I have zero interest in football, which can make it challenging to move through American life. I dread getting cornered in an elevator or stuck in line with some chipper guy asking if I saw the game. Saying no, I don’t follow football feels like a failing, a confession, and a pretension that leaves me doubting my manhood. So a novel about middle-aged men who gather each year to reenact a violent NFL moment from 1985 was not high on my reading list.

But Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special relies upon football only as a stalking horse to deliver a meticulously detailed guide through the interior muck of failure, confession, and pretension. The action unfolds in hotel rooms and hallways, where the hum of the ice machine veers from reassuring to sinister. The story is delivered in a deadpan, ethnographic tone that flirts with the surreal: “The bright, enormous clock bathed the entire lobby in time.” Continental breakfasts and service drives become totems of American desire and pilgrimage, our last shared rituals and churches. A man admires the plastic trash along a highway embankment: “By night it looked ceremonial, festive, as if it had once stood for something holy but now just stood prettily for itself.”

Line for line, this book has some of the best writing I’ve read in years, dignified and comic without nudging you in the ribs, and now I’m harassing everyone I know to read it. This sentence captures its overall spirit: “Chad had ceased being a discrete unit of biological meaning. It felt okay.”

(Matt Bell’s newsletter encouraged me to read it, and here’s a nice interview with Bachelder.)

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