annotation by Heather Luby
It is not often that upon finishing a novel that I cannot immediately formulate an opinion. As a writer, I find that the reading process has been altered for me, so that any opinion I have must be informed both by my enjoyment as a reader and also by my analysis of craft techniques. For The Sportswriter I have found myself unable to have a firm opinion because the reader/writer dynamic has led me to contradictory places.
Initially, I felt that the main character, Frank Bascombe, was wooden and without depth of feeling. The grief expressed over the death of his son and the dissolution of his marriage seemed a bit hollow. Frank was detached and therefore, so was I. I wore weary of Frank’s inner thoughts, sometimes so random and self-absorbed, that I began to find him tiresome. I spent a great deal of time trying to reconcile his actions with the grief I thought he should have, given his circumstances. After finishing the novel I sought out reviews, in order to see if I was missing something. I discovered a New York Times review of the novel by the author Alice Hoffman. It was not a favorable review, though not as harsh as Ford perceived it to be. Hoffman detailed many of my feelings, as a reader, for the book. “Even mourning is replaced by self-analysis” writes Hoffman. “Bascombe chooses to ignore tangled, emotionally charged family relationships, fixating instead on non-relationships and nonevents.”
After a few days I decided that my opinion of the book, praised by many, was too neat. I had not challenged myself enough. Deciding to examine it more in terms of craft, I found a different view of the work was possible. The prose is lyrical, sometimes a bit too extravagant, but it was also precise. Ford’s has a definite ability to vividly create the landscape of everyday suburban life. I sometimes felt like the dialogue didn’t ring true, in terms of phrasing, but I could easily attribute that to the fact that it was written more twenty years ago.
Essentially, by dissecting Ford’s novel in terms of setting, dialogue, character development, etc. I began to rethink my emotional response the book. I began to ask myself, how much of real grief do people display? How much do people bury in order to continue living? Once I thought about this, I began to see Frank Bascombe differently. So many books want to offer us closure, growth, some epiphany by the characters once they have survived a tragedy. But is that really honest? Are we being manipulated by writers to arrive at conclusions that may be satisfying, but are not often possible?
In order to give my readers an honest portrayal of a man suffering from a debilitating sorrow, I can’t protect them from what might be ugly or uncomfortable. My character’s response to his grief has to be genuine, not a facsimile of societal expectations often portrayed in other creative works. My character is nothing like Frank Bascombe, but Frank and Richard Ford allowed to write my protagonist free from the cliché of “the grieving character.” I don’t always have to like my main character or his actions in dealing with his loss, but I do have feel that he is being honest to me and my readers.
After digesting this book I had to ask these same questions of my own writing and they forced me to reconsider my own goals. Is my only goal to satisfy my reader or do I want to expose some elemental truth – is it possible to do both? In my novel Laws of Motion my protagonist is a man whose wife is the victim of a brutal act of violence. The Sportswriter gave me permission to think outside my initial expectations of how a man would respond to his grief.
In the end, I can’t say that I loved this book, but I did grow to admire it greatly. Mostly because I think Ford told us the truth with Frank. I think his character was much more complex and real than we are used to as readers. Ford refuses to give the reader the “payoff” and instead forces us to contemplate the ways in which a person must survive the worst sort of pain by continuing to exist, to find pleasure and comfort any way possible, and yet always realizing that “Grief, real grief, is relatively short, though mourning can be long” (p. 374).