris Bachelder, author of Bear vs. Shark and U.S.! wields the two weapons all great satirists need: an eye for the absurd and a deep moral sense. For what it’s worth, Bachelder’s remarkable lexicon had at least one reader convinced for a few weeks in 2007 that he was a pseudonym of David Foster Wallace.
Mischa Berlinski’s first novel, Fieldwork, like the best fieldwork, moves beyond the parochial concerns of the American writing program without resorting to exoticism. It was a National Book Award finalist. Berlinski is currently in Haiti, we’re told, working on another.
Tom Bissell, who has lately published nonfiction in The New Yorker, might have been a plausible candidate for inclusion on its list. His first collection of short fiction, God Lives in St. Petersburg, was a finalist for the Believer Book Award.
Judy Budnitz is one of America’s great unsung short-story writers. Her two collections, Flying Leap and Nice Big American Baby marry Kafka-esque premises with a ruthless willingness to follow them to their conclusions. Also a novelist, she made the Granta list a couple years back.
Joshua Cohen, a prolific (and quotably bellicose) 29-year-old, just published his sixth book, a Ulyssean 800-pager called Witz. Expect serious reviews to start appearing in the fall, when people have actually finished the damned thing.
Kiran Desai is now a permanent resident of the U.S….or so says Wikipedia. Her 2006 novel, The Inheritance of Loss, was a Booker Prize winner and was on a lot of people’s year-end lists.
Myla Goldberg may have lost some credibility with literary mandarins when her first novel, Bee Season, became a Richard Gere vehicle. However, her second novel, Wickett’s Remedy, shows that her ambitions extend well beyond orthography.
Sheila Heti, a puckish Canadian, can be on our list if David Bezmozgis can be on The New Yorker’s. Her first collection, The Middle Stories, featured fables skewed sui generisly. She’s since published a novel, Ticknor, and appeared as Lenore in Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts.
Samantha Hunt’s most recent novel, The Invention of Everything Else, was a fabulist meditation on Nikola Tesla; her previous piece, The Seas, was similarly inventive. Like Heti and Bissell, she cut her teeth in McSweeney’s.
Porochista Khakpour’s debut, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, showed off her acrobatic voice; recent work in Guernica suggests more of the same.
Benjamin Kunkel, aside from having mastered the voice of bemused neuroticism in Indecision, has one of the most interesting minds around, as evidenced by his far-ranging criticism in The London Review of Books. A play, Buzz, is forthcoming from N+1.
Victor LaValle’s third book, the splendidly eccentric Big Machine, has been his breakout. A Publisher’s Weekly best novel of 2009, it has won him many fans, including our own Edan Lepucki, who reviewed it here last fall.
Fiona Maazel’s Last Last Chance is one of the most ambitious debuts of recent years, covering plague, addiction, and chicken processing. Maazel was a Lannan Foundation fellow in 2005.
Joe Meno, unlike any writer on the New Yorker list, published his first few novels with an independent press, Brooklyn’s Akashic Books. A writer of considerable range, the Chicago-based Meno last year published a rollicking family novel, The Great Perhaps, which occasioned an interview with and profile by Edan.
Julie Orringer spent the several years of radio silence that followed her feted story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, productively. Her expansive first novel, The Invisible Bridge, has been hailed for its historical sweep and intimate portraiture.
Salvador Plascencia’s memorably and typographically strange novel, The People of Paper, rivals Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital for the title of Most Interesting Novel McSweeney’s Has Published (Non-Eggers Division). We have no idea what he’s working on now, but we look forward to it.
Eric Puchner is the author of Music Through the Floor, a collection that won the NYPL’s Young Lions Award. This year, he published the similarly well-received novel Model Home. His wry essay about being married to the novelist Katharine Noel can be found here.
Anya Ulinich’s debut, Petropolis, rendered the life of a post-Soviet expatriate with Bellovian figurative brio. She’s got a great story called “Mr. Spinach” floating around out there somewhere…hopefully part of a collection?