Jock Itch

A Fan's Notes BY Frederick Exley. New York: Vintage. 385 pages. $17.
The Throwback Special: A Novel BY Chris Bachelder. New York: Norton. 224 pages. $26.
The cover of A Fan's Notes The cover of The Throwback Special: A Novel

A FRIEND OF MINE from what feels like a lifetime ago once introduced me to her uncle during dinner at her mom’s house. That he was avuncular in all the classic ways—huge, meek, seemed like he had a life defined by extreme silence—was mostly unremarkable, but what lingered from our meeting was his decision to forcibly share his two clearest, greatest fantasies with a table largely made up of children. The first, he said, extending a finger over some entreé meat, was to meet supermodel Christie Brinkley before he faced the grave. The other—up went another finger, eyes and heart fat with conviction—was to see the Jacksonville Jaguars make it to the Super Bowl. I don’t remember how we managed to shift the subject after a streak of pregnant hmms and cools, but I did recently find out that this man died seven years after that evening, suddenly and relatively peacefully by way of a blood clot in his thigh. Once I heard, I had to ask—the answer is yes, he left us with both dreams unfulfilled. 

The swells of emotion that haunt the American football fan are—not unlike sex fantasies—uniquely predisposed to shame. The violence of these passions match the specificities of any bedroom fixation, and the melodramas they inspire follow a familiar, consistent grammar. These aren’t so much libidinal subtleties as they are overtones: the devotion to a distinctly incredible bodily form (a mix of gladiator and refrigerator) down to weights and wingspans, the fleeting half-life afterglow following a score, the post-game retreat to bed with either warmth in the chest or a stone in the stomach. Whether written or yelled, fan language becomes rabid, horny, utter—not far off from Nick Hornby’s observation in Fever Pitch that loyalty to a team was “not a moral choice like bravery or kindness; it was more like a wart or a hump, something you were stuck with.” For Frederick Exley, author of A Fan’s Notes, the New York Giants were his “delight,” “folly,” “anodyne,” and a force that would weld him umbilically and “unalterably to the team’s fortunes.” In The Throwback Special, Chris Bachelder blanketed the affliction as a “circuit of anguish [that] could not be completed.” The uncle above, may he rest in peace, called the Jaguars “a reason to get up in the winter other than to piss.”

The point is, football is a particularly plumbable discipline, and the latter two writers understood this not just in ways nourishing and fundamental, but as dependable translators for those immune to the magic manic mist that drives fans anywhere from insane to suicidal in the name of a glory that’s not even really theirs. (If you had your eye on the city of Philadelphia in early 2018, you may remember city workers lubing light poles with drums of Crisco to ensure Eagles fans wouldn’t climb them to cheer on or die from during post-game riots.) I find football bland and staccato, and its fandom sort of brainless, but all this illogic has felt increasingly like a conspiracy I have long-refused to understand. Conveniently, like other genres with semi-fixed parameters (the campus novel, the bildungsroman, the noir), books that approach football sideways—or go past the sport a bit, swallow it, treat it like a side dish—offer the safety of at least one constant, clarifying premise: readers know they’ll be in for some yearning. 

“WHAT, THEN, is the attitude and mood prevailing at holy festivals?” Johan Huizinga asks in Homo Ludens, the 1938 Dutch treatise on the “why and the wherefore” of playtime, which also provides the waggish epigraphfor Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special. The mood is play, Huizinga triumphantly repeats throughout his study of civilized history: a “high and holy earnest” tradition governed by an alloy of “freedom and boundary, or confine and liberty,” which is all to say, playtime is something unserious done seriously.

Putting the moron in this oxymoron is Bachelder, who invents a world of homines ludens in which twenty-two sensitive and simian middle-aged men—enough for two football teams—gather at a two-and-half-star chain hotel for an annual reenactment of probably the most bodily-horrific five seconds in football history—when the 1985 New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor maimed Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann by trashing him from behind. Each year, the group of fictional men wheel in a television set to thoughtfully revisit the real-life November day wherein Taylor blasted Theismann’s tibia and fibula (reverse-angle slow-mo tracks footage of the moment his bone erupted out of his sock on primetime television), got most of ABC’s Monday Night Football peanut gallery to groan or cry for God, and end Theismann’s career forever. (“I remember watching the referee jump back as the blood shot from Joe’s leg,” recounted Clint Didier, the Redskins tight end, thirty years later, “and I said, ‘That’s all I need to see.’”) But from the new hole on Theismann’s shin pours a fount of inspiration: Bachelder’s boys enter into a nearly lifelong fealty to the yearly LARP of the play, with rules that are not so much intricate as they are liturgical, and a rite that’s not so much of passage as it is a baroque riff on the pains and pleasures of being tethered to the idea of a greatness largely out-of-reach.

The men, we gather, are hugely, terminally male. The men have homes and lives they’ve built in which they’ve “not yet killed themselves.” Throughout, they nod solemnly, not so much speaking directly to one another as they are emitting sentences at each other’s foreheads. All twenty-two of them amass in the mind like a rustic chowder, each given names as inert as Rick and Clint and Ken and Michael and Fat Michael, forming and emitting “waves of masculine sound, the toneless song of regret and exclamation.” As you might expect, there is a lot of good material on farting, shitting, erectile dysfunction, balding, etc.

As time’s swift boot gets to cracking, man’s terminality looms large. The great tapering that happens when man grows older, where he becomes aware that each decision he makes is evidence of the past closing in on him, grants each sentence the clipped, devastating hard-stops that reach sometimes Cheeverian degrees of finality. “While it was happening,” goes one man, Robert (though it’s hardly important what his name is), on both the Theismann ritual and vacationing with his wife, “it was ending.” Men now sport sleep apnea devices, have divorces, toddlers, back pain, and have “lived in the paradise of a painless body for years without even realizing it.” The inglorious body is their real frontier, scored with new sores and aches, new pities and revulsions. This is all natural and funny, but nothing is treated as if it is. 

