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...
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