Rereading The Sportswriter recently I was struck by how melancholic it is. Perhaps this realization is an age thing. After all, my 20-something self couldn’t as easily relate to Frank Bascombe, as much as I enjoyed the novel the first times I read it. But on the cusp of my 40s, I find that Frank’s experiences and mood seem all the more relevant – especially the sense of alienation from events that may never be repeated and are thus already too distant to have ever seemed real. The vastness of the American continent that for those of a pioneering spirit signalled endless possibilities is, in Ford’s depiction, a chasm in which all of Frank’s hopes and fears are spilled into. America is unsure. So is Frank.
Frank Bascombe is the narrator of Ford’s breakthrough novel, published in 1986, when Ford was 42. The sportswriter of the title, he is a divorced father, mourning the death of his eldest son and struggling to relate to life in general. Ford’s Bascombe books, now numbering four, have been compared with Jon Updike’s Rabbit novels, but in an exchange of e-mails with Deborah Triesman, The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Ford has suggested that his Bascombe novels differ from Updike in that “Updike’s books are, crucially, narrated in the third person, which creates a very different moral positioning from books narrated in the first—as my books are.”
Rabbit Angstrom isn’t one for existential angst, but Frank is. Hence, the cemetery scene that opens The Sportswriter, in which Frank visits his son’s grave with his former wife, referred to only as X, and wonders, as he prepares to recite a poem, whether his voice will be “a convincing, truth-telling voice’ or alternatively ‘a pseudo-sincere, phony, ex-husband one that will stir up trouble.” Bascombe is, in some senses, an everyman but in others he is not, primarily for his habit of overthinking. Ford – or more specifically Bascombe – takes great delight in observing the everyday, the minutia of life.
As implied by Spencer Lenfield on the Open Letters Monthly arts website, referencing a 2008 Zadie Smith essay in The New York Review of Books, Ford is close to the 19th-century tradition of Austen, Eliot and Hardy (a style subsequently echoed by Scott Fitzgerald). I would agree and add that he is as close as it is possible to get to this tradition without edging over into parody. The result is prose that is both deeply lyrical and unashamedly literary. Referring to Ford’s style, John Banville has called his prose “idiosyncratically playful, slyly dandified.”
The Sportswriter, and all of Ford’s work, is notable also for a strong sense of place and in the Bascombe books this place is American suburbia. It is not the dread suburbs of a Richard Yates or John Cheever, the type of place that makes men dream of an alternative reality, of “a night of where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains,” as in Cheever’s story The Country Husband. Ford’s suburbs are something to aspire to, places of security and contentment, if only Frank could settle his mind. Yet there is also a deadness to this way of life, as if to ask ‘is this really it’ yet at the same time accepting its inevitability. Arriving in Detroit, Frank observes a city that “floats out around us like a mirage of some sane glacialized life” before telling readers that he has read that “with enough time American civilization will make the midwest of anyplace….And from here that seems not at all bad.”
The Sportswriter, like all of Ford’s work, demands to be read slowly and methodically.