Such is why the play’s the nucleus of their weekend trip and their lives writ large—a meditative practice, a little myth in service of recycling the sureness of the past. To participate willingly in a campaign of spectacular demise, to find nobility in the occasional tragedy of failure: that is the salvation sought in football. It’s a sick cycle, unbeautiful, and unsuited for the faint. It’s fitting, that during the replay of Theissman’s snap, Frank Gifford, the ABC commentator and former halfback for the Giants, grants his audience a gracious warning. “I suggest if your stomach is weak,” he goes, “you just don’t watch.”

NAUSEA, AND GIFFORD HIMSELF, loom as the twin spires flanking Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a book published forty-eight years before Bachelder’s, and one that functions as its darker, sorrier twin. If Special is a mural of the domesticated male, Notes is an AbEx oil of a feral, mildewy one. Our protagonist is the titular fan, a man manqué—thrice-institutionalized, eponymously named after the author in this “fictional memoir,” and so blighted, so crippled with the agony of “life’s hard fact of famelessness,” that he careens around misery’s curve and presents us something like a Mid-Atlantic Pagliacci.

Gifford, the Giants’ great big halfback from ’52-’64, is his airbag against life’s hard knocks. As his pharmakon, his bitch, his hero, he’s not just sports obsessed—he’s sports oppressed. When he sees Gifford’s square smile on television, life shrinks in light of his unconquerable charm: “Whatever he meant by it, a smile that he doubtless wouldn’t remember, he impressed upon me, in the rigidity of my embarrassment, that it is unmanly to burden others with one’s grief. Even though it is man’s particularly unhappy aptitude to see to it that his fate is shared.” 

But man is nothing if not generous. In sentences with the high-flown orotundity of someone speaking while looking off into the middle distance, Exley (the character) bellies up to bars each Sunday for his Giants games—he’s always beer-battered, drowning through bouts of “foodless, nearly heroic drinking” or “hungover, deeply ashamed”—and suffers each day through a “series of small, debilitating defeats.” Abashed by creative dysfunction, Gifford’s iconoclasm looms large as a totem. To look at him “broke one’s heart” and worked as a “positive receptacle for life’s possibilities.”  Despite all his sour gush, I suspect the exact nature of his woe is something more like what Orson Welles once said about Woody Allen: “he hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation.” 

Like the better bits of Allen’s work, tautness gives way to squeamish ha has. His ceaseless hunt for waifish liberal art-schooled ass ends largely in sputtering defeat. His cocksurety flounders against a river of “humiliating, loathsome, and utterly demoralizing” agents and bosses, and his time in the bin suggests a dog-like down-and-out-ness, but his self-loathing is inextricable from his luscious self-love; everything is magnificently dire, glorious in its blowsy ineptitude. Salvation comes, but it’s his unglory—his tangible failures, his smiling, moronic buffoonery, his desperation for Gifford’s majesty—that catapults him into a sort of gravity-free release. The blotto man-child unfortunately can’t be blamed for wanting to swap reality for weightless grace, but fantasy can often be a rancid place.  

No confrontation of sterile masculinity feels complete without gesturing toward dad. Fathers of the boys in Special “carted around an oxygen tank, but still had the power to humiliate” their sons. Exley’s shamed by the specter of his own father as a now-dead star local quarterback. Dad’s absence is a form of mentorship. Dad’s losses are succor for their pain. Daddy makes for mythos, for private battle, for a life dimensional out of the blank spaces that they leave. It’s like in Buffalo ’66, where Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo Bills-afflicted character, Billy Brown—in an unusually thin, nasal voice that leaks all of his own agonies and shames and failures—fights with his dad over dinner over the fact that his steak knife is pointed in his father’s direction. “It’s always pointed at you, Dad,” he goes, which sounds like a line that Exley would write, if he were less fusty. Thwarted triumph, it seems, is fate: “I suffered myself the singular notion that fame was an heirloom passed on from my father.”  

FOOTBALL FANS are expert appreciators—as the Italians like to call them, amatores, or as we like to call them, amateurs: lovers-of-stuff, professional unprofessionals. (Another oxymoron.) There is a sort of neat self-cancellation always available in paradox—clean, prefab ouroboroses almost too ripe for metaphor. The easy loop here rests on the playing field: how real-life failure and grandiloquent fantasies of success float freely, without form, and then football comes along and traps them, becomes their circular expression.  

Thank god football fandom isn’t parasocial—few own the delusion that athletes would welcome their friendship. It’s something more in the line of envy, which is hungry and acquisitive: it wants to own, it wants to be. What it’s even more like is optimism—the cruel one, the version that Lauren Berlant liked, the one that linked hope and humiliation together in one terminal compulsion to “hoard idealizing theories and tableaux about how they and the world ‘add up to something.’” The strength to go on overrides the courage to self-annihilate because of all evidence to the contrary that someone, sometimes wins. The economy of triumphs and losses will never net zero. It’s not just enough to believe in this theorem—it’s all there is.

Exley’s grave—the one for the real man; the one he’s been rotting in for the past thirty years beneath a quiet corner of a Watertown, New York cemetery—has this idea chiseled right into its headstone, and satisfyingly suits my friend’s mom’s brother’s, too. “IT WAS MY FATE,” it reads beneath his name and years born and died, “MY DESTINY, MY END, TO BE A FAN.” 

Mina Tavakoli is a writer from Virginia.