Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter is, to put it one way, the story of a man, Frank Bascombe, who is in the process of losing things. He is losing his family (he’s divorced), his youth (he’s nearing 40), and, increasingly, his charm (midway through the novel his girlfriend breaks up with him). A writer for a sports magazine, he has already lost his gift for writing fiction. For many of us, Frank’s situation would be the makings of an existential crisis. But in 375 pages of beautiful prose, which traverse the course of an Easter weekend, you can’t help but believe that hope is never very far from even the loneliest of souls. What lifts the novel up is Frank’s recognition of this bare, human fact.
The story begins in a cemetery in suburban New Jersey, on the morning of Good Friday. Frank is meeting his ex-wife (whom he refers to throughout the novel only as ‘X’). It is their dead son Ralph’s birthday, and they’ve come together at his grave—as they have every year since his death—in memory of him. Despite the somber setting, Frank is hopeful:
When I woke in the dark this morning, my heart pounding like a tom-tom, it seemed to me as though a change were on its way, as if this dreaminess tinged with expectation, which I have felt for some time now, were lifting off of me into the cool tenebrous dawn.
The source of his hope is both immediate and abstract: Frank has planned a romantic weekend in Detroit with his girlfriend, the 26-year-old Vicki Arcenault, during which he will interview an ex-pro football player for a magazine article. His aim is to enjoy Vicki’s company and shake off his “dreaminess,” a condition he defines as the “state of suspended recognition, and a response to too much useless and complicated factuality.” (In other words, the sort of emotional paralysis that comes from recognizing too many feelings at once.) Frank struggles to live in the world. He is too busy thinking about himself, about the ramifications of his actions, and about how others perceive him. This trip with Vicki is him trying to find his way back to firmer ground.
Vicki, also a divorcee, is vivacious and vulnerable, and possesses an endearing simplicity (Frank calls her a “literalist” with admiration). Her strength—and, for Frank, her special appeal—lies in her ability “to let the world please her in the small ways it can.” But Vicki’s gift is Frank’s curse; he is, unlike her, overcome by the world’s complexity, and a trip to Detroit won’t change that. We see this when, having just arrived, as they are poised to set off into the blustery streets, Frank waivers in dread: “What I feel, in truth,” he says, “is, in a word: a disturbance.” And with this realization, one suspects that Vicki and Frank don’t stand a chance. Ford has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and as their trip progresses their conversations become disjointed and foreboding. Back in New Jersey, after a dismal Easter dinner with basketball playing in the background, she leaves him.
Speaking of basketball, it should be pointed out that this is not really a book about sports. Rather, sports represent a state of being Frank strives for, but cannot attain, a method of achieving a single-mindedness that approaches purity. In contrast to, say, writing fiction (which Frank has tellingly given up on), sports involve “relinquishing doubt and ambiguity and self-inquiry in favor of a pleasant, self-championing one-dimensionality.” In this “relinquishing”—of doubt, of ambiguity, of the habit of “seeing around oneself” and obsessing over how one could or should act—there might be the path to a full, satisfied life, a life in which one might be capable of grasping, experiencing and appreciating the here and now. This is a path Frank would like very much to take, but cannot.
Instead, this is a story about inaction and potentiality; about the contrast between living a life and pondering it on the sidelines; about dreaminess versus literalism. None of these extremes will do: dreaminess leads to disaster, and sports (literalism) can only take Frank so far.
So what hope is there left for Frank? In a stunning crescendo at the end of the novel, he lays things out for us. It is Easter night, and he is despondent. An acquaintance, one who succumbed to dreaminess, has just committed suicide. Searching for meaning and hope, Frank drives to the Haddam train station to watch the travelers come and go:
It is not bad to sit in some placeless dark and watch commuters step off into splashy car lights, striding toward the promise of bounteous hugs, cool, wall-papered rooms, drinks mixed, ice in the bucket, a newspaper, a long undisturbed evening . . . . And you might believe I was envious, or heartsick, or angling some way to feel wronged. But I found it one of the most hopeful and worthwhile things . . . . To take pleasure in the consolations of others, even the small ones, is possible. And more than that: it sometimes becomes a damned necessary when enough of the chips are down. . . . [T]here is mystery everywhere, even in a vulgar, urine-scented, suburban depot such as this. You have only to let yourself in for it. You can never know what’s coming next. Always there is the chance it will be—miraculous to say—something you want.
Life as possibility; ah, there’s the rub. Mystery, beauty and love—and, we mustn’t deceive ourselves, despair—is everywhere, provided we have eyes to see it. If The Sportswriter has a thesis, this is it. So step out into the world. Experience the lives around you. Because after all, you can never know what’s coming next.