Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford: A review

My home state of Mississippi is one of the poorest in the country and is problematic in many ways, but one thing it has always been rich in is writing talent. Each generation in turn seems to produce at least one or two extraordinarily talented writers. Richard Ford is one of the ones from my generation.

For years, my husband had been trying to get me to read Ford's books and I finally decided that this would be the summer that I would read his Frank Bascombe series. The Sportswriter is the first in that trilogy.

Frank Bascombe is the sportswriter. He tried his hand at writing fiction but gave up after one book and took a job with a sports magazine. It's a job that seems to fit him. He likes the traveling. He likes talking to athletes. He likes meeting people who know how to be "within themselves." Frank doesn't really know how to be within himself but he aspires to learn.

The sportswriter is actually a very conventional, middle-aged, middle class white male with a wife and two children. He did have another child, but his oldest son has died a few years before. That tore his world apart and was the beginning of the end of his marriage. Now his ex-wife and children live separately and are making new lives for themselves and Frank has joined the Divorced Mens' Club and has found a new girlfriend, Vicki, who seems particularly annoying.

To be honest, Frank is pretty annoying himself. He's not really someone I would choose to spend a lot of time with and I got pretty tired of his rather complaining voice before the end of the book. But I think that was all a part of the exposition of the character. I'm not sure that he was meant to be a particularly sympathetic character. And yet one cannot help but feel a certain amount of sympathy for this sad sack of a man who seems to have no real clue of how to pull himself out of the funk he is in.

I got the impression that Ford was very, very familiar with Frank's story, that although it may not be strictly biographical, some aspects of it were rather closely based on Ford's own experiences. He tells the story in a very straightforward manner with no bells and whistles. He just lays it all out, even the uglier parts and leaves the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.

I think it will be interesting to see how Frank Bascombe develops over the course of the trilogy. One hopes that he might become a little more appealing as we come to understand him better. Or perhaps he'll be more like Rabbit of John Updike's award-winning series - a character who never became especially likable but was mesmerizing nevertheless.

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