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Vol. LXI, No. 48
 
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
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Book Review

Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, Born in Princeton, Easter 1982

Stuart Mitchner

I began and abandoned Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (1986), the first of his three Frank Bascombe novels, 18 years ago. I took it up again last month after reading the next two books in the series in reverse order, The Lay of the Land (2006) and then Independence Day (1995). Now that I’ve finished the first book, which Ford has said he began writing in Princeton on Easter, 1982, I find that the last fourth of The Sportswriter, the part I missed, contains scenes that simply can’t be missed if you hope to appreciate the impact of Bascombe as a character and the books as a series. It’s as if I walked out of the room at precisely the moment Frank Bascombe comes into his own as literary creation.

Richard Ford and his wife Kristina lived here from 1976 into the early 1980s in a house on Jefferson Road, just around the corner from the library, then in its original Witherspoon Street incarnation. Besides being “a sweet refuge,” it was also, as he said in the same email message, his “principal means of affiliation” with Princeton, along with home-owning and knowing a couple of his neighbors. “Being a townie,” he wrote, “was probably what … made me able to imagine the three books I set in what might be seen as a made-up place that occasionally resembles Princeton.”

Judging from the numerous interviews that can be found online, Ford’s time here coincided with one of the turning points, if not the turning point, of his career — a movement away from his taut, tightly-worked third-person novels, A Piece of My Heart (1976) and The Ultimate Good Luck (1983), to the more expansive and deceptively casually discursive first-person narrative of The Sportswriter and its sequels. That move not only widened his readership, it eventually brought him a Pulitzer Prize and established him, according to the New York Times, as “one of his generation’s most eloquent voices.”

Along the way, Ford was guided, as he apparently often is, by his wife’s advice. She told him to “try to write about somebody who’s happy.” As Ford explained in a March 2007 interview in the California Literary Review: “Where could I set a book about somebody who was happy? We were in New Jersey, I was teaching at Princeton then. I thought, well, nobody writes happy things about New Jersey…. And I thought, well, maybe that would be the thing to do. Write a novel that is affirming about New Jersey because, certainly it would be unusual. And frankly I liked New Jersey.”

Richard Ford will be at Nassau Presbyterian Church Friday, November 30, at 6 p.m. on the occasion of the Annual Meeting and Benefit for Friends of the Princeton Public Library. Tickets are $25 and $15. Call (609) 924-9529, ext. 280.

Of course if Frank Bascombe were merely happy, The Sportswriter and the novels that followed would not have critics claiming a place for the narrator “beside Willy Loman and Rabbit Angstrom in the literary landscape.” Among other things, Bascombe is dealing with the death of his son and the break-up of his marriage to “X” (Ann in the two later books), who shares a nicely rendered graveside rendezvous with him as the novel begins. There’s an understated aching quality in the voice Ford uses for Bascombe that’s present from the first page of the first book all the way through to the end of the third one. The Sportswriter begins with Bascombe speaking about his life over the past 12 years:

“In most ways it’s been great. And although the older I get the more things scare me, and the more apparent it is to me that bad things can and do happen to you, very little really worries me or keeps me up at night. I still believe in the possibilities of passion and romance. And I would not change much, if anything at all. I might not choose to get divorced. And my son, Ralph Bascombe, would not die. But that’s about it for these matters.”

Bascombe goes on to mention that “if sportswriting teaches you anything … it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.

“I believe I have done these two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it.”

If you know something of the story behind the book, you may feel like giving a cheer after reading these words, which could work as an epigraph for the entire series.

Typecast

With The Sportswriter, Ford rebuffed various misguided attempts to label him, letting it be known that he could no longer be typecast as “regional” (i.e Southern) or “minimalist.” The latter term has been in the lit chat news recently because of the controversy generated by the “minimalizing” a highly influential editor named Gordon Lish performed on the stories in Raymond Carver’s first collection. Lish also played a part in Ford’s career, and had his advice been followed, there might well have been no Frank Bascombe. Referring to Lish, Ford tells Barbara Shoup in Other Voices #31, “When I finally showed him the first one hundred fifty pages of The Sportswriter … he read about ten pages of it and said, ‘You can’t write this book. This doesn’t work, it’s no good. Put it in your drawer and never think about it at all.’ …. That was about Christmastime, 1982, and I had to stop working on [the book] for about seven months because I was so cast down by such a bad opinion.”

Shooting Tigers

Needless to say, an expansive narrative voice can lead to rhetorical overkill. In one of Graham Greene’s autobiographical works (possibly Journey Without Maps), he mentions how he and his wife came up with a term for the act of deleting excessive or unwieldy figures of speech and turns of phrase. Instead of bluepencilling suspect prose, they were “shooting tigers.” One of Ford’s major virtues is that he rarely if ever allows these beasts on the premises. He prefers using a salty, easygoing vernacular, and when a tiger comes along, it can be a treat. In Independence Day, for example, Bascombe is thinking of going fishing and imagines “listening to big fish kerplunking and mosquitoes banging the screen” (“kerplunking” is a good example, of how he employs vernacular) while not very far away “Gotham shone like a temple set to fire by infidels.” Whoa! Hit the brakes! Back up and make sure you saw that visionary flare-up. Then remind yourself that since Bascombe once published a story collection that attracted some serious notice, it only makes sense that some flashy writerly dynamics are going to light up the narrative landscape now and then, especially when the subject is New York, the center of the publishing industry.

Why I Gave Up

I had to consult an old journal to discover why I bowed out three-quarters of the way through The Sportswriter. One of the odd but not unexpected side-effects of reading a novel is what sometimes occurs when your semi-vicarious participation runs up against something uncomfortable in your own experience. For instance, I walked out of John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich when I found myself at a party with a bunch of people I would have avoided in “real life.” It was like, “What am I doing here?” Something similar happened to me prior to Frank Bascombe’s Easter dinner with his girlfriend Vicki and her family in Barnegat Pines. The prospect of spending the afternoon in an overheated house with a “near life-size figure of Jesus-crucified” behind “the beige siding” and a basketball game on the TV and a stepmother who “just had to have ole Jesus hung out there,” sent me packing. That’s when I closed the book.

If you consider what appears to have taken place since 1986 — the emergence of Frank Bascombe as a landmark character in our literature — there’s no doubt that in terms of the reader’s growing empathy with this character, The Sportswriter’s concluding scenes are absolutely essential. It’s not merely that Bascombe takes the stage with Updike’s Rabbit and Miller’s Loman. It’s better than that. Besides finding yourself also thinking of Walker Percy’s Binx Bolling or Joseph Heller’s Bob Slocum (note the echo in Bascombe, a subtle tribute, Ford having cited Heller’s little known novel Something Happened as an influence), you can even imagine Bascombe in relation to figures like Charlie Chaplin, Holden Caulfield, and George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Everything goes wrong and right for him in those concluding pages, from the moment Vicki decks him with an uppercut to the more promising revelation waiting for him in New York, all of it alternately funny, outrageous, slapstick, heartbreaking, and exhilarating. By bowing out when I did in 1989, I missed the denouement in which Ford goes after and captures the heart of the reader.

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