I recently finished The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. This was a remainder that I bought somewhere—I don’t remember exactly where it was, but I do know that the name of the cover drew me in. I have never read Franzen with any sort of energy, but like Jonathan Lethem, David Chabon, and even David Foster Wallace, I have been aware that I am building up to reading these guys with enthusiasm. I guess I have been keeping up with Michael Chabon more than the others. But take Gentlemen of the Road, for example. I mean, I got the plot and all, but I feel like I, as a reader, left a lot on the table in my experience of the book. I felt like a lot of it went over and around my head, like I just didn’t grasp what was there to be grasped. But I am developing as a reader and my skills are blooming lately.
So it was with a bit of enthusiasm and some optimism that I cracked open The Corrections a month ago. Nearly 600 pages is no joke, even for the summer. Instantly (well, 40 or so pages in), I was engrossed. The story is about a family of five who attempts one final Christmas together before the patriarch loses his wits completely. The children—each in their particular hell—react in their own peculiar ways to the invitation: one by accepting a job exploiting gullible American investors in Lithuania, one by working herself to an emotional death in the kitchen of high-priced restaurants, and the other by fighting to the (emotional) death with his family, all of whom think he is depressed and crazy while he thinks he is the only rational one among them. Painful stuff, in other words. Some of it so laughable, though, so over the top that the heavy emotional appeals here are dulled a little bit by compassion. I can definitely see myself in all of these characters, the failing father and far-beyond-the-ability-to-cope mother. By the end of the book—one I really didn’t want to finish—Things were just so beautiful and so sad and so wonderfully happy and optimistic that I felt as if the book were about me and my life. It certainly was about the lives and families of people I know.
This novel is simply brilliant. My favorite moment—one of many and one, I am sure, upon which much undergraduate ink will be spilt—is when the older boy ignores his real-life father for a day to work on his collection of framable railroad memorabilia. His father, who worked on the railroad for decades, was right there in the house aching for some attention and understanding. But the son, exasperated and beyond his ability to cope (like his mother), sought out framable memorabilia. So much more manageable, then stuff that lays flat and still and which fits into a small window. The paragraph brings some joy to the hobbyist’s chase and makes the finding and displaying of this stuff seem fun and important. Yet the disconnect between what is flat and framable and what is tangible and incontinent is what makes the tears well. And to see someone die—to love them and to watch them struggle to not let go and to then let go—well, that’s about the biggest thing a breathing person can witness.
And I think Franzen found the book late. I think he thought it was going to be about a few different things –all of them less weighty and real than what he ended up with. I can imagine him not knowing where the story would end until a few pages before he finished typing that first draft. (I have had that feeling myself thinking a story was going in one direction and watching it end at a vista I had no idea was just off this trail to the distant town.) No need to go any more. The rest will be okay, or as okay as the rest of us. But it was for this most unlikely of main characters, one for whom openness was a sign of selfishness, that the book settled on in its final twenty pages and, when the ink ran out, it was he who had defined it. His peculiar brand of aloof and grudging love was what the others had all been trying to erase, overcome, justify, value, push back against, and earn through their lives.
Yes, they’re going to be just fine. But there are people in our lives for whom we live. They can be those we choose to love or those we are forced to by accident. Either way, they are the audiences for our performances.
During this long and sad pandemic, my high school friends and I have been playing a game based non 1980s professional wrestling. It involves a lot of dice rolling and a lot of laughs, and our Saturday mornings are joyful experiences. We’ve talked about the great WWF champion Bob Backlund a lot, and I just finished reading his memoir, Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling's World Champion. It is really interesting! Nice work, champ!
That reminds me of one of the go-to moves I have as an English professor is that I try to connect history to the books we are reading. In creative writing class—before the quarantine—we were talking about how audiences shift, how a story that might resonate one minute might feel like it has missed its moment the next. My creative writing students intensely wanted to know about the 1980s, how great that era was, with its big hair, Back to the Future movies, and the Reagan revolution. They loved the stories that came out of that era, for some reason I will never understand.
