Every year, a group of 22 middle-aged men reenacts the infamous 1985 NFL play wherein Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann suffers a horrific career-ending injury, and this short novel takes us through their November weekend together at the nondescript hotel where they have gathered for 16 years. We are treated to the neurotic musings of each character as he arrives on the scene, is ritually and randomly assigned a Redskins or Giants player, participates in various preparations for the play, and reconsiders his relationships with the other men as well as with the family members he’s left at home.
The tight narrative framework for the story allows for much looseness in its telling, and it’s in a jumble of episodes and anecdotes that we find some of the most trenchant observations about what it means to grow older as a (with one notable and very self-conscious exception) white man in America. For me, the author’s relentless pursuit of laughs precluded a deep attachment to or empathy with any one character but at the same time encouraged me to see the men as various aspects of the experience of aging.
Everything is provisional here. There’s no point in the novel where I think to myself, “Yes, I can imagine a group of guys doing this for a weekend each year,” yet I’m comfortable believing that this is pretty much exactly how it would play out if it were to happen. The portrait of the middle-aged American male is of an ultimately unknowable mythical creature, but it’s executed with deft brush strokes.
The book feels claustrophobic at first, like it’s trying too hard (albeit with understated eloquence), and the characters seem like artificial constructs, but eventually I was won over and found it compelling. The introduction of an outsider into the group near the end provides perspective and also ends up accentuating the quasi-religious character of the yearly commemorations.
It was interesting to read this not long after When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The books are of similar length, and both approach the topic of mortality in their very different ways: Kalanithi through head-on grappling and Bachelder through the sometimes funny and heartbreaking trivialities of everyday life.
Availability: SMCM, COSMOS, USMAI
Review Submitted by: Eric Blomquist
Challenge: A book from the 2017 Tournament of Books