Broken bones, broken hearts and broken souls

Molly Young is on leave for the next few months. In their absence, colleagues from the book review will pick up the recommendation torch and appear in your inbox every two Saturdays.

Dear readers,

I broke my wrist at the rink last week. “Play hockey?” one of my brothers asked when I sent him a picture of my splint.

“Only in my mind,” I replied.

The wrist will be fine. It’s a little break; bones heal. But the injury has made me reflect — wryly, ruefully — on the fact that I’m fully approaching my long middle age Walter Mitty Mode. Every time I throw the ball for my dog, I perform an endzone pass; Every time I step on the ice, I’m in the Stanley Cup.

Of course, American literature has a long tradition of wry, contrite novels about men and their midlife crises. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that the heyday of the updike-cheever-bellow genre coincided so perfectly with the long middle ages of the American century — though apparently people were growing old younger then: At the start of “Rabbit, Run,” when Harry Angstrom is grieving the passing of his youth and his faded sporting glory, he’s all 26.)

This type of fiction has fallen out of fashion of late, but at best it offers the same delights as many other fictions: complex characters grappling with their life choices, their responsibilities to others, and the meaning of it all in the face of a certain mortality .

I have a friend whose husband my age actually plays hockey in an adult league that reserves as much ice time as possible, often late into the night. “I don’t know what he’s running from,” she told me the other day, and I nodded.

“Death,” I said. “He flees from death.”

Below: a book about men and middle age and another about a woman caught in the crossfire.

Gregory Cowles

Each fall, the 22 men at the heart of Bachelder’s novel gather at a low-end hotel for a weekend to enact a surreal ritual: they meticulously recreate the infamous game from a 1985 Monday Night Football game, in Joe Theismann was fired so badly by Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor that his tibia and fibula broke and ended his career. (Did I say bones heal? They do, but results may vary.)

Despite the chilling premise and foreboding potential for violence, the novel’s tone is gentle, loving, amber. Bachelder keeps things slim – without explaining how these men know each other, without describing how their annual pantomime began – and often hilarious, even as he reflects on career setbacks and failed marriages and other hallmarks of midlife fiction. Characters inevitably blur, but that almost seems to be the point: this book is like one of those pixelated chuck-close portraits where the individual blobs count less than the whole. Step back, and the picture Bachelder paints dissolves cleanly into a loving image of what he calls (in reference to the infamous piece itself) “this choreography of chaos and ruin.”

Read if you want: Sports Bars, Barbershops, Richard Russo, Fantasy Leagues, The Big Chill
Available from: Norton

Fiction, 2002

“One afternoon in April,” this novel begins, “just after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”

The narrator has been married for 15 years; Her husband is 40. “At that age,” shrugs a colleague. “It happens.”

A little later, the husband comes home to visit, takes a fork of pasta and bites hard on a shard of glass that got lost in 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 this series by nearly one decade, and it’s something else entirely: fast, furious, at the same time steely and off-kilter and utterly mesmerizing. All her life the narrator has prided herself on her moderate reticence, but her husband’s useless midlife behavior flips a switch; suddenly she is questioning her marriage, herself, all of society’s expectations.

“Another rule was don’t get hateful. But I couldn’t control myself,” she says. “I started to change.”

Whenever I mention this book in casual conversation, there’s a good chance I’ll make a mistake and call it Days of Wrath. But “giving up” with its double meaning is perfect. If you read about middle-aged men enjoying a football weekend and you wonder about the women who left them at home, this is the book for you.

Read if you want: Opera, Tornados, “The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979”, Rachel Cusk
Available from: Europe

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