The Sportswriter by Richard Ford


I’ve found it difficult to get my head around the fat that this is reputed to be a great novel. Ford has long since been feted as a great novelist:

“His most recent novel, Independence Day, which brought back Frank Bascombe from The Sportswriter, now as a harassed real-estate agent, was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction for 1995, the only book ever so awarded. In Frank Bascombe, Ford has created one of the most complex and memorable characters of our time, and the novel itself is a nuanced, often hilarious portrait of contemporary American life. Independence Day has been called “the definitive novel of the postwar generation,” and Ford himself has been hailed as “one of the finest curators of the great American living museum.” In setting, types of characters, plots, point of view and, most importantly, in ever broadening sympathy, Ford has, as he remarks in this interview, consciously kept moving on.” (

However, the reviews at the time are more on the money:

“Less about sports than about alienation, this moody chronicle is narrated by a father and former husband, Frank Bascombe. As he tells the story of his detachment – what he calls his ”dreaminess” (”My son had died, but I’m unwilling to say that was the cause”) – the novel’s cool, flat tone reflects his interior state. Bascombe’s estrangement is charted with unsettling irony: the wife who has divorced him (after finding what she mistakenly believes to be a cache of love letters) is referred to only as X, and one of his surviving children, a daughter named Clary, appears only briefly nearly 300 pages into the narrative. Compulsively cerebral and self-absorbed, he searches for release in the ordinary and the unexamined. It is this yearning for a regulated world, rather than a love of sports, that has led him to turn from fiction to sportswriting…

“To quiet his own existential dread, Bascombe looks to his surroundings – the pleasant, highly unremarkable New Jersey suburb of Haddam. It is Bascombe, not his wife and children, who has remained in the family house. Soothed by the cool, leafy backyards, anchored by the familiarity of hedges and church bells, he continues to play the part of a suburban father and husband, replacing the stress and demands of a family with a boarder whose presence is virtually unperceivable.

“Because he is a perpetual escapee (from Manhattan, from fiction, from the rigors of family life), it makes sense that in telling his story Bascombe chooses to ignore tangled, emotionally charged family relationships, fixating instead on nonrelationships and nonevents. …

“The death of a son and a history of marital stress pushed to the limit by a husband’s gloomy indifference are central not only to ”The Sportswriter” but also to Anne Tyler’s most recent novel, ”The Accidental Tourist.” These novels display an uncanny series of similarities. In each we find a major character who is a workmanlike, rather than a creative, writer, a father and former husband who insists on continuing a suburban life after his family has left him, an intellectual nit-picker drawn to an unsuitable woman whose vitality and pragmatism attract him. But in spite of their corresponding characters and themes, the novels could not be more different in tone or consequence. Though ”The Sportswriter” aims for a tougher, more realistic stance than ”The Accidental Tourist,” it suffers from a lack of compelling action and an emphasis on Bascombe’s dry meditations that obscures and minimizes the complex domestic structure the author initially presents.

“MR. FORD is a daring and intelligent novelist, but in choosing Bascombe as his narrator he has taken a risk that ultimately does not pay off. The authorial voice is so weakened that we are left only with the observations of an emotionally untrustworthy narrator. This is not to say that the author doesn’t allow us some access to Bascombe’s psyche…

“He never trades theorizing for action. His inability to write fiction, which should illuminate his inability to connect emotionally, instead seems trivial. Even mourning is replaced by self-analysis, so that Bascombe’s lost son seems less a ghostly presence than a tiny piece of glass set in the kaleidoscope of self-scrutiny.

“That characters undergo great transformation is surely not a prerequisite of a satisfying novel. It is quite believable that at the close of the novel Bascombe seems as much in spiritual exile as when we first meet him. And yet he tells us: ”It is possible to be married, to divorce, then to come back together with a whole new set of understandings that you’d never have liked or even understood before in your earlier life, but that to your surprise now seems absolutely perfect.”

“This is a jarring and contradictory evaluation of the emotional landscape we have just experienced. If there are layers of irony and perception, they are too subtle and diffuse. Mr. Ford’s admirable talents, which include an extraordinary ear for dialogue and the ability to create the particulars of everyday life with stunning accuracy, are not well served in a novel given to abstract analysis. Perhaps the author is telling us that family connections are too impenetrable not only to understand but to record. Certainly, what is at the heart of Frank Bascombe’s sorrow remains, for the reader, a mystery.

Yeah. It’s ok. But I’ll probably have to read Independence Day again to realise what a great novelist Ford is, as well as what a great protagonist Frank Bascombe can be. In this novel, he’s ruined as a protagonist by his wearisome navel gazing and his unceasing ability to make vague pronouncements about the meaning of life, the importance of one thing or another, and the significance of anything at all. If the reader is to find him grossly flawed, but likeable, but at the same time unredeemable and frustrating, then there is a success of sorts. But did Ford really want a patsy as opposed to a protagonist? What’s the reader to do other than get annoyed?

Mr A




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