"When you look very closely, the more everybody seems just alike--unsurprising and factual."
The Sportswriter on Amazon
$11.16 :: Vintage :: 1995 :: 384 pp.
There's a genre of novel that I have outlined in my head -- I call it the Wonder Boys genre, and it's one of my favorites. It stars a hapless middle-aged man going through (or heading towards, or coming out of) a mid-life crisis, and the action takes place over a period of only a few days, during which the patches Mid-Life-Crisis Guy has sewn over the holes in his life start to fray and expose the inherent inadequacy of his coping mechanisms. There's usually at least two women in the picture: a woman close to the guy's age, weary of his antics and beginning to think she deserves better, and often also a pretty young thing. There's a child or a child substitute as well, who also deserves a better role model.
Richard Ford's The Sportswriter takes its place in this genre along with Wonder Boys and Nobody's Fool and others. Frank Bascombe is a sportswriter whose marriage to "X" failed when they lost their son, Ralph. He's now seeing Vicki, a pert young Texan, and meeting regularly with a Divorced Men's Club of which he says, "even though I cannot say we like each other, I definitely can say that we don't dislike each other," and "perhaps the only reason we have not quit is that we can't think of a compelling reason to." By the end of the book, expect upheavals in all these areas of his life.
One of the coolest things about this book is that despite the casual, witty, warm male narrator, the protagonist isn't a cliche. He is extremely sanguine and has a distanced, almost alienated outlook on life that he refers to as his "dreaminess"; he's also far more functional than the typical mid-life-crisis antihero. He's more okay with things than most of us, and frankly after awhile it does get weird, but I liked trying to get inside the head of such an oddly unworried character. The present-tense, flexible style encompasses both the humor and the philosophy of his life experience.
I liked the character of Vicki, the young girlfriend, as well. The dialect she speaks in can get totally annoying, but she is very real, so alive she brings warmth to the page. And in X you can see a sad, brave, vulnerable, confused woman, a bereaved mother, an appealing embodiment of the One Who Got Away. In general Ford does great with characterization. The plot wasn't a weak point so much as a moot point, since Frank Bascombe just doesn't have a lot invested in the outer trappings of his life; but the book was still an exciting read.
In Summary: Mid-life-crisis city, and Richard Ford makes it a fun visit.