22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 16 April 2007
Woven into events in the life of Frank Bascombe - the said sportswriter - over one Easter weekend, we have a tale of losing and then finding yourself as a nearing-middle-aged male. The language used has been carefully, even beautifully, chosen in places but clever craftsmanship is not enough.
Critics have found Ford's writing "elegaic" - but that can translate as "ponderous" at times, with interminable introspections leaving this reader desperate for some forward motion in the plot; soldiering on only with gritted teeth.
Quite likely the book - as a celebration of the life of an "ordinary Joe" - works better for a US than a European audience. Many of the cultural and geographic references were lost on me. The claim that Ford "finds the transcendent in the mundane" didn't hold water - all he seemed to manage to find was the mundane.
In a book that tries ultimately to be about hope, the tone for the bulk of the story seemed misanthropic. We are richly, if indigestibly, drawn into seeing the world through Frank's eyes but this lacks the warmth to really make a connection.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 1 August 2007
The Sportswriter was the first Richard Ford book I'd read, and when I embarked on it, I hadn't read the thoughts on it posted above, which is just as well, or I may have given up on it halfway through. It's a book that is plodding and ponderous in many respects, but, in the same way that you can warm to an introspective, endlessly self analysing friend, it slowly drew me in.
Introspective is a key word here. Frank Bascombe, the sportswriter of the title, is a thirty eight year-old divorced father of three kids given to self reflection on an epic scale. The fact that one of those kids - his first born, Ralph - is dead, accounts for part of this navel gazing, and the book opens with Frank meeting up with his ex wife - named only as X - on the annual pilgrimage to Ralph's grave. The rest of the novel follows Frank over the course of the next few days, during which he takes an unsuccessful trip to Detroit with his new girlfriend Vicki and then visits Vicki's family on their return.
As with Updike's Rabbit books, much of the story is given over to understanding the central character's personality and his motivation for behaving as he does. And there are similarities between the two men - both Harry Angstrom and Frank Bascombe are selfish, indecisive, detached from others to a certain extent, follow their dicks, and lack self insight. The difference is that Frank WANTS to understand himself and life, and much of the novel is dedicated to his thoughts and reminiscences, whereas Harry was happy to amble through life doing what he wanted without really dissecting it cerebrally at all.
Yet for all Frank's endless musing and his view of himself as a good person and as someone who speaks about his feelings - at one stage, he agrees with Vicki that he is a New Age man - he is, like many men who declare themselves modern - deeply selfish, often more so than 'traditional' unreconstructed males who don't self analyse, and his self appraisals lack criticism and objectivity. He looks back, for instance, on the fact that he slept with eighteen different women in the two years after Ralph died and while he was still married to X with fascination, yet never admits to any guilt for how X must have felt about the infidelities.In fact, in his emotions, Frank is so detached as to seem almost Aspergen, although much of this is probably numbness secondary to Ralph's death. At one stage, he thinks back to a period when he taught in college in Boston and lived away from the family home while still married: during this time, he had a long-standing affair with a mysterious and seductive Arab woman. He reflects on her with longing but with no hint of remorse for his infidelity. And, back in the present time, he follows his libido without engaging his brain - he propositions two different women in the same day without thinking how they would feel afterwards or of the implications. Even while he proposes marriage to Vicki, he is thinking that it doesn't have to be forever.
Ford is no Updike, and his sentences lack the delightfulness of the latter's, whose words can be savoured and pored over like exquisite, perfectly formed jewels. In comparison, Ford's tone can feel monotonous and the lack of leavening spirit can make the prose heavy and leaden - what humour there is is not sharp and quick, dancing off the page in a shimmer of sparkle and wit, but considered and deliberate like the rest of the prose. But Ford is expressive and articulate in a more steady, less dazzling way, and there is a considerable slow burn appeal to the novel. Sometimes, a sentence will encapsulate a place or feeling perfectly, as this description of Manhattan when Frank arrives one night: 'Here, out on Seventh and 34th, I feel an unaccustomed lankness, a post-coital midwestern caress to things - the always dusky air still high and hollowish, streets alive with the girdering wheels of hungry traffic that pours past me and quickly vanishes', which perfectly captures the balance between the languorous sense of possibility and the frenetic rush of city life. Admittedly, for every gem like this, there are a few irksome quirks, such as Ford's occasionally grating vocabulary - 'complexer' and 'vivider' instead of more complex /more vivid, 'unexplainably' instead of inexplicably,'lighted' instead of lit, real' twice in the same sentence, and his liberal use of the word 'literal', which seems to crop up every few pages, as well as the unironic, unhistoric use of 'Negroes' which made me cringe a little. At one point, Frank wonders if his African lodger has a 'long aboriginal penis' - no capital on aboriginal, so presumably Ford is referring to an original inhabitant of Africa rather than a native Australian, but the cliche (black man, big knob) still made me cringe a little. And elsewhere, Frank identifies two besuited men getting off a train as 'Jews' with no context to the observation (how did Frank know? etc). But perhaps these are things that didn't cause the same unease back in 1984, when this book was first published.
So, despite the long, rambling, very dreamy style of this book - and Frank admits that 'dreaminess' is a trait of his, so this wandering may be in character - The Sportswriter has enough of interest to commend it. As a picture of alienation, of a man trying his best but hopelessly goofing up again and again, it works well, and many of the peripheral characters - the drawling Southen belle with bite Vicki, her likeable father and neanderthal brother - are portrayed beautifully. All in all, this is a tale of suburban angst which meanders rather than marching, and once you adapt to the pace and style, it has much to offer.