Richard Ford,
The Sportswriter
(Random House, 1986)

Frank Bascombe is an asshole. He's a narcissistic nobody who writes about sports rather than plays them because he was never good enough to participate. He'll do anything to get out of a conversation with just about anyone -- including a man who may or may not have suicidal tendencies -- because halfway through he loses interest in whatever he's discussing and is ready to move on to the next thing.

To be fair, Frank's had to endure a lot recently, namely the death of one of his two sons, Ralph, as well as a divorce from his first and only wife, who in the book is known simply as the letter X. He's a failed novelist living in New Jersey, hence his profession as a sportswriter for a New York publication. Every day he's interviewing prima donnas. You know, people who like the sound of their own voices, and their voices alone. Perhaps their egotism has rubbed off on Frank a bit, given that they've been the source of his principle conversations for the past dozen years or so.

Frank also narrates Richard Ford's The Sportswriter in the first person, so getting through the 375-page tome can prove to be a struggle. A bit troublesome indeed.

If you find yourself put off by Frank, then don't attempt to even pick up The Sportswriter, because you'd be playing with the slimmest of chances of actually liking the thing. For the rest of you still with me, I guarantee you'll find a lot to appreciate (and contemplate) in Ford's novel, an excellent character study that really has a lot to say about the big picture, especially the concept of family, death and dying, misunderstandings, and so on.

The story begins at a gravesite. Ralph's, in fact. Frank and X are there too, holding a personal vigil for their dead son, which they've been doing annually for a few years now. It also gives the couple an excuse to talk, which they don't do quite as much as they probably should, or want to. Soon enough, Frank will catch a flight to Detroit with his new squeeze, Vicki, to interview a former professional football player on what he's been doing with his life since a leg injury forced him to retire from the sport he loves.

For the most part, so far so good.

That's when events start spiraling out of Frank's control, leading him through a weekend of personal hell that fires more demons over the span of only a couple days than most people can usually deal with.

The Sportswriter marks my first novel by Richard Ford, an author who writes with assurance and probably a bit too much detail for some tastes. Frank Bascombe's personality is a bit on the dry side too, so his side story tangents may seem longwinded at times. But keep in mind what he has to say is often insightful, which makes what you just read worth the "struggle."

Frank appears in two more Richard Ford novels: Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, published in 1995 and 2006, respectively.

review by
Eric Hughes

21 March 2009

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