Frequently, they are shocked when I tell them what a hellhole the 80s actually were, how alienating and sad they were to experience first-hand. I do it kind of tongue in cheek, but not fully in jest. The 1980s were terrible in some objective ways, and the election of Reagan as President marked a moment in history when two drastically different timelines diverged. The chasm between, say, Rod Carew and Jose Canseco is enormous. I am reminded of all of this by Piazza's fate as well as the book I have been reading, the autobiography of one of pro wrestling's great champions, Bob Backlund. I'll get to that book shortly, but I need to take the long way there…
The late 1970s were days of a kind of innocence for America, it seemed. Mobile phones were science fiction, people read newspapers and books, everybody knew everybody on every street, nobody knew anybody who was insanely wealthy, and even with just a study American public school education, people could raise families and take them to the Grand Canyon and stuff like that. The culture seemed, likewise, humble. Maybe it was the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Maybe it was watching a President resign for being a petty criminal. Maybe it was hoping for the Carter administration to find its course while beset by slings and arrows. I don't know. But the feel of the place, from garbage strikes in NYC to the boycott of the Olympics in Moscow, American culture told the same story again and again: we lose, but we lose gallantly. Here are some examples.
The Bad News Bears is a 1976 film—hugely influential, massively marketed—during which a bunch of outsiders gets together as a baseball team and tries to beat the dreaded Yankees for the championship. The two managers become increasingly unhinged as the competition between them explodes into orders to their own players to hurt and even maim the children on the other team. Once the Bears manager realizes what a maniac he has become, he relents, puts in all of the bench warmers, and forgets about trying to win. Ironically, the Bears bring the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the last inning. Will the Bears win it heroically? If the film had been made in 1986, the Bears would have thoroughly crushed the Yankees who would have been humbled at their loss (and probably would have not been named the Yankees to begin with.) But the film was released in 1976—exactly a year after the fall of Saigon—and so these American heroes tried their best and failed to win. The 2005 remake of the film—made during a similar overseas military debacle—repeats the original ending.
Rocky was released in November of 1976 and followed a similar path. Granted, Rocky is one of the great American films ever, but the story is the same. Rocky Balboa tries his best, but he is no match for Apollo Creed. Rocky emerged with his dignity intact, however. Nobody had ever gone the distance with the champ. Rocky did not win. He went the distance, and for that, he is to be admired. Incidentally, take a look how that series changed after Reagan was elected. Rocky went from loveable everyman to cartoon impossibility.
Three months after Rocky, Slap Shot was released to an unsuspecting world. This movie follows the Charlestown Chiefs, a down-on-their-luck minor league hockey team. You likely know the plot already. (If not, what are you waiting for?!?) The team finds success in an unusual way and wins the championship! Great! A precursor of 80s Reagan triumphalism already? Not so fast. Check out the film's closing sequence, the parade through Charlestown. Amid the garbage blowing through the street, the victory parade winds past adult theaters and boarded up storefronts. The team is finished. There will be no more glory to be had in Charlestown. Their victory would be short-lived, at best.
That brings me to the book: Backlund: From All-American Boy to Wrestling's World Champion, the ghost-written memoir of Bob Backlund. For those who followed wrestling in the late 70s and early 80s, Backlund was a great, great champion. For me, who came of age as a wrestling fan in this era, he was my champion, for better or worse. He was a straight-arrow, "technical" wrestler, which meant that his bouts began and ended with handshakes and featured many actual wrestling holds, the stuff of skill and teamwork between the contestants. I do admit that I jumped to the final few chapters, the ones that chronicle those fateful weeks in 1983 when wrestling caught up to the rest of American society and dumped their humble, working-class champion. Backlund just was no longer possible. Vince McMahon Sr. decided the WWF needed a change, and so he turned to Hulk Hogan, a character who was the polar opposite of Backlund. Backlund knew wrestling. Hogan preened a lot. Backlund remained humble and seemed to take nothing for granted. Hogan, well, you know how he acted.
It was such a surreal experience to be at Madison Square Garden, as I was, on December 26, 1983 when Bob Backlund entered that ring for the 64th time as champion. He had been "injured" a week before by the Iron Sheik, but the whole world thought he'd survive this latest challenge by the Sheik, a wrestler who was decent but who was no Magnificent Muraco and certainly no Superstar Billy Graham. But there it was. The Camel Clutch right there on 8th Avenue. Backlund's manager Arnold Skaaland throwing in the towel. We knew a pin meant that the belt changed hands. We also knew that a DQ meant the belt stayed where it was. But a submission by a manager? I was with shocked disbelief (my memory tells me that young women keened in the aisles, that old men sobbed in their seats) when the crowd witnessed the referee hand the belt to the Iron Sheik. We were stupefied when the Sheik hoisted it above his head. We all know what happened in that very same ring on January 23, 1984 (perhaps an appropriate year for Hogan to take the reins?). Real life ended and a cartoon version of America took its place.
That is how I describe the 80s to my students. An animated version of reality from which we have not yet escaped. Anyway, that's kind of what's on my mind as I finish up Backlund.