The Sportswriter, Richard Ford

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.

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Books That Have Inspired Me

Not exhaustive by any means and certainly not numbered by preference, but the following list is a fairly comprehensive summary of the books (all fiction) that have made a deep impact on me over the years, for various reasons.  I first read some of them at school but I came across many of the titles through Carmen Callil and Colm Tóibín’s Modern Library – the 200 Best Novels in English since 1950.

1. The Sportswriter – Richard Ford
2. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
3. A Portrait of the Artist – James Joyce
4. The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
5. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
6. Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
7. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
8. The Cement Garden – Ian McEwan
9. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John Le Carré
10. That They Might Face The Rising Sun – John McGahern
11. Foster – Claire Keegan
12. Death and Nightingales – Eugene McCabe
13. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
14. Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë
15. Breathing Lessons – Anne Tyler
16. Felicia’s Journey – William Trevor
17. Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
18. The Human Factor – Graham Greene
19. The Great World – David Malouf
20. Friend of My Youth – Alice Munro

I intend writing about each of these books in the weeks and months ahead.

Note: I originally included Independence Day on my list.  That should have read The Sportswriter, the first in the ‘Frank Bascombe’ series, written by Richard Ford.  I’ve amended the list.  That I woke in the middle of the night realising my mistake indicates the extent of my worries in life!


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This blog is on hiatus.  I can still be contacted at the e-mail address included in the “About” section or, alternatively, through my Twitter account

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Living With A Wild God – Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of such books as Nickle & Dimed and Smile or Die: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, was inspired to write Living With A Wild God after she found her teenage journal while sorting through her papers. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and was ‘facing the possibility of a somewhat earlier death than seemed fair.’ Against this backdrop of frightening uncertainty, Ehrenreich found within the pages of her journal her recollection of an event so ‘cataclysmic’ that the words to describe it properly don’t even exist.

The book’s full title “A Nonbeliever’s Search For The Truth About Everything” sets what Ehrenreich tries to do in context, but, just as the thoughts and words of a teenager are’ tangled and evasive,’ as Ehrenreich admits herself, so too is the narrative of this book. An important point to make is that Ehrenreich’s parents were atheists, although the distance that grew between them was more down to the irrationality of her alcoholic father and ill-tempered mother, rather than her own “spiritual” experiences. These experiences, when they are described, are more sensory than spiritual and culminate in an overwhelming and ‘furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.’

In his review of the book for The Sunday Times, Christopher Hart quoted the 14th-century Christian text The Cloud of Unknowing: that God ‘can be well-loved but he cannot be thought.’ And perhaps therein lies the real problem: God, or rather faith in God is a lived existence for sure, but is God, or in a more modern sense, spirituality, too transcendent to be anything other than felt in the most intuitive of ways, thus defying true description?

The New Yorker has called Ehrenreich a ‘veteran muckracker’ and she is a brilliant investigative journalist. And yet, with this book, the cold certainties of the kind of atheism she was grounded in by her parents undermines her efforts to transcend rationality and logic.  The book is an interesting failure but a failure all the same.  Ehrenreich’s efforts to find an explanation for what happened to her are admirable (and set against the context of cancer, understandable), but childhood questions are slippery things and if they remain unanswered, returning to them later may find them elusive still.

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Ted Hughes


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“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” ― Letters of Ted Hughes

“That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster.”


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May 2014 – Some Things That Stood Out

  • After the James family of New Jersey lost their dog during Superstorm Sandy in October 2012, they searched for months for the terrier-pit bull, but finally decided to give up hope and visited a local animal shelter hoping to adopt a new pet.  Instead they came home with Reckless, their long-lost dog.  Chuck James recalls: ‘He was a little bigger than I remembered because they had fed him well.’ Officials asked if they could verify that the animal was theirs, so a friend sent over a picture showing the family with Reckless.
  • CNN’s iReport citizen journalism initiative reported the supposed end of the world before pulling the story.  The iReport platform allows users to submit unverified and unedited stories, which are published under the CNN masthead.  The story in question reported that scientists working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had ‘detected a large object the size of Manhattan possibly on a collision course with Earth,’ with an estimated impact death of ‘March 35, 2014,’ which, presumably, fact checkers would have picked up on.  The page on which the story had appeared was  changed to read ‘NASA has confirmed via email that this story is false.’

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Mad Men, Waterloo, Review

(This post contains spoilers).

‘The moon belongs to everyone.  The best things in life are free.’

But everything else comes at a cost; everything else has its price.

We have to make connections in life and, sometimes, the hardest part of doing that is determining the price we pay – what the cost will be to us as individuals.  In the end, though, the most important connections cost us nothing at all because they enhance; they don’t take away.

