The Rituals of Reenactment

Novelist Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special centers on a specific conceit

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click to enlarge Bachelder’s latest release follows a group of men that reenact the 1985 Theismann play.
Bachelder’s latest release follows a group of men that reenact the 1985 Theismann play.

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hris Bachelder’s latest novel, The Throwback Special, centers its narrative on a very specific idea: 22 guys who gather every year to reenact the play in which Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s leg was shattered during a Monday Night Football game in November 1985.

Bachelder’s fourth novel — previous singular, humor-infused efforts include 2001’s Bear v. Shark, 2006’s U.S.! and 2011’s Abbott Awaits — takes this curious source of inspiration as a jumping-off point to investigate a group of men, all now in their mid-forties, who are beginning to realize that they have a lot less control over their lives than they thought, and that the range of life’s possibilities is beginning to narrow.

CityBeat recently phoned Bachelder — himself a mid-forties guy who moved here five years ago to take a teaching gig in the University of Cincinnati’s creative writing department — to discuss an incisive novel that is at once odd and oddly poignant, sad and unexpectedly sweet.

CityBeat: I still remember quite vividly watching the Theismann play live, but I’m sure there is a wide swath of people who are not familiar with it. Why did you want to center the book on such a specific conceit?

Chris Bachelder: When I stopped to think about it, and think about who might be interested in publishing it and who might be interested in reading it, then I was slightly concerned. But, honestly, I just didn’t think much about that, and I’m glad I didn’t think about it. My last book was a kind of quiet small press book, and I honestly thought this was going to be just a weirdo small press book too. So I was very surprised and delighted that we got picked up by Norton and people have paid some attention to it. But if I had been thinking a lot about who’s going to read this and how is it going to come across, I would have been very concerned and may not have even written it. Because, as you say, many people have no connection to the play at all, and when you first hear about it you assume it’s a book about football.

CityBeat: Your last two novels are set on smaller canvasses and seem more concerned with domestic issues than your first two, which were broader and more overtly satirical. Was that a conscious decision, or is it an inevitable result of getting older and having kids?

CB: Yeah, there does seem to be a split after the first two. If I had to say anything definitive about it, I’d say it definitely coincides with having a family and having children, getting older and my concerns shifting. But even after U.S.! I was starting to think that I didn’t know what else I could do with satire. Even before having my first child, I was starting to wonder about the limits of American satire. I mean, in satire you kind of push the premise toward absurdity, and in America we’re already at full absurdity and full of non sequitur.

Also, I was probably up against the limits of irony. Irony is getting old now. It is used to sell products, and so it didn’t seem like this sort of weapon anymore for the literary artist. I was starting to think that I had taken it as far down the road as I could and that my canvass got a lot smaller and I started operating in a sort of vertical mode where time is relatively compact. I began working in a vertical mode of just really thinking about and blowing up small moments and thinking about and writing about thought a lot — the curvy paths of thought and the trick of trying to bring drama to relatively non-dramatic moments.

CityBeat: Why did you decide to not center the action on a single protagonist and instead toggle the point of view from one guy to another?

CB: I began thinking I’d just write something about the play itself. The Theismann play just looms so large in my memory, and I thought that there was something literary there that I might enter. It was only after thinking about it for quite some time and trying to write and watching the replay over and over that I came up with this idea of the reenactment. So then all the sudden I had 22 guys, and that was a challenge, but it’s the kind of challenge I like. It makes writing fun. It’s a problem and an opportunity. I don’t think I ever considered that I have 22 but I can concentrate on one or two guys. What interested me most, and I don’t even know if I’d have been able to articulate it at the time, was this larger idea of the ritual and maybe religion, community, masculinity.

I need a point of view that is very mobile, that’s very plastic, that can move around and do all the things I need it to do to signal to a reader that, “OK, you can relax, you don’t need to remember all these 22 guys. That’s not what’s important here.” It’s more about the men as a unit, as a kind of hive mind. What I was eventually hoping is that the ritual itself would be the protagonist of the book. If a book doesn’t have a protagonist, it’s kind of a tough sell, you know? I was hoping in some way to signal to the reader that it was the ritual itself, that it’s the group itself that is the protagonist.

CityBeat: Why do you think the Theismann injury has had such a lasting impact on so many people who saw it?

CB: I feel like the Theismann injury is near the end of a time when there was a notion of a popular culture to which many people belonged. I know that it excluded people, and I don’t want to celebrate it as a golden age, but I think the proliferation of media and the proliferation of technology have not created a larger community, it’s created millions of tiny communities. So if these guys are nostalgic about the play, one of the things they might be nostalgic about is the sense of belonging to something. That’s the way I’ve come to think about it since writing the book.


Chris Bachelder’s THE THROWBACK SPECIAL is now available in bookstores.


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