I finished The Sportswriter last night, Richard Ford's first novel in his Bascombe Trilogy, and my 37th read from Time magazine's 100 greatest English language novels. It was an engaging read, one that kept pushing me forward, but one I'm still trying to figure out.
The story follows Frank Bascombe, recently divorced, resident of middle New Jersey, and, of course, a sportswriter. The book takes place over Easter weekend, starting with Bascombe and his ex-wife meeting at the grave site of their deceased son Ralph. While he seems mostly content, Bascombe still struggles with many things.
He still aches for his son Ralph, he's unsure if he should have given up his career as a novelist to be a sportswriter, and he seems to have a degree of regret about his divorce. He is having an affair with a nurse from Texas, who he tells himself he's ready to marry, but who the reader has a hard time seeing as a match. The Easter weekend then hits a couple of roadblocks, causing Bascombe to take a closer look at some parts of his life, take a closer look at himself.
Without a doubt, my favorite part of any good book is the characters within it. Whether I love them or hate them, well-developed characters can always engage me. They cause me to pull for or against them, and they allow me to have a vested interest in the outcome of the novel. It is the characters that will always be my litmus test for a book, while the plot or the style will always be secondary. So when I reflect on The Sportswriter, I'm sort of at a loss. Basically I'm unsure of what to think about Frank Bascombe.
There isn't really anything spectacular about Frank Bascombe. He doesn't have a terribly interesting job like, say Alec Leamas in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and he isn't really going through any extraordinary experiences like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. He's just an average guy, with a house in the suburbs, an alright job, a couple of kids, an ex-wife and an uncertain future. Really, he sounds like half the people out there. Of course ordinary isn't what people read books for, and it's much more diffcult to make interesting. I think it speaks to the quality of the writing when such an ordinary character in such an ordinary situation, can be interesting.
But I think in a way, it was his common existence that made him interesting. Finally, there wasn't a character with some crazy job you only see in the movies, nor was he going through some kinds of traumatic event we only read about in history books. He's just plodding through life at age 38 wondering what to do next, questioning himself, his motives, and his goals. Bascombe reflects on years gone by, and wonders if he made the right decision. He looks at some of his present situations and wonders if he's headed in the right direction. Who amongst us doesn't do the same?
You can read TIME's original review from May 24, 1986 right here.
For my next book, I'll be reading Rabbit, Run by John Updike. Like The Sportswriter, its' sequel won the Pulitzer Prize. In fact, two sequels to Rabbit, Run did; both Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest.