Very early on The Sportswriter, Ford's alter ego Bascombe tells readers about his failed attempt to write a novel that started by telling that a guy had trouble staying publicly sober. THAT was a very good beginning and extremely ironic since I had trouble staying awake during this appalling collection of depth-challenged descriptions and assaults on grammar all wrapped in one big burrito of a novel that has successfully passed itself as serious literature. I purchased the Everyman's edition through Amazon, intent on reading the whole trilogy, believing it would be a good, solid example of tough American literature. In a week when I tackled from Brockden Brown's "Wieland" to the Spanish Baroque play La Serrana de la Vera, to the Oxford's edition of Shelley's work and found all three of them exceptionally good in their own peculiar way, I was ready for some contemporary American Literature. I had both the Rabbit Armstrong's novels in one volume (Everyman's again) and Ford's. I chose Ford. Ouch.
How to go about the death of a child? How to mourn for a child? I don't know. I don't want to know. But Ford's characters (X and Bascombe), who are just that and don't sound at all like real people, are two very odd birds to go about mourning the way they do. "Unconvincing" would be the term I'd use to describe the very bad first chapter, and readers will only get more of the same in the following chapters. Nothing rings true in this book. By chapter 2, Bascombe claims that Americans "put too much emphasis on their past as a way of defining themselves." Either Bascombe has never met Europeans or Latin Americans or Ford is trying to tell us that his character is unreliable. I'd like to believe the second option (as when Bascombe mentions a used-car salesman analogy to attempt to describe the frankness in his voice. Is he stupid or just doesn't get it?) because Ford gives enough clues as to the fatuousness of Bascombe who attempts to write about a place in which he's never been (Tangier) simply because he assumes that place is like Mexico (and as if a huge country like Mexico could be reduced so simply and conveniently); who cannot mention his ex-wife's name, so he calls her X; who cheated on her and still thinks of himself as honest. The guy is truly clueless. As I read, I relished the possibilities of such and untrustworthy narrator. As it has happened a lot lately, however, my hopes were dashed: this time the author simply didn't have what it takes to make a novel like this one (character-driven, heavily-dependent on the author's talents to pull the readers in through the strength of the prose) shine. Ford has a love affair with sentence-ending prepositions, so much so that it hurt to read after page 40 of my multi-volume edition. He got an MFA in Creative Writing from my Alma Mater and I shudder to think that "this" is what American Universities writing programs have been churning out for decades: prize-winning tomes praised to sickness by critics where the author can't tell a story in an interesting manner, has no style of his own except for a general contempt towards good grammar, and wallows in boredom like a hypochondriac wallows in despair.
And yet there were rays of hope, as in the fictions-within-a-fiction that are Bascombe's failed attempts at writing two novels: those showed real promise as simple plot-driven vehicles; or Bascombe's denseness and apathy that he believes are "dreaminess" and optimism; and his unreliability as a narrator, something at which Ford hints but that he leaves for later novels, maybe. Those rays of hope are not enough, however. The jacket sleeve promised that Bascombe's "unguarded voice instantly wins us over." Not true. The character repels and I never felt that Bascombe was a real person. On top of that, Ford's writing doesn't feel natural. People don't talk the way Bascombe, X, and Vicky express themselves on paper: what they do never rises to the level of real talk.
I seriously doubt that I will even try to brave the nearly one-thousand pages left in my edition of the three Bascombe novels. Ford/Bascombe puts it better than expected in a rare example of incisiveness and unheeded advice: "I had written all I was going to write... and there is nothing wrong with that. If more writers knew that, the world would be saved a lot of bad books..." Really good advice and terrible syntax. Ford should have followed his own/Bascombe's advice; he chose the syntax: note the word 'that' repeated twice in two sentences so close together.