Waterloo is set against the backdrop of the July 20, 1969, moon landings and as Apollo 11 lands on the surface of the moon, viewers watch characters watching the event unfold on television.  The moment for the Burger Chef pitch has also arrived, but fearing that he has no future at SCP after Jim Cutler moves to terminate his employment, Don hands the Burger Chef presentation back to Peggy in order to secure her future, at least. We’ve been waiting for seven seasons for the moment that the torch would pass from Don to Peggy and this was it. There have been coded references all season to Don’s carousel pitch from Season 1 and the Burger Chef presentation was Peggy’s carousel moment.  The looks exchanged between Peggy and Don as she makes her pitch say it all about how their relationship has matured.

Don’s future, at SCP at least, looks brighter after Roger – stung in part by Bert’s assertion that he is not a leader – does a deal with Jim Hobart to sell a majority stake in SCP to McCann-Erickson.  Roger’s most immediate motivation, however, is Bert’s death, which removes one vote in favour of retaining Don.   Selling the deal to Ted takes persuasion, largely by Don, and Pete and Joan, giddy at the prospect of a windfall, endure some angry and frustrating moments before Ted accedes.

Much commentary about Joan this season has centered on doubts about her enmity towards Don, expressing skepticism that she could really be so hostile towards someone who has treated her with more respect than some of the other men in her life.  But Joan has seen herself being bought and paid for her entire adult life and her attitude, for me, appears to be “if I’m a commodity, as these people seem to think I am, then I’m going to have a price.” It’s not subtle and it is cynical, but from a position of vulnerability, Joan has built herself up and she’s damned if anyone – friend or foe – is going to take that away from her.  Besides, she risked a lot when she agreed to spend the night with creepy Herb from the Jaguar dealers association, only for Don to throw the account away because it didn’t suit him. Joan was paid, by way of a partnership, but the price she paid in return was everyone knowing what she did to get it. Another point is that Joan has been nasty in the past.  She was nasty to Peggy in the early seasons. She had a particularly nasty attitude towards Paul Kinsey’s African-American girlfriend.   And she did rule the office with something of an iron fist, so Joan can dish it out when she’s of a mind to do so.

In the midst of all the agency turmoil, echoing Season 3’s finale, there is another callback, as Don’s marriage ends.  His and Betty’s marriage disintegrated amid much rancour, but Don and Megan accept the end of their relationship gracefully.  And showing that she’s not of a mind to repeat her parent’s shallowness, Sally kisses the nerdy brother of the visiting family, rather than the older jock.  As Seth Stevenson writes on, Sally might just be eschewing ‘the attentions of the scholarship athlete in favour of the dweeby misfit who knows how to make the universe a bigger place for her.’

The partners stand together at the end of this mid-season finale, but the real connections have been made elsewhere – Don and Peggy have repaired their working relationship and friendship; Peggy feels genuine motherly affection and care towards her 10-year-old neighbour, and Roger shows that his admiration of Don is about more than just business, constructing the selling of a majority stake in part to save his colleague’s future.

The episode could be interpreted as being largely positive, but Waterloo was Napoleon’s last stand and the use of it as a title portends major events when this final season resumes next year. The musical ending is eerie and not merely because Don is watching Bert’s ghost sing and dance. It suggests that for all the positivity and light of this episode, the darkness still lingers. The ghost may be Bert but another ghost – and a living one at that – is Jim Hobart. It’s always been about Jim Hobart. He’s been circling Don like a corporate shark since Season 1 and now he’s got him. But then Bert’s ghost appears to tell Don that the best things in life are free. In the previous scene, Don suggests to Ted that with the McCann buyout both of them can leave business behind them and get back to just being creatives, but Don may decide in the second half of this season that he wants to be free of it all.

Loose notes:

  • Jim Cutler took part in the bombing of Dresden. Of course he did – all that unleashing of destructive technology
  • For most of this season, an overarching theme has been the replacement of man with machine, as in the substitution of creative with the computer.  In fact, advertising is one of those sectors where that transition has never played out.  What has happened, however, is that smaller agencies, like SCP, have been swallowed whole by the larger agencies, as occurs at the end of Waterloo
  • Roger Sterling line of the week: ‘Every time an old man starts talking about Napoleon, you know he’s going to die’
  • Pete Campbell line of the week: ‘Marriage is a racket,’ his bitterest line perhaps since last season’s iconic ‘Not good Bob’
  • Betty’s old friend, Carolyn, who came to stay with her family, is played by Kellie Martin of Life Goes On and ER fame
  • Harry Crane’s timing stinks – the guy can’t catch a break – thankfully. He spent too long negotiating the terms of his proposed partnership and is then cut out completly when the McCann deal materializes.  The divorce he says Jennifer has been threatening him with may now materialize
  • Robert Morse’s musical number was a fitting send-off for an actor best known for his work in musical theater, especially in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  He also starred in the 1967 movie version


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