I recently became obsessed with The Throwback Special written by Chris Bachelder. I started off listening to it as an audiobook while aqua jogging in the local YMCA’s pool. It’s a difficult book to listen to in the first place, lots of shifting points of views (the novel follows 22 men) and tons of little gems of descriptions and dialogue that you might miss if your attention wanders for, say, a second. It’s especially difficult to listen to while aqua jogging in a pool, as pools are noisy to begin with, at least the pool I use, and you’re also getting splashed, and sometimes the nice water aerobics women sharing the tiny roped off corner of the pool with you are trying to talk to you. (What is the perfect book to listen to while aqua jogging? I haven’t quite found it yet…). So after a first listen through, I read this book again, this time on my Kindle. Then I listened to it one more time. Then I went back and reread anything I highlighted, which seriously was about half of the book.
I think I’m done with my rereading, but really, it’s an amazing book stylistically, a book I tried to study and learn from as I read through it again. How does Bachelder manage to be so funny while not belittling his characters and turning them into a joke? How, in this time, in the current political/publishing climate, do you write about 21 white middle-aged men (1 of the men is bi-racial) and still have their stories seem vital, valuable, and worth telling? How do you take a story about football and guys and make a reader like me, who is completely uninterested in football, and prefers I’ll be honest to read stories about women, love the novel? And then there’s all the smaller stuff: how Bachelder is an expert at not over-explaining. How he slips in small details and then leaves the details behind, letting the reader make of them what they will (such as this hint at a character being suicidal: “In his garage where he did not kill himself he had constructed a prototype of a self-washing house window.”). How he has his characters tell these amazing, interesting, yet at the same time ordinary stories to each other and then the particular story isn’t brought up again. The story isn’t connected to some future event either. It’s put out there, often in a monologue format, and usually not everyone is listening to it, and that telling of the story is its own purpose.
I could go on and on but I’ll limit myself to one more thing Bachelder does extremely well: list making as a narrative device. His lists have this great rhythm to them but I also love how he breaks the rhythm with dialogue or grammatical variation or by varying the length of a list item. And also I love the emotional variation of his lists too.
TRENT HAD COME HOME to find his daughter going down on a boy. Jeff had come home to find his daughter going down on a girl. Andy had come home to find his kid doing like this with an aerosol can of whipped cream.
“Yeah, whippets,” said George, the public librarian.
Tommy had come home to find that his dog had eaten a package of diapers. The surgery was twenty-five hundred dollars, and now he had pet insurance. Nate had come home to find his wife Skyping with a man in a military uniform. Bald Michael had come home to find his son hurting a cat. Whenever Peter comes home now, his daughter is reading. He was so anxious for her to learn to read, so worried when she showed little interest, but now that’s all she does. She doesn’t even talk to Peter anymore. She just sits in corners, knobby knees pulled up to her chin, the book held over her face like this, like a veil. The other men knew about books over the faces of girls. Carl came home to find his son building something with a lot of wires. Wesley came home to find that his twins had built twin snowmen. The picture was on his phone if he could only find it. Fat Michael had a friend who came home to find that the rags he had used to apply linseed oil to his furniture had spontaneously combusted, causing sixty thousand dollars of property damage. When Steven had come home, everyone in the house was just gone.
Here’s a great list of the various t-shirts that the men wear to sleep.
THE EMPTY HALLWAYS WERE HAZY WITH sconce light and Wi-Fi radio waves. The small red lights of ceiling smoke detectors blinked in no discernible pattern. An elevator car rumbled in its shaft, transporting nothing but a name tag (Marc) and the scent of degraded deodorant. A ghost coursed the stairwell. The vending alcoves clicked and hummed.
Vince’s T-shirt read Daytona Beach, and he snored intermittently.
Carl’s T-shirt read No Coffee No Peace, and the Sharpie wouldn’t wash off his hands.
Wesley’s T-shirt read Richardson’s Lawn & Garden, and he composed, in his mind, in the dark, a long letter to his son.
Gary’s tank top read I ATE THE MEGABURGER, and he snored aggressively.
Bald Michael’s T-shirt read Miller High Life, and his sleep apnea machine made a pleasant bubbling sound like a fish tank.
George’s T-shirt had a picture of Darwin with an enormous block of text far too small to read, and he snored slowly.
Nate’s T-shirt read WTF?, and in the dark he regretted the cigarette.
Robert’s T-shirt was inside out to conceal the design, and in the dark he worried that his older daughter was developing an eating disorder.
Andy’s T-shirt read Which Way to Rock City?, and he snored like a cartoon hound.
Gil’s T-shirt had a picture of Thor and Loki, and his hand was asleep beneath his pillow.
