As a twenty-six-year-old female, I am probably not the target audience for the male mid-life crisis novel, which, since its boom in the 1980s, is essentially a genre all on its own. But, alas, like the novels of Philip Roth before it, I loved and related to Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. Despite its measured pace and oftentimes frustratingly flawed narrator, The Sportswriter reveals elements of truth in the human condition that make it essential reading.
Despite the death of his eldest son, recent divorce, and self-imposed departure from Real Writing for a gig as a sportswriter, Frank Bascombe is pretty content. In fact, when the novel kicks off with Frank meeting his ex-wife at the gravesite of their deceased son on what would be his thirteenth birthday, Frank maintains the idea that “Tomorrow like all tomorrows could still be a banner day” (181). However, over the course of the novel, which takes place over Easter weekend 1983, Frank’s dreaminess (i.e. his “male” penchant for self-imposed alienation) begins to prevail over this optimism. As the events of the weekend go on (“and on and on” as some critics have said!), Frank experiences a range of events: a heartwarming meeting with his young son, a break with his vanilla-flavored Texan girlfriend, and a tragedy involving a fellow member of the Divorced Men’s Club. And as real life would have it, it is questionable whether or not Frank can find meaning in any of it.
What I loved most about this novel is the truth it reveals regarding the natural struggle we have as humans (and Americans especially) to reconcile our desperate need for human interaction with our innate discomfort with the “touchy feely”. Frank, like many of us, craves human interaction, but—modern man that he is—detests the “full disclosure” mentality that breeds it. This discrepancy is most clearly illustrated in Frank’s relationship with Walter Luckett, fellow member of the Divorced Men’s Club. Walter is like Frank in that under normal circumstances, he is just a regular guy with no desire to reveal his sensitive side to his fellow man. However, after his wife absconds to Bimini with another man, normal circumstances are negated and Walter desperately attempts to connect with Frank on a more emotionally intimate level. Unfortunately, however, Frank is not equipped to contend with such intimacy and refuses to provide Walter with the connection he so desperately requires.
While I believe I would love this novel for its content alone, The Sportswriter has a great deal to offer in terms of its style: specifically, its mastery of dialogue. Narrated entirely in the first person, Frank Bascombe’s voice is observant, analytical and entirely his own. But at the same time, the novel’s many examples of dialogue are depicted with a mastery that reveals a great deal about the other characters solely through their manners of speaking. For example, based on Frank’s perspective alone, the character of Vicki is a sweet Southern belle, all but begging Frank to whisk her off to suburban matrimony. However, via her polite-but-firm Southern intonations, she is, in fact, a fully realized woman who understands that she has too little in common with Frank to take her relationship with him any further.
Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter was a truly a great read. It is a testament to its quality that I cannot wait to check parts two and three of the trilogy out from the library as soon as possible!