Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy. He’s isolated, irrational and unreliable – just like me. He’s a failed novelist – just like me. He’s a successful sportswriter – just like, err, not me. In fact, Frank’s the sportswriter, the figure made famous by American author, Richard Ford, in his novel of the same name.
Frank, he tells us himself, was all set up to have a fine life. Loving wife, great kids, fantastic job – he had them all. But when his eldest son, nine-year-old Ralph, is struck down by a rare brain disease, things start to go horribly wrong. The boy dies, dreadfully. Mired in mourning, Frank’s wife finds letters from a female friend in his desk and sues for divorce, separating Frank from his family.
Now Frank is trapped in a world of his own, isolated from others by his ongoing grief and by the very nature of his vocation – he’s a writer, after all, someone who belongs to a ‘club with just one member’. Frank tries to ‘lose that terrible distance’ by wooing Vicki, a young nurse, but his attempts to ‘simulate intimacy, interest, anticipation’ fail, as they’ve failed before with other women.
Frank’s relationships with men are equally appalling, for he has lost all faith in friendship, that ‘lie of life’. ‘What’s friendship’s realest measure?’ he asks himself. ‘The amount of precious time you’ll squander on someone else’s calamities and fuck-ups.’ When Walter, a fellow divorcee, comes to him seeking consolation, Frank keeps his cool and his distance – with tragic consequences.
It’s an unfashionable approach to friendship and yet one I find fascinating – as I do Frank’s unique way of thinking, which, we discover, is more intuitive than intellectual. Frank admits to having no love of ‘useless and complicated factuality’, he being drawn instead to mystery and all its ‘frail muted beauties’. ‘Explaining,’ he explains, ‘is where we all get into trouble.’
But Frank is in trouble anyway. Despite living largely in his head, he finds himself suffering from a ‘failure of imagination’ – an inability to empathise with others. This, according to Frank, is why he’s a sportswriter and not a novelist. ‘I did not, in fact, know how people felt about most things,’ he says. ‘And needless to say that is the very place where the great writers – your Tolstoys and your George Eliots – soar off to become great.’
Frank’s other endearing quality – to me, at least – is his unpredictability. He’s almost always on the move, racing restlessly from one place to another. If he’s not parked outside his ex-wife’s house, then he’s pulling up in front of a church or making his way to New York on a whim.
Frank’s unreliability – as a character and, I suspect, as a narrator – reminds me of another classic fictional creation: Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s precocious brainchild. Both characters lack a solid sense of identity and morality; indeed, both seem to have lost their ‘authority’, as Frank puts it.
The problem is that Frank is an idealist stripped of ideals, an ordinary American robbed of his illusions about family, friendship and, finally, the future. For the other character of note in Ford’s novel is the nation itself: America as an idea and an experience. In this sense The Sportswriter is a guide book; it takes us on a tour of Frank’s corner of the country, through New Jersey, Michigan and New York, through ‘literal and anonymous cities’ with all their ‘bricky warp’.
Tellingly, Frank likes nothing better than ‘staring off at the jewelled shore lights of New Jersey, brightening as dark fell, and feeling full of wonder and illusion – like a Columbus or a pilgrim seeing the continent of his dreams take shape in the dusk for the first time’.
At its heart The Sportswriter is a lament: a lament for the loss of innocence. The story speaks of an awakening and thus of the dispelling of a dream – of the American Dream, no less, a dream as familiar to a foreigner like me as it is to a native like Frank. It’s the last and largest thing we have in common.
Whether I like it or not, Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy.
Image courtesy of PxHere
Here’s the thing about writing a novel. No-one will care if I do it.
I mean, who reads novels these days? Hardly anyone I know. A couple of my colleagues maybe, none of my mates, a precious few friends and family. That’s not many folks.
Of course if I write something that sells, then people I don’t know might care. But what’s the good of that? As the least famous Churchill (Charles, the poet) wrote, ‘Fame/is nothing but an empty name’.
But why do I even care if nobody cares?
Because I’m human and humans crave unconditional love.
‘Growing up involves accepting that we’re not as special as we thought,’ Nick Hornby once said. ‘But artists have to keep that feeling alive.’
Come to think of it, I do know someone who will care if I write a novel.
And that someone is me.
Read all about it: Kindles are the best thing since printed books.
They’re compact, for starters. I once took mine on a five-day walk, slotting it into my pack without any trouble. Thus I was able to while away the evenings reading Clive James’ Complete Unreliable Memoirs, the book of which resembles a brick.
Kindles are food-friendly too. I like to read as I eat and yet most paperbacks make this an impossible feat, even with a sauce bottle on hand to help out. An open Kindle, however, never snaps shut.
The instant free samples are another fine feature, one which has led me to books I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Books like Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, my novel of 2019.
The best thing about Kindles, though, is the fact they’re not books.
By being so different they make books even better.
It’s time I tidied the books on my bedside table: two are giving me nightmares.
They’re fine novels, I’m sure, it’s just that I can’t read them right through. Here’s why: Less has too little sex and Atomised too much.
Like all earnest readers, I’m haunted by the ghosts of books half-read.
I can’t finish Catch-22 because the story changes; Inside Mr Enderby because it stays the same, funny but futile.
The Hobbit hobbled me a few pages in.
Of Tug of Love I’ve read only the title, while just one chapter of Eleanor Oliphant was completely fine.
I conquered War and Peace but that other Russian behemoth, Life and Fate, has got me beat.
Clearly it’s time I exorcised my literary demons. If reading is a kind of rewriting then my versions of some books are simply shorter than the rest.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Inside Mr Enderby by Anthony Burgess
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tug of Love by Penny Jordan
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman