I'd say blow the dust off the blog before continuing, but I'm not sure digital platform even collect dust. Anyway, the following are impressions of some books I read over the last few months when I wasn't updating the LCB blog with any sense of regularity:
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder (2016)
While the two publishing houses differ, the font on the front cover of Bachelder’s novel resembles another book with sports at its center, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (2011). Harbach’s novel is, at its core, a book appreciating the national pastime, while Bachelder’s is a love song to football and, more specifically, a tribute to the play that broke Joe Theismann into a football Christ.
Both Harbach’s The Art of Fielding and Bachelder’s The Throwback Special examine the intersections between teams and individuals, fans and participants, youth and experience. In doing so, they also delve into the processes by which team structures either construct or reflect masculine archetypes. In past decades, the team would have most likely been the military or the church, maybe even some strange cross-section similar to Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012). Projects such as these always risk a certain degree of navel-gazing, and I’m sure both writers deleted whole paragraphs and chapters while shaking their heads, “too much like Hemingway’s Nick Adams there.” However, by dressing wounded individuals in the games men play, these books somehow manage to take themselves both more and less seriously than those war-torn tomes of the past.
And it probably wouldn’t be too much of a mistake to suggest that how The Throwback Special simultaneously inflates and deflates modern individuals is partly the point. After all, a football field does not a battlefield make, and yet it is still a place of carnage, concussions, and Lawrence Taylor’s force.
What’s cool is how the roaming camera eye of Bachelder’s narrator never promotes one character more than another. The hero, if there is one, is either the absent Theismann or the ensemble. Every year they gather. Every year they play a role. Some years they are the quarterback. Some years they are the linebacker. Some years they are some lesser known figure in the apocalypse. As the novel’s last sentence surmises: “Everyone would get a chance” (213). This blunt truth could be mulled over tragically, but Bachelder manages to write it with equal parts sadness and humor, and the lasting impression is something much closer to joy—that emotion permeating from a turnover on downs, or a group of friends coming and going.
In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (2013)
The language in Bell’s novel creeps like water through a cave. The connotations and denotations echo in the dark. They aren’t so much a cloud of smoke as they are a fog. The plot is there, to be found in the shadows, but that’s not really the reason to keep reading through the murk. The reason to keep reading is to witness one’s dark fears and paranoia take a strange and tangible shape on the page, to know how partners in a marriage might be monsters at best and strangers at worst.
The Hitchcock Murders by Peter Conrad (2000)
A student I taught in AP Language and Composition her junior year and then again in Film Studies her senior year handed me this book on the last day of school. On the inside cover, she wrote a lot of words I am thankful for reading, but probably didn’t deserve. One day she will take far more interesting classes, encounter far more inspiring teachers, and, simply put, do great things. On another note, she gave me an incredibly awesome gift. The Hitchcock Murders should be used in any class attempting to teach a little something about the literary merits to be found in American cinema. It also talks at length about the art and psychology of depicting murderous impulses on screen, and Peter Conrad’s critical eye is as sharp as his subject matter’s, the indelible Alfred Hitchcock.
Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado (2013)
I simply do not understand how one nation could legitimately consider walling itself off from another without considering the shared history of it neighbor. Corchado is a journalist who has lived on both sides of the US-Mexican border. His knowledge and experiences are invaluable, especially considering how the border has always changed and evolved, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, as certain ideas and notions have passed to and from popularity.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)
Having appeared on a ton of year’s best lists, Gyasi’s novel doesn’t need me or any other blogger to promote it. However, I have only spoken with one other person who read it, and they expressed some doubt as to whether the book actually qualifies as a novel. I guess I get that position. The protagonist is different in each chapter, making the protagonist something more along the lines of collective memory, or identity. Bachelder’s The Throwback Special is strangely similar in a sense, but, when compared with Gyasi’s project, The Throwback Special comes across as clever as opposed to all-encompassing. Homegoing is an incredibly ambitious feat, for in just over three hundred pages Gyasi’s book covers two centuries of Transatlantic experiences, moving from one generation to the next with each chapter, separating individuals with an ocean’s waves, only to reveal blood and memory cannot be so easily divided and are forever knotted. A truly beautiful book, to be honest.