Myron’s T-shirt was yellow, and he snored with a placid countenance.
Tommy’s T-shirt was incomprehensible, and he snored beneath his mustache.
Fat Michael’s sweaty shirt read Bailey’s Peak Challenge 2006, and he ran seven-minute miles on the treadmill in the hotel’s Workout Center, wearing his Joe Theismann helmet and staring blankly over the single bar of the face mask into the wall-length mirror.
Derek’s T-shirt read University of Virginia School of Law, and in the dark he wondered if he should put some pachysandra or other ground cover on that steep slope in his backyard.
Steven’s T-shirt had a picture of sunlight passing through a prism, and he snored consistently.
Jeff’s T-shirt read Ninja in Training, and he told Steven, snoring beside him, that as much as he hated to say it, this would probably have to be his last year.
Randy’s T-shirt read Thompson Optical, and he could begin to feel the gentle tug of the pill.
Chad’s T-shirt read California Dreamin’, and he snored without making a sound.
Charles’s V-neck T-shirt was white, and all of his T-shirts were V-neck and white.
Adam’s T-shirt read Second Place Is the First Loser, and in the dark he calculated his chances.
Peter’s T-shirt was blue, and he stared at the clock, waiting for the number to change.
Trent’s T-shirt read Big Data, and although he courteously wore a nasal strip, he snored with calamitous volume. When he woke up, he discovered that his nose was running. Though he did not have a cold, or he hadn’t had a cold when he went to bed, mucus was now streaming down his face, his neck. In the dark he reached toward the bedside table for a tissue or towel. He grasped something soft, and brought it to his face. As he did so, he realized that the mucus was blood, and that the tissue was a jersey.
The final excerpt uses, in the last section, the list as a plot device–cool! I especially love, in the list below, the list as a question, and the uncertain list where not even the narrator knows what is going on.
THERE WAS A DEER next to the dumpster behind the hotel. It stood still in the rain, ears alert, waiting to be frightened. A grainy version of the deer occupied a small box in the third column of the fourth row of the surveillance grid of the sixteen-channel CCTV monitor at the front desk. Like anyone shown on a surveillance monitor, the deer appeared to be involved in a crime.
In another box of the surveillance grid, the parking lot glittered blackly.
In another box, four grown men threw a football in a hallway.
In another box, two employees from the AquaDoctor scrubbed the lobby fountain with soft brushes.
In another box of the surveillance grid, the stairwell was so profoundly deserted as to seem post-human.
In another box, an elevator passenger dropped into a three-point stance.
In another box, it was very difficult to tell what exactly was going on.
In another box, a man wearing an elbow pad ran an unsustainable pace on the treadmill in the workout center.
In another box, two grown men threw a Frisbee in a hallway.
In another box, the continental breakfast had long since ended.
In another box, was that a cat in a hallway?
In another box, inhabitants of the conference center applauded silently.
In another box of the surveillance monitor, the front desk clerk ignored the sixteen-channel surveillance monitor.
In another box, a man pacing and gesticulating alone in a hallway was either suffering from mental illness or using a phone with a hands-free headset.
In another box, an upside-down bird gnawed grainily on the knotted rope in its cage.
In the final box, an elderly man walked with purpose and a dignified limp through the lobby doors, into the hotel, vanishing from the box. He then reappeared in the front desk box, placing his elbows on the desk in a manner that seemed both inquisitive and assertive. He spoke with the front desk clerk — he appeared to speak with the front desk clerk — then walked briskly out of the box. The elderly man reappeared in the elevator box, pressing buttons, or more likely pressing a single button repeatedly. Here, in the elevator, you could see him well. He was perhaps seventy-five, with a full head of neatly trimmed gray hair. He was tall, with excellent posture. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into dark pants, but it was not difficult to imagine him wearing a uniform of some sort. The man did not, like almost all passengers, look at himself in the mirror on the back wall of the elevator. After a time, the elevator doors opened, and he exited the box. He reappeared in a different box of the sixteen-box surveillance grid, walking toward a group of grainy men throwing a football in a hallway. Most of the men dispersed immediately, though one of the men stood against the wall as if frozen. His face, which was not clearly visible on the surveillance monitor, had a startled expression. The abandoned football still spun on the hallway carpet like the altimeter dial of a rapidly descending aircraft. Midway down the hall, the elderly man stopped outside of a room, and knocked on the door. The vending alcove was neither visible nor audible. The man appeared to say something to the door. One is forced to assume that he was viewed through the peephole. Eventually, the door opened, and the elderly man entered the room, disappearing from the box in the fourth column of the second row of the surveillance grid. By this time the deer, too, was gone from the box with the deer in it.