DIY MFA Reading List: “The Sportswriter” by Richard Ford

At the center of every great piece of sports writing is some uniquely American hero: a middle-aged pitcher who gives baseball one more shot and claws his way up through the minor leagues to the show; a paralyzed linebacker who enrolls in law school to become a civil rights attorney; a mediocre point guard who discovers that her talents are better suited to the rigors of Olympic beach volleyball. The sportswriter taps into a collective sense of failure running through the subconsciousness of his readers, elevates “one of us” into a rarefied atmosphere where teamwork and sweat can overcome all obstacles, and makes us all feel – for a brief moment – that anything is possible.

But Frank Bascombe, the middling protagonist from Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, isn’t your typical sportswriter. A failed novelist who now writes sentimental sports anecdotes for a slick, nationally-known magazine, Frank admires the blank simplicity of the athletes he spends his days interviewing:

Athletes, by and large, are people who are happy to let their actions speak for them, happy to be what they do. As a result, when you talk to an athlete, as I do all the time in locker rooms, in hotel coffee shops and hallways, standing beside expensive automobiles – even if he’s paying no attention to you at all, which is very often the case – he’s never likely to feel the least bit divided, or alienated, or one ounce of existential dread. He may be thinking about a case of beer, or some man-made lake in Oklahoma he wishes he was waterskiing on, or some girl or a new Chevy shortbed, or a discothèque he owns as a tax shelter, or just simply himself. But you can bet he isn’t worried one bit about you and what you’re thinking. His is a rare selfishness that means he isn’t looking around the sides of his emotions to wonder about the alternatives for what he’s saying or thinking about. In fact, athletes at the height of their powers make literalness into a mystery all its own simply be becoming absorbed in what they’re doing.

But Frank doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything at all. The recent death of his son, followed by a string of meaningless affairs and a quick, seemingly amicable divorce, has left Frank in a kind of numbed stupor: what he calls his “dreaminess”. Throughout the story, Frank refers to his ex-wife only as “X”, and we see only the sketchiest portraits of his remaining two children, when Frank drifts into and out of their lives on his quest for … what, exactly?

Richard Ford’s prose takes some getting used to in this novel. It reminded me somewhat of John Updike’s, but with more precision and intensity. Ford has an ability to conjure the details of everyday life with such beauty and grace that you’re tempted to just go along for the ride and follow Frank along on his aimless, yet keenly-observed, wanderings.

And yet that would be a mistake. Because there’s a genius in this novel that doesn’t fully come to light until the last one hundred pages or so. Frank can’t be trusted: he will say one thing, and then do another. He wants to be fully engaged in the moment, in what “he’s doing”, and yet he keeps distracting himself (and us) from what’s really going on; Frank doesn’t want to confront his grief and emptiness, and so turns to the comforting presence of material goods (his house, his manicured lawn, his token girlfriend, his lobster dinner and afternoon cocktail) to keep what we begin to sense is a looming existential crisis at bay.

I was annoyed with Frank for this duplicity, annoyed that he never spoke what was really on his mind, and worried that the novel wouldn’t ever force Frank to account for the discrepancy between his thoughts and his actions. But then towards the end of the novel, Frank finally does say what’s on his mind. At a dinner with the parents of his girlfriend Vicki, Frank engages in a back-and-forth with Vicki’s father about sports writing:

“I mean, what’s the matter with following your assignment on the team? When I was working oil rigs, that’s exactly how we did it. And I’ll tell you, too, it worked.”

“Well, maybe it’s too small a point. Only the way these guys use team concept is too much like a machine to me, Wade. Too much like one of those oil wells. It leaves out the player’s part – to play or not play; to play well or not so well. To give his all. What all these guys mean by team concept is just cogs in the machine. It forgets a guy has to decide to do it again every day, and that men don’t work like machines. I don’t think that’s a crazy point, Wade. It’s just the nineteenth-century idea – dynamos and all that baloney – and I don’t much like it.”

“But in the end, the result’s the same, isn’t it?” Wade says seriously. “Our team wins.” He blinks hard at me.

“If everybody decides that’s what they want, it is. If they can perform well enough and long enough. It’s just the if I’m concerned about, Wade. I worry about the decide part, too, I guess. We take too much for granted. What if I just don’t want to win that bad, or can’t?”

“Then you shouldn’t be on the team.”

With this dialogue, we finally get a glimpse into what Frank’s thinking. He’s a rugged individualist, a hero worshipper; and yet Frank is just like everyone else, and displays no heroic tendencies himself. But for the first time in the story, Frank has spoken his innermost thoughts … and the consequences are disastrous. Within the hour, Frank’s life is briefly turned upside down, and the looming sense of doom felt throughout the book finally arrives. Will Frank overcome his paralysis, rise to the occasion, and write the sentimental portrait of the failed football star he’s been trying half-heartedly to draft throughout this long, Easter weekend? Or will he, yet again, avoid confronting the difficult storm inside, and retreat into a new girl, distraction, or daydream? The stakes seem enormous, for inaction might deliver a fate worse than paralysis:

Everything has seemed beckoning and ahead, though I am unsure now if life has not suddenly passed me like a big rumbling semi and left me flattened here by the road.

This was a great story, and in the end Frank Bascombe’s unexamined life becomes a mirror for an America that seems more concerned with flash over substance, with the idea of a world where everyone could be a hero.

If only someone would decide to step up to the plate, and actually take on the responsibilities that heroism might entail.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.