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Melancholy ruminations with a dash of inspiration,
This review is from: The Sportswriter (Kindle Edition)
It seemed somehow apt that I found my copy of THE SPORTSWRITER in a charity shop - the 1996 Harvill Panther edition with the monochrome cover and the stark typeface. Indeed, it was the cover that grabbed me - I had never heard of Richard Ford or Frank Bascombe; the second of whose adventures, INDEPENDENCE DAY, won the 1996 Pulitzer.
Narrative-wise, the premise is simple - Frank is a thirty-eight year-old man (the titular sportswriter) trying to make his way in the world in the wake of bereavement and, latterly, divorce. The book is essentially a first-person monologue - great chunks of which are internal ruminations and observations - framed by 'normal' events: a trip to Detroit with his new girlfriend, Easter Sunday lunch with her family, numb conversations with his ex-wife and maritime sojourns with the Divorced Men's Club. Frank struggles to find meaning in everyday mundanity, and soldiers on; trying to be positive and find reasons to go on.
That said, Frank is not given to melodrama - themes of death, aging, identity, success and failure are handled delicately, and his own failures (his marriage, his novel, the loss of his son) are dealt with internally and almost matter-of-factly. He craves neither attention nor sympathy, and the undercurrents of despair and melancholy that lace his words remain exactly that - perhaps partly because throughout the course of the book we seem to meet people who are worse off than he is.
Aside from interviewing a disabled former pro-ball star, Frank seems to perform precious little in the way of sportswriting, but that is the point. Sportswriting is a vocation in name only; rather, it is his lifeline to the real world, his mask, his common ground for interacting with his ordinary fellow man (whom he seems to neither understand nor trust). It is also his consolation prize for giving up on his novel, the implicit suggestion being that, like relationships, writing is only a profession that earns respect if you are a success.
This disregard for his own career stops just short of self-loathing (and just as well, probably), but Frank's self-awareness leads him to analyse every single trifling exchange with other people, regardless of their significance in his life, loading each nuance and unspoken word with meaning. He is trapped inside his own brain and memories, cruising through the alien suburbs of the American Midwest as if on the other side of a window, craving a simple life of paid-off bungalows, innocuous leisure and retirement utopia. This `dreaminess' - the retreat into himself following the loss of his son - leads him to cling to the past, reverting to adolescent sexism and calling up old girlfriends out of the blue in acts of toe-curling spontaneity.
Much is made of the `dreaminess,' and I almost feel it is a state you have to achieve yourself in order to properly enjoy this book. I read it early in the morning and late at night, undisturbed and in a kind of meditative state. It is a book that speaks to your own vulnerability, and if you find it boring the first time around, switch everything off and try again.