The Sportswriter

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

In this, his third novel, Richard Ford has created a minor classic. Sportswriter Frank Bascombe divorced and emotionally adrift, attempts to connect with life during an Easter weekend that begins with a predawn Good Friday meeting with his former wife at their son’s grave and ends with a flirtation with a woman half Frank’s age in a Manhattan office late on Easter night. The underlying irony of the novel is in Bascombe’s attempts, during the time celebrating Resurrection, to return to life and his inability to do so. If Bascombe lacks the stature of a tragic hero, he is a fascinating character in his attempts to convince himself, the other characters, and the reader that he is a decent man who has managed to perfect the techniques of survival.

It is a measure of Ford’s skill that he makes Bascombe a plausible character even as he makes him a totally unreliable narrator. From the very first pages of the novel, the reader is made aware that Bascombe is a man who cannot even keep simple facts straight. As a writer for a magazine very much like Sports Illustrated, he writes frequently about football and pretends to some expertise about the game, but he refers to Vince Lombardi as having been one of the “Five Blocks of Granite,” when even an amateur knows that Fordham University’s great line was the seven blocks of granite. This is a clue to Bascombe’s unreliability. He is even less trustworthy when speaking of himself; he tells the reader that a person’s past does not matter and that he will not tell the reader about his, just before launching into a twenty-four-page discussion of his parents, his upbringing, and his early career. Bascombe’s unreliabiity is most significant in his attempts to convince himself that he is a good and ordinary man and that life is good.

If fact, Bascombe lives in terror. It is evident in his description of his parents, his schooling, and his early relationships that he has always shied away from close attachments. He moved his young family to New Jersey to escape the pressure of people in New York. What he claims attracts him to the New Jersey town of Haddam is its quiet, the respect and friendliness the residents have for one another. It is clear, however, that the real attraction for Bascombe is the fact that in Haddam people do not get close to one another; his retired next-door neighbors are always issuing vague invitations to him that no one takes seriously. Bascombe does not mind.

What has turned a preference for privacy into outright terror is the death of Ralph, the Bascombes’ older son, from Reye’s syndrome. This is the event to which Frank’s mind returns throughout the book, from the opening graveside meeting to Frank’s final fruitless search for a dead friend’s probably imaginary daughter in Florida at the end. Despite assurances to the contrary, it is clear that Bascombe is never able to accept Ralph’s death. When his surviving son, Paul, releases a trained pigeon to seek out Ralph and report on the family, Bascombe encourages the boy. Midway through the book, in an unusually candid statement, he says: “My only wish is that my sweet boy Ralph Bascombe could wake from his sleep-out and come in the house for a good Easter tussle like we used to, then be off to once-a-year services. What a day that would be! What a boy!” Since such a denial of fact is his only real wish, it is inevitable that in his terror of death Frank avoids any meaningful human contact. It never occurs to him that in mourning Ralph he is denying Paul the love his living son needs.

There are four crucial scenes in The Sportswriter. The first of these is Bascombe’s predawn meeting with his former wife, who is never given a name. He and X, as he refers to her, have met this way for two years since their divorce, and it is clearly an opportunity to reestablish contact. What is clear, furthermore, is that while X has created a new life for herself and the two surviving children, a life which she would be willing to have Bascombe reenter, he is unable to do so. He keeps her at a distance, as he does with every other character who reaches out to him in any intimate way. She admits her grief and the emptiness she sometimes feels, but Frank is unable to respond; to admit his own emptiness would be to admit that his surface optimism is a lie. At the end of the scene, her statement “You’re an optimist, Frank” is superficially accurate and dismissive.

