Frank Bascombe is a sportswriter who doesn’t much care about sports one way or another. Yet, as a man in the midst of the complexity of shattering tragedy, he embraces sportswriting for its simplicity and predictability. It’s part of his retreat from reality, into ‘dreaminess’, as he himself puts it. As the book begins, his career as a novelist has aborted before it truly got started, his oldest son has died, and his marriage to a woman he still loves has recently ended.
Thus, with nothing in his life to truly ground him, Bascombe romanticizes the fact that athletes can embrace a single-mindedness; that during their careers they can step on the field where there are rules, where things make sense, where they can pour themselves wholly into their art. Then, when off the field, they can answer reporters questions in clichés, perhaps even non sequiturs, in their special language of the game, never having to touch down into the muck of life as it truly is. This is, in the character’s opinion, why athletes often live lives of such abject failure after their playing careers have come to a close.
With 1986’s The Sportswriter, my first experience with Richard Ford, he has created a remarkable engagement with life as it is. His narrating protagonist is fully realized, complicated and contradictory. This is a beautiful rumination on the beauty of mystery, and also its ability to shield us from the bone and marrow of true life if we choose to use mystery as a crutch. It is about our ability to hide from the truths we know, but pretend not to. It is a mirror for how we cope with failure, loss, tragedy, pain, joy, intimacy, and community.
We can live our entire lives hiding from anything genuine or true. Like the athletes whom Frank Bascombe profiles and interviews on a regular basis, we can live in artificially created worlds, the sole design of which is to blind us from what actually is. Reading The Sportswriter, I was nudged to ask myself if I am willing to pay the price for belonging. Am I willing to pay the costly price of vulnerability, honesty, and the risk of pain in order to experience true intimacy, connection, and relationship.
This is true 20th century literature at its best. The prose is eloquent, simple and grounded, like the work of Walker Percy and Graham Greene. Thus, it’s not for everyone. Some folks will probably be bored out of their minds reading this book, so if you prefer popular fiction in the commercial sense, you’d be wise to steer clear. That may sound pretentious, but it is also simply a fact.
For my money, I highly recommend it.
My booklist is probably longer than I can ever read in my lifetime, and it is ever growing. This is because every book I read opens up several I need to read as well. Now, in addition to Ford’s work in general, I also need to get around to reading the next two novels in the Bascombe trilogy. The second book in the trilogy, Independence Day, actually won the Pulitzer.