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
Seen the road to hell lately?
It’s a mess. Paved with good intentions, the path to perdition is littered with bad decisions, the failed forays of famous folk who sought success in a speciality other than their own.
Many are called to cross-over but few are chosen…
Singers and sportsmen, authors and actors – the line of wrecks is long and varied, taking in everything from Ash Barty’s crack at cricket to Chris Cornell’s dalliance with dance-pop.
Now the Tasmanian novelist, Heather Rose, has come a cropper.
Last year Rose published Bruny, the follow-up to her Stella Prize-winning novel, The Museum of Modern Love, a work of literary fiction. Billed as a thriller, her latest book proves that acing a new genre ain’t easy, even for an accomplished author.
What went wrong?
It’s a good question. Bruny appears to have all the hallmarks of a respectable thriller: a preposterous plot, a cast of barely credible characters, an awkward romance and a nondescript style.
And yet it lacks a key component of any self-respecting suspense novel.
Show don’t tell – it’s the shibboleth most closely associated with creative writing. Despite its limitations, this tenet holds true for some books. Take the thriller: readers of this kind of novel need to feel close to the action.
Too often in Bruny the real business takes place in the background, especially as the story goes on. The result? The tension never builds. (And the book garners praise as a ‘satire‘.)
Sadly, some parts of the story kept me on the edge of my seat: namely the narrator’s tiresome tirades about the state of Tasmania. Would they never end?
Despite my reservations – all totally valid, I’m sure, and yet totally irrelevant – Bruny continues to sell well here in Hobart, almost a year after its release.
Which just goes to show: I’m as bad a judge of another writer’s work as I am of my own. Failure is clearly more transferable than success.
Ever laughed until you’ve cried?
If you haven’t, try reading ‘Polar Bears‘, a story by arts journalist and author, Gareth Hipwell.
This vicious but very funny vignette tackles a serious subject by stealth. Even before you’ve had time to wipe your nose its end has arrived, and the story, like a bear, has bitten off your head – only half of it, mind.
The story concisely captures the dichotomy in the ongoing debate about climate change: Tom and Jess have ‘polar’ opposite opinions and never the twain shall meet.
And although the story didn’t bring me to actual tears – is crying a conspiracy? – the plight of the planet is well worth weeping over.
‘Polar Bears’ was published at Flashers, the ‘online home of Australian flash fiction’, which is currently in hibernation. Here’s hoping global warming will bring it back to life sometime soon.