Scratch by Steve Himmer (2016)
Scratch refurbishes the dark literary woodlands of Washington Irving, replacing a corrupt usurer with a naïve suburban housing developer. The trick recalls the haunted Indian burial grounds of pop culture circa the 1980s, when Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg were at their frightening best. The devil in Himmer’s woods, however, is more abstract than Satan, his goals more wild than targeted, making the arc of the story a bit more meandering and difficult to fathom. I say all that as a compliment.
Beale Street Dynasty: Sex, Song, & the Struggle for the Soul of Memphis by Preston Lauterbach (2015)
I’m trying to write a novella about Memphis. I have never been to Memphis. I’m reading a lot about Memphis. I’m turning to Faulkner. I’m grabbing history books. This book was among the latter. On the back cover is a blurb comparing the real life Memphis underworld from the early 20th Century to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and Lauterbach’s detailing the backroom political deals and the flow of money from whorehouse parlors and card tables and lottery games along Beale and Gayoso does bring to mind the Atlantic City relationship between Nucky Thompson and Chalky White. And, in Lauterbach’s account of the Church family and the Crump political machine is the telling of black and white fortunes in Bluff City all the way from the Civil War’s end to the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That story braids violence and music into a history more fascinating and magical than anything I could probably dream up about Memphis and its beloved Grizzlies, but this summer I’m sure gonna try.
Sometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite (2014)
You read an Urban Waite novel and you can immediately pick out Cormac McCarthy and Leonard Elmore as points of influence. You can even hear a student’s strain in certain lines as Waite forces those sentences into lifting the same weight as his predecessors. Sometimes the Wolf is the second of his books I’ve read. The first was The Carrion Birds (2013). Where that earlier book tracks the drug trade’s violence in the American Southwest, Sometimes the Wolf stalks its prey through the great woods of America’s Northwest. But, even as Waite’s protagonists become ensnared by generational pitfalls and family disappointments, a reader can’t help thinking that each page must draw Waite closer to his chosen mentors, or that at least in his mind such a feat is true.
When I read those older writers, I personally feel intimidated by what they conjure on the page. I do not feel that way with Waite. Instead, I feel some sense of kinship. I recognize his task. They are the myth he is chasing, that he is attempting to draw himself into. I don’t know if he will succeed, but with each book, he does appear to be gaining. And that’s still pretty cool.
String Theory: David Foster Wallace on Tennis (2016)
I sometimes dabble in writing about tennis. I also sometimes dabble in playing it. I’m not as good at one of those as the other. I’m worse at both than Wallace. Until this book, I really hadn’t read much Wallace. I tremble before the idea, and literal weight, of Infinite Jest. This book, with an introduction by John Jeremiah Sullivan, was a solid introduction to Wallace, the game he loved, and some absolutely stunning sentences weaving together the contemplation and the sport. But I'm still not rushing to read Infinite Jest.
The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward (2016)
Last year, my English 11 classes read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in conjunction with Frederick Douglass’ autobiography and a series of speeches from the Civil Rights era. Coates’ book draws heavily on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and shares with Douglass’ text a journey from out of Baltimore to New York City. It also shares a French connection with Baldwin. Anyway, it fits perfectly with those older texts, but it also makes for a male-heavy reading list. This year I wanted to offer students more options, as opposed to saying, “Here, we’re all reading this one book on race relations.” Among several options added to this year’s reading list is this anthology edited by Ward, whose novel Salvage the Bones was also added. The collection features work by seventeen different writers, and, like a good anthology should, the voices share the subject matter with all the aplomb of a beautiful basketball team, zipping around the perimeter, diving and edging into the post, moving within the idiosyncrasies of lived experience. It’s a moving, redemptive read! I hope the students who choose to read it feel some of those same vibrations.
Bryan Harvey tweets @Bryan_S_Harvey, mostly about basketball.