By Sarah Schweizer
I am going to make an unusual suggestion when it comes to books: read not for pleasure, but, while still enjoying the act of reading The Sportswriter by Richard Ford, do not let enjoyment carry the momentum. Instead become an attentive reader reading for empathy—go to the literature to learn about your neighbor. The best part of this learning process might be that this book does not require keeping track of footnotes, flipping to the back for the endnotes, or background research because Ford is writing about us. Despite his great Southern legacy, from growing up in Mississippi—the land of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, whose names should strike fear into your bookworm’s heart—Ford does not write only to the south but manages to capture suburban America as a whole: the freeways, the lonely man in the car driving on the freeway, and the house a few streets over from the ex-wife and kids. The point is not to despair, though that does seem attractive at times. Instead the lonely man, Frank Bascomb, tells us himself, “I believe I have done these two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin.” To me, the question begs to be asked, not what regret or ruin has Frank avoided, but what can be regretted or regarded as ruin in this novel that focuses so much on this transient and dreamy world, and the task of merely putting off the empty moment in front of us?
Regret and ruin go together in cases like in lovers lost, books unwritten, an up-and-coming writing career given up for a more straightforward sports writing job, divorce, and the death of a son. All of these cataclysmic events of regret and ruin Bascomb has lived through and details in his dreamy thoughts that, in their wandering, reveal the individualistic and isolating nature of life outside of the comfort that his girlfriend’s mother finds in Vatican II—so to speak—for the same type of events.
Earlier I requested that we read for empathy. This appeal stems from the idea that Frank Bascomb is a representative of the post-modern man. He gives an example of the transient feeling that comes with no greater purpose in life. While Bascomb is no Oedipus, he does reveal how a tragic hero would appear in this world. The story of Bascomb’s Easter weekend starts with contentedness and ends in chaos, despite his constant and careful actions to “put off the empty moment.” While the fall takes the slow meandering four years since his eldest son died of Reye’s syndrome—or maybe, instead, all thirty-nine of Bascomb’s years—the landing splat on the pavement takes only an Easter weekend. The action happens in the many interpolating thoughts that stream through Bascomb’s mind in which he reveals and finally recognizes that his family is not fractured but broken, finishes his four years of mourning, and quits the town, Haddam, New Jersey, that he had so carefully chosen years before for its blandness. We witness the end of an era and the self-inflicted exile that necessitates a new one. Bascomb’s self-awareness and dreaminess create an intricate loom that weaves together memories of his marriage and failed writing career, his revelations, and the discomfort of the present and past moments. In turn, this reveals a subtle disconnect between his thoughts and actions. One moment takes up a multitude of pages of thoughts, actions, and memories that reveal the connectedness of our lives to the present moment and the great uncertainty that accompanies the never-ending succession of empty moments. Through Bascomb’s perspective, Ford purposefully creates an atmosphere of turmoil of emotion and memory:
And I feel exactly what at this debarking moment? At least a hundred things at once, all competing to take the moment and make it their own, reduce undramatic life to a gritty, knowable kernel. This, of course, is a minor but pernicious lie of literature, that at times like these after significant or disappointing divulgences, at arrivals or departures of obvious importance . . . that at such times we are any of us altogether in emotion, that we are within ourselves and not able to detest other emotions we might also be feeling, or be about to feel, or prefer to feel. If it’s literature’s job to tell the truth about these moments, it usually fails . . .
While Bascomb, and possibly Ford, would admit that even this piece of literature does not capture a turmoil of emotions, it at least admits that it tried and failed—but failed to a lesser degree, in this regard, than, say, Middlemarch, which reduces revelation to clarifying images.
The clarity in this meandering and reflective narrative comes from Ford’s careful application of stream of consciousness writing, which gives a sense of earnestness and lucidity. We are only privy to Bascomb’s thoughts and actions. While spending three days inside the head of a middle-aged divorced man does not seem like a pleasant activity, it provides an education as to what emptiness, loss, and lack of desire for life means. In addition, Ford’s clear and precise construction of sentences gives the quality of frankness we find in Bascomb. Bascomb’s job as a sportswriter allows him to study and categorize people into their respective archetypes, which in turn lets Ford open for us the mind of a man who has noticed and observed more of human nature than you or I probably have. The beauty of these few days comes not in their end or even the process of getting there but in the wandering yet straightforward thoughts and descriptions of familiar modern day sights that reveal themselves in sentences like, “Central Jersey dozed in a sweet spring somnolence. DJ’s as far as Tom’s River crooned along the seaboard that it was after eight.”
While it seems like I am prescribing depression here, I can only hope to convince you that it will lead to the opposite. Why not look in the mirror? Maybe a clear example of someone who really has no idea what the Good is, does not see a way in which it could possibly exist, and does not have reason to pursue it, will cause you to really pursue understanding. Or maybe it will show you a piece of your neighbor. Or maybe it will reveal that the worst can and will happen but even that does not change the act of living itself even when that empty moment comes, as reflected in the novel’s clear descriptions of banal activities. Ford’s gift to us here is a good look at ourselves, where the attributes and consequences of our transient, fast-paced, and impersonal culture is refracted back to us through a single person.
Sarah Schweizer graduated from Hillsdale College in 2015 with degrees in English and mathematics. She now studies literature at the University of Dallas.