The Sportswriter

Author: Richard Ford
Year: 1986
Genre: Literary fiction

I recently realized two things: I've lately been splitting my reading attention between serious nonfiction and escapist fiction, and I need more things to do after work. I picked up The Sportswriter because it's the next book club pick for a bookstore in my neighborhood, and thereby supplies me with both a serious novel and a Wednesday-night outing. The club hasn't met yet, so if I gain any new insights on the book, I'll post an update.

This story of a man drifting through life as he tries to find meaning in his comfortable existence struck me as a Fight Club for the '80s (and, I'll admit, I'm talking about the movie because I've never read the book). Ford's Frank Bascombe, like the nameless narrator played by Edward Norton, begins his downward spiral with a feeling that his hard-won materialistic cocoon no longer provides him any solace, acts odd around his girlfriend, breaks off connections with old friends, and ultimately attempts to abandon life-as-he-knew-it altogether.

Where Fight Club's Tyler Durden & Co. take "hitting bottom" as something of a mission statement, though, Bascombe drifts downward slowly, gently, and in a state of complete denial. He doesn't blow up his fellow suburbanites; on the contrary, he swears that suburbia is wonderful, the perfect life for him, all the while failing to find anything fulfilling or meaningful in it. Having been rejected from law school and failed at serious writing, he works half-heartedly at his third-choice job, but tells us over and over that he couldn't imagine anything better. His friends, his girlfriend (Vicki, short for "Victory," whom he can flirt with but never really win), his relationship with his ex-wife: it's the same story over and over, of low expectations masking a crushing disappointment just out of sight.

The style of narration completes the portrait. As a storyteller, Bascombe is continually distracted from his narrative to fill in backstory (though he claims that the past isn't important to him), to protest that his life really is glorious, or simply to make excuses for himself. It's no wonder that, the more serious he gets, the less seriously Vicki takes him.

As a stand-in for modern masculinity, Frank Bascombe is not extreme like Tyler Durden, but perhaps more realistic for that. Many of us might entertain fantasies of mayhem, but in the end, most settle for what Arthur Miller called "quiet desperation" -- and perhaps, like Bascombe, they only survive because they don't realize how desperate they are.


Meaghan said...

Slick new picture, Dan!

Plonker said...

I watched that movie few years ago. Fight Club have interesting and in the same time ‘hard’ story. I don’t remember much of the movie, but your post remind me on main messages given by the movie. Taylor was fighting for his freedom, but he takes word “fighting” in too literal meaning.

Rufus McCain said...

This has been on my list of things to read for a long time. I can't tell from this if you really liked it, though. Did you like it enough to want to read the entire Frank Bascombe trilogy?

Btw, Korrektiv is reading Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy right now. We chatted about that a few weeks ago when you read The Message in the Bottle.

Daniel said...

Rufus - you're right. I usually hesitate to boil a review down to "good/bad" or "liked it/didn't like it." In this case it was particularly difficult because I thought Bascombe himself was a pretty pathetic guy. The writing is tremendously subtle, though; I appreciated the skill that enabled Ford to write a first-person narrator who is so obviously unaware of his own emotions. That's "show, don't tell" at the highest level.

So, I guess I did enjoy the book. I unreservedly enjoyed the discussion about the book. I did not feel the need to run out and buy Independence Day, which is not to say I'll never read it.