Much of this Easter weekend is spent by Frank flying to and from Detroit with his current girlfriend, Vicki Arcenault, to interview a former pro football player for a feature article. In the second important scene, Frank travels by cab to a Detroit suburb where the now-crippled Herb Wallagher lives. On a cold morning they talk in the desolation of a decaying resort town. Wallagher, who once had been a fierce and strong lineman, is now confined to a wheelchair. Bascombe has conceived of his story as an inspirational lesson in how a former star, despite a terrible injury, has remained close to the team and now encourages his former comrades as an unofficial chaplain. Wallagher declines to be cast in this mold and challenges Bascombe to confront the reality of their lives. He is bitter, he is resentful, and he is even a little crazy, but he has made a marriage with a black woman who was his nurse and he is going on with his life, planning to attend law school. Bascombe declines the challenge. He cannot acknowledge that Wallagher’s situation and his own are very similar (even to the fact that Vicki, like Wallagher’s wife, is a nurse) and that like Wallagher he has suffered a crippling injury. He lies to Wallagher, telling him that he will write a story, that he will come back to talk to him again, that they will look at game films together. Instead he returns to Detroit to quiet the crackling he feels in his abdomen. He knows that he...

(The entire section is 2412 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Sportswriter is a first-person narrative told by a former novelist with a gift for language and a tendency to philosophize. It is...

(The entire section is 146 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ford's work has been said to be a powerful reflection of American life, although it often takes a bleak view of the possibilities for...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ford writes realistically about late-twentieth-century American society and the alienation and inertia that many people feel. Frank Bascombe...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In its story of a decent man who is confronted by a world beyond his ken and who retreats into himself, Ford is drawing from many...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The sequel to The Sportswriter is Independence Day, a novel that finds Frank Bascombe plying a new trade—realtor—and...

(The entire section is 107 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Ford read the first chapter of the novel for an audio version of his work produced by the American Audio Prose Library in 1986, and his voice...

(The entire section is 58 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Dupuy, Edward. “The Confessions of an Ex-Suicide: Relenting and Recovering in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter.” Southern Literary Journal 23 (Fall, 1990): 93-103. Analyzes Frank as a searcher for mystery in the ordinary. Shows how Frank, unlike Walter, survives by yielding to the vicissitudes of life. Explains that Frank gives up fiction by choosing reality over the power of language. Considers the influence of William Faulkner and contrasts Frank with Quentin Compson in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! (1936).

Ford, Richard. Interview by Kay Bonetti. The Missouri Review 10, no. 2 (1987): 71-96. Ford discusses the writing of The Sportswriter, explaining how Frank differs from him, why he made Frank a sportswriter, why the ex-wife is called X, and how the novel’s religious elements can be misconstrued. He defends Frank’s optimism as merely an openness to choices.

Ford, Richard. Interview by Matthew Gilbert. Writer 109 (December, 1996): 9-11. Ford reveals that he thought about quitting writing when he was working on Independence Day. He offers his thoughts on the public perception on the write-or-die attitude of writers, reflections on winning the Pulitzer Prize, and comments about writing a novel.

Gornick, Vivian. “Tenderhearted Men: Lonesome, Sad and Blue.” The New York Times Book Review, September 16, 1990, pp. 1, 32-35. This consideration of the way men are portrayed in works by Ford, Raymond Carver, and Andre Dubus shows how Frank is typical of Ford’s lonely, confused, hurt protagonists. Analyzes Frank’s relations with women. Argues that Ford is infatuated with Frank’s depression.

Schroth, Raymond A. “American’s Moral Landscape in the Fiction of Richard Ford.” Christian Century 106 (March 1, 1989): 227-230. Admires The Sportswriter for reproducing a complex cross-section of middle-class America. Explains that the novel is about the modern American search for integrity through sports, art, religion, friendship, love, and daily obligations.

Weber, Bruce. “Richard Ford’s Uncommon Characters.” The New York Times Magazine, April 10, 1988, pp. 50, 59, 63-65. This biographical profile explains how Ford’s fiction differs from the dominant American fiction of the 1980’s, which is minimalist in style, nihilistic in spirit. Argues that Ford’s style is more lyrical than that of the minimalists and discusses the difficulty critics have categorizing Ford’s work.