Friday, August 17, 2007

The Sportswriter (Richard Ford)

"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.


Stewart Sternberg said...

I have just finished reading this book and complained through most of it. I think your painting of the genre is dead on and amusing, but I have to disagree about this novel---to be honest, I'm not sure how Ford has become so respected in the literary community, other than it seems that those attempting to reinvent the novel are often awarded.

The main problem I have with this book is the lack of the economy. The novel meanders, often going off into long passages that have little meaning. They don't really further plot, character, or theme. They seem to be part of the author's stream of consciousness, but it's the sort of writing that could easily have been trimmed and to the story's betterment.

I think there is a tremendous amount in the book to recommend itself, but Ford is so pretentious and self-absorbed as a writer, that he often negates the value of his own writing. He is a contradiction.

Dr. Anonymous said...

I just finished the novel myself - and did a google search to see if there were any comments/discussion threads out there about it and I was happy to find this blog.
Let me first say that I admire Ford's skills as a writer - he can turn a phrase and his prose is near flawless - and I think that is what compelled me to keep reading.
I agree with the blogger that this fits nicely with other "guy in a mid-life crisis" novels. I agree that the character of Vicki was annoying - her speech patterns, her naivete, her immaturity all really bothered me. Her character brought me to the point of actively disliking both the book and the main character for spending so much time with her.
As far as the protagonist - Frank - goes - I found him to be just enraging. I wanted to smack the shit out of him - he was pathetic and a narcissist. To me, what really bugged me about this book was that it was a pointless exercise in baby-boomer navel-gazing. Clearly Frank is having some kind of nervous breakdown - the death of his son has affected him in ways that he has not begun to deal with and he actively chooses to ignore (the point of the novel, I suppose) but I felt little empathy for this man - mainly because of his quest to "live within himself" - he struck me as callous and self-absorbed - very much a middle class baby boomer jerk, obsessed with seducing younger women and ignoring his children, the worst kind of "serial monogamist". All he needed was the sportscar to complete the cliche.
I agree with almost all of what Stewart wrote - the writing - while beautiful at times - was over-indulgent. Ford needs an editor.

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