One of the most interesting aspects of books is that they offer readers
the ability to dip one's toes into exactly the same river twice.
The reader may or may not be the same person, but the book will,
in most cases, be precisely the same. The literary parallax effect
can render your second reading experience highly upsetting or longingly
nostalgic. But it won’t be the same. Books are ever of their
time, even if they render that time so well as to be timeless. A
book written in a particular time about that particular time can
tell as much about the future in which you read it in as it does
about the present in which it was written. We have gone beyond the
end, off the map. We have already experienced our own sequel.
Richard Ford's 'The Sportswriter' was a powerful book when it was published
and it retains that power some twenty years hence. As the novel begins,
Frank Bascombe is journeying beyond the ends of his lives; his life as
a father, his life as a husband, his safe life in a New Jersey suburb.
He has met the end not with bitterness, anger or a Firm Resolve To Be
Better Person. Frank Bascombe exists in a state he calls dreaminess,
suspended beyond the things he says and does. What he says is generally
smart and understated; what he does is pursue a girlfriend and the remains
of his career as a writer, first of fiction, latterly of sports. He moons
over his ex-wife and tries to figure out how to feel about the death
of his son. He regards his own life with a detached affection that allows
the writer to create a perfect, poignant narrative tunnel into the heart
of actual America; America then and America now. In that state of dreaminess,
millions of us have drifted from one century into the next. Richard Ford
starts that journey with this novel.
It's an understatement to say that 'The Sportswriter' is a character-driven
novel. It is a novel that drives into a character, Frank Bascombe, to
the degree that readers will feel the character is in the room with them,
somehow relating all the events through a sort of one-sided telepathic
conversation. Ford's triumph here is the creation of a narrative voice
that is rich and so immediate that the reading experience simply disappears.
In terms of creating characters, this lets Ford create a cast of characters
that seem as real as the people we ourselves know in the same manner
that those we know in our own lives seem real. This is true even though
Frank never names his ex-wife; we know her when she meets Frank at their
son's grave. Ford's characterizations are all filtered, of course, through
the narrative tunnel of Frank Bascombe, which lends them both humor and
a sort of depth, because we know Frank by his language, Ford's language,
rich and real.
Ford's novel is plotted as are our lives; a week or so at a time, usually
important days. In this case, it's Easter, and after a graveside visit
with his wife, Frank has two spots in his calendar. He's got an interview
with an injured sports figure and a dinner with his girlfriend's family.
But Ford's novels don't play out as a series of events, so much as a
story told by a friend, with all the windings and anecdotes that a friend
might toss into their story of a holiday week. We'll go back to Frank's
son's death, because it is ever there in his mind, we'll meet he and
his wife in better times, and we'll noodle about the back yard with the
neighbors. Yes, you will get a very memorable holiday dinner with the
Arcenaults, Frank's outgoing gal and her parents. But you'll also detour
through some meetings of the Divorced Men's Club and the upshot of these
will echo after the novel is finished. Ford's version of a plot, as it
were, is that we live our lives not in neat sequence, but muddle about
through rumpled memories, artfully arranged. The art of Ford's plot arc
is that you notice neither the art nor the plot. You live the life and
feel it as if it were yours.
With characters as big as Vicki Arcenault and voices as powerful as Frank's,
it's important to note the unnamed, never referenced character that drives
'The Sportswriter' – the American suburb. Ford's triumph with this
novel, and the Frank Bascombe novels that follow, is a carefully honed
portrait of a landscape as well as the characters who move through it.
Ford explores the suburbs with no agenda other than to show them as they
are experienced by those who live there. By presenting the reader with
a voice so closely followed, a life so clearly lived, Ford enables the
reader to experience the bland and the beautiful, the sleazy and the
surreal in a first-hand manner. Frank is a creature in his natural habitat,
and the reader will be as well. You may not love everything you see,
and you may not see everything you see in your own suburb, if indeed
you live in such an environment. But you will indeed understand the allure
of the life lived in these neighborhoods as well as the aversion.
Reading a novel set in 1986 for the second time, twenty years later,
it’s remarkable to note how perfectly Ford captured not only that
time but this time as well. Yes, much as changed, especially in terms
of our sexual moirés. But the landscape itself has not changed
so greatly. And humanity, it seems it even less amenable to change than
mountain ranges. We are still petty, flawed, as entranced by greatness
as we are unlikely to achieve it. Even the spare room for books seems
to have been translated through the years, though this one is more brown
than white, and less moldy. As I read 'The Sportswriter' again, I experienced
a riot of self-induced confusion. My memories of reading and of what
I read merged in a landscape of sculpted lawns and clean, quiet streets.
If you read 'The Sportswriter' before, you will find that you can indeed
experience the same river twice, understand where you were back then
and how it is connected to the now. You can experience your former self
and as well understand what the you from back then might think of the
you from this moment. You may or may not have grown and changed, but
the words here have not changed. They have however, grown just as wise
in the intervening years as you have. That may not be much. But it is