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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Sportswriter

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful:

February 5, 2004

Whenever I finish a book, I always like to take stock of how the book affected me. What did it make me feel? Did it have any lessons to teach me? The best novels are those that make me feel something--sadness, joy, or whatever else depending on the situation presented in the book--and have some sort of message to leave with me. The book I read recently that best demonstrates this is "Atonement" by Ian MacEwan, which like "The Sportswriter" started slow, but it ended strong, whereas this novel continued to trudge along until it ran out of steam. When I came to the end of "The Sportswriter", I felt nothing. I learned nothing. After 384 pages, this book meant exactly NOTHING to me.

The problem is not with the writing; Ford's prose and descriptions are tremendous (although his dialogue often sounds too stuffy to be real), which is why I give the book 3 stars as opposed to the 1 or 2 stars that the "plot" merits. The problem with "The Sportswriter" is the sportswriter, Frank Bascombe. Frank is a guy who never really had a relationship with his parents (his father died when he was young and his mother was out-of-touch and sent him to military school), had a briefly successful career as a writer before succumbing to writer's block, turned to sportswriting when the opportunity arose, lost his son to Reye's Syndrome, and then had his marriage fall apart.

You'd think this guy would be a mess after all that, but he isn't. Frank is just floating along like a leaf in the breeze, never allowing himself to feel much, and since he's the narrator of the story, that in turn means I don't feel much either. The best term for him might be "detached" or to use his favorite word, "ironic". The story follows Frank through Easter as very little happens and for inexplicable reasons, the wind carries Frank off in a different direction.

The events of the Easter weekend are largely dictated by chance and random impulses. During a brief trip to Detroit, Frank rummages through his girlfriend's purse after a sharp, fleeting pang of jealousy that helps put the last nails in the coffin of that relationship. He goes out to Walled Lake to interview a crippled offensive lineman for the Lions, but the athlete is on medication and suffering substantial mood swings, so the trip turns out to be all for naught. When he gets back to New Jersey, he meets his girlfriend's family, but is called away when a "friend" (Frank is the type who has no real, close friends) commits suicide, which is fine at that point because his girlfriend breaks up with him because she doesn't really love him and apparently has chosen that precise moment to not tolerate it anymore. Frank goes back home, visits his dead friend's apartment, and goes to the train station to clear his head, where he proceeds to get on a train for New York with nothing other than the clothes on his back for no real reason. There, an intern appears out of nowhere (it's always good to introduce characters in the last chapter) and they spend a couple days together before he runs off to Florida to find his dead friend's illegitimate daughter, who does not exist. Instead of going home, Frank decides to just stay in Florida, who even knows why. And that's it until the equally plodding Pulitzer-winning sequel...

Having read that sequel, I can tell you that Frank still just coasts along, an anonymous, shallow suburbanite who no one (let alone the reading public) need take notice of. I have to admire the author, though, for getting a good 900 total pages out of such a bland character.

I don't want to sound all doom and gloom here, because I enjoyed most of this book. Frank, as maddeningly detached as he is, is a complex character. None of the other major characters (the X, the girlfriend, the friend who dies, etc.) come off as stereotypes. And as dull as Frank's life is, Ford's writing is good enough that the book is not tedious. There are a lot of descriptions and anecdotes that give depth to Frank, even if there is little to see.

One bone I have to pick with Ford in this book are some of the generalizations Frank makes about Michigan, my home, and its people. He's always talking about Michigan "literalness" and the dull, severity of the midwest, which coming from someone as boring as Frank is a real insult. At one point he compares the sad landscapes of Michigan with New Jersey, something I took great offense with because I have seen most of the state in my life and I think there are many beautiful places. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but he shouldn't state how sad the state is as though it is a fact. At another point he talks about midwestern accents and how his X says "Gren Repids" instead of "Grand Rapids" and how his son says "watching news" instead of "watching the news". As someone who's lived here for a while, I can say I haven't heard anyone say "Gren Repids" or that they're "watching news". To me, that's the problem with making such broad generalizations about places and people and stating opinion as fact--you wind up making a lot untrue observations. I'm sure many other authors have done this, I just don't have the experience to disprove them when they do, but in this case I found it irritating, especially since Frank only lived in Michigan for four years while going to college; how much can you KNOW about a place in four years?

Anyway, I'm rambling on when all you want to know is if you should buy this book. I would say no, not as long as there's something else on your reading list. As enjoyable as parts of "The Sportswriter" are (and by the way there is very little about sports or sportswriting in this novel), the book just doesn't go anywhere. After reading this and the sequel, "Independence Day", all I can do is shrug my shoulders and ask, "So what?"

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