Molly Young is on leave for the next several months. In her absence, colleagues from the Book Review will pick up the recommendation torch and appear in your inbox every two Saturdays.
I broke my wrist last week, at the ice rink. “Playing hockey?” one of my brothers asked when I texted a picture of my splint.
“Only in my mind,” I answered.
The wrist will be fine. It’s a small break; bones heal. But the injury has left me reflecting — wryly, ruefully — on the fact that I’m approaching my long middle age in full Walter Mitty mode. Every time I throw the ball for my dog I’m completing an end-zone pass; every time I step on the ice I’m in the Stanley Cup.
There is of course a vast tradition in American literature of wry, rueful novels about men and their midlife crises. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that the genre’s Updike-Cheever-Bellow heyday coincided so neatly with the American century’s own long middle age — although people apparently got old younger back then: At the start of “Rabbit, Run,” when Harry Angstrom is mourning the passing of his youth and his faded athletic glory, he’s all of 26.)
This brand of fiction has fallen out of fashion lately, but at its best it offers the same pleasures as a lot of other fiction: complex characters confronting their life choices, their responsibilities to others, the meaning of it all in the face of certain mortality.
I have a friend whose husband, my age, really does play hockey in an adult league that reserves whatever ice time it can get, often late into the night. “I don’t know what he’s running away from,” she told me recently, and I nodded.
“Death,” I said. “He’s running away from death.”
Below: one book about men and middle age, and another about a woman caught in the crossfire.
“The Throwback Special,” by Chris Bachelder
Every fall, the 22 men at the center of Bachelder’s novel gather for a weekend at a low-end hotel to stage a surreal ritual: They meticulously re-enact the notorious play from a 1985 “Monday Night Football” game in which the Washington quarterback Joe Theismann was sacked so forcefully by the Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor that his tibia and fibula both snapped, ending his career. (Did I say bones heal? They do, but results may vary.)
Despite the gruesome premise and the foreboding potential for violence, the novel’s tone is gentle, affectionate, amber-lit. Bachelder keeps things lean — no explaining how these men know one another, no detailing how their annual pantomime started — and often hilarious, even as he lingers on career setbacks and failed marriages and other hallmarks of midlife literature. The characters inevitably blur together, but that seems almost to be the point: This book is like one of those pixelated Chuck Close portraits where the individual blobs matter less than the whole. Step back, and the picture Bachelder is painting resolves neatly into a fond image of what he calls (regarding the infamous play itself) “this choreography of chaos and ruin.”
Read if you like: Sports bars, barbershops, Richard Russo, fantasy leagues, “The Big Chill”
Available from: Norton
“The Days of Abandonment,” by Elena Ferrante
“One April afternoon,” this novel starts, “right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”
The narrator has been married 15 years; her husband is 40. “It’s that age,” a colleague shrugs. “It happens.”
Not much later, the husband is home for a visit when he takes a forkful of pasta and bites down hard on a sliver of broken glass that has found its way into the sauce. An accident?
Everyone knows Ferrante at this point for her Neapolitan quartet, in which she trains her microscope on a close and competitive female friendship, but “The Days of Abandonment” (translated, like the Neapolitan books, by Ann Goldstein) precedes that series by almost a decade, and it is something else entirely: quick, furious, simultaneously steely and unhinged, and completely mesmerizing. All her life the narrator has prided herself on her moderate reserve, but her husband’s feckless midlife behavior flips a switch; suddenly she is questioning her marriage, herself, all of society’s expectations.
“Another rule was not to become hateful. But I couldn’t contain myself,” she says. “I began to change.”
Whenever I mention this book in casual conversation, there’s a decent chance I will slip up and call it “Days of Rage.” But “abandonment,” with its dual meaning, is perfect. If reading about middle-aged men having a football weekend makes you wonder about the women they left at home, this is the book for you.
Read if you like: Opera, tornadoes, “The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979,” Rachel Cusk
Available from: Europa
Why don’t you …
Reacquaint yourself with Steve Martin’s UNEXPECTED TURN as a midlife male novelist?
Heed Rainer Maria Rilke’s advice to a YOUNG POET: “There is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and 10 years are nothing”?
Watch BIRDS with a Himalayan transplant to Los Angeles?
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