Tuesday, December 12, 2006
I'd not read Ford before, and I'd had preconceived notions about what his writing would be like. None of them were correct.
The Sportswriter is about almost everything but sports writing. Frank Bascombe is the 38-year-old protagonist. He had a smashing success with a book of short fiction as a young man, then failed at a novel and turned to writing for a glossy sports weekly. Frank doesn't particularly like sports, but the work satisfies and pays well. We meet Frank after his marriage has collapsed. He lives in a house in suburban New Jersey. His wife and their two remaining children (one has died) live nearby.
I find Frank a troubling narrator, but in an interesting way. He's very sensitive and savvy, but like many males he bottles up all emotions. His deteriorating situation is Ray Carver-esque, but without the doom and gloom. Frank considers himself an optimist and simply plugs away at life without getting too worked up about it. Near the end of the book this strategy appears to be failing. In effect Frank has stopped writing books and has begun writing his own life. He has certain ideas about character and how a man should act and how the world should work, and lives his life in a very surface manner. That's not to say he has no depth; Frank could stroll into late-phase Henry James--say a parlour scene in The Awkward Age--and be completely at home smoking cigars and chatting with the lord of the manor, one elbow perched on the mantel. But like many James protagonists Ford is locked in a hermetically sealed persona nothing can touch. His life passes him by and even when he is least satisfied he asserts his satisfaction. He thinks a bland suburban life is best. He loves writing about a topic he really doesn't enjoy a bit. He wants to marry his short-term girlfriend though they have nothing in common, because he is sure he can make things work with her. If he can't, he wants to re-marry his wife. Frank is in agony but refuses to acknowledge it. He is determined if his system is unrealistic to bend reality to his will. Several small catastrophes nearly derail his serene worldview, but at its most bleak point the plot fails to penetrate Frank's bubble. By the end of the book Frank claims to have changed but he is exactly the same guy, forging ahead without too much concern.
I suppose Ford is attempting a portrait of the American male in the late 20th century. There's an awkward New Age sensitivity, an identification with the feminine side, an acknowledgement that emotions are important, but an inability to escape the traditional societal expectations of a man. Frank joins a support group for divorced men, and they don't really support each other so much as do the typical reserved guy things: drink beer, go fishing, watch sports. One member of the group attempts a connection at a deeper level, and Frank tries to be available emotionally, but risks puncturing his self-satisfied view of reality. The world nearly drops from beneath him, and Frank rapidly retreats into his old sure habits to rebuild a safe place to inhabit. Henry James would have dramatized Frank reeling over missed opportunities in his dotage. I wonder how Ford will finish Frank off?
There are two more in the series: Independence Day and The Lay of the Land. I'll get to them at some point, to see how Frank is holding up.