In which Netty spends a not-disagreeable week or so hanging out with The Sportswriter …

November 25, 2012

ImageI have been involved in sports journalism for a good two-thirds of my career, but you will be hard-pressed to actually find my name in print during that time. Because somewhere along the line, the journalism gods decided that no, I would not grow up to become the editor of Rolling Stone (which is why I got into this caper in the first place) but instead a nameless, faceless sub-editor, a species largely unknown – and certainly unappreciated – outside of the media (sometimes even within it), and mainly plying my trade in sports to boot. I no longer specialise in that area, but old habits are hard to break – I still read newspapers starting from the back page, and, as I write this, I am keeping one eye on the second Test, which is ambling away in the background.

As a result, I have had the fortune of working on the copy of some of this country’s finest sportswriters – the vast majority of whom bear very little resemblance indeed to Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, the narrator of the American writer’s 1986 breakout novel The Sportswriter.  Ford was in his mid-40s when the first of his Bascombe trilogy hit the bookshelves (its 1995 sequel Independence Day won Ford the Pulitzer Prize; The Lay of the Land followed in 2006).

The Sportswriter is set during an American Easter weekend, presumably in the late 1970s or early 1980s (considering the language, the climate, the social mores and the attitudes, I was plumping for 1970s until I read the reference to a VCR). As the novel opens, it is Good Friday, and the 38-year-old Bascombe and his ex-wife, simply referred to as “X”, are making their yearly pilgrimage to the grave of their first-born son Ralph, who got sick and died at the age of nine. Although the couple are divorced – largely as a result of Bascombe’s philandering during their marriage – they maintain an amicable relationship and live in the same small, upmarket, New Jersey town, with Bascombe regularly seeing his other two children Paul and Clarissa.

Bascombe, a writer for an unnamed New York-based national sports magazine who also has a successful short-story collection under his belt, later plans to fly to Detroit to interview Herb Wallagher, a one-time big-name NFL player who is now confined to a wheelchair. He will be accompanied by his new-ish girlfriend, bubbly 30-year-old Texan nurse Vicki Arcenault. The couple plans to return to New Jersey to spend Easter Sunday with Vicki’s father Wade, stepmother Lynette and brother Cade, all of whom Bascombe is yet to meet. The previous day had been spent on a fishing excursion with members of The Divorced Men’s Club; wherein its latest recruit Walter Luckett makes an unwanted revelation that continues to unwelcomely weigh on Bascombe’s mind.

And of course, this being fiction, Bascombe’s expectations of how his weekend is going to unfold turn out to be very, very different from its reality …

Um, did I say fiction? The Sportswriter was Ford’s third (of seven so far) novel – and the first of his books that I’ve read, so I obviously can’t pass judgment on the others (he has also published several collections of short stories). However, skimming Ford’s autobiographical material, it would be safe to assume the apple has not fallen too far from the tree in this case. It has always struck me as somewhat disingenuous when authors swear black and blue that their fictional characters and stories have nothing at all to do with their lives. To wit: Ford’s father died when his son was a teenager; ditto Bascombe’s. Ford was discharged from the US Marines after contracting hepatitis; so too is Bascombe’s military service cut short. Both the author and the character “retire” from fiction writing to take on positions as magazine sportwriters – Ford with the now-defunct New York magazine Inside Sports; both take up university teaching stints. Of course I am not suggesting that Bascombe is Ford, or vice versa; merely noting the similarities. A writer more often than not writes what he or she knows, which is ultimately what constitutes successful fiction.

Speaking of similarities, I am sure Andy is not the first to note those between Ford’s Bascombe and John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. Andy and I read Rabbit, Run in the 2009 edition of this Reading Challenge (and I loathed it … “piece of shite”, I called it at the time; “despicable, loathesome, sad and sorry excuse of a character”, was how I summed up Rabbit). Now, Frank Bascombe is certainly far from perfect as a character, and with the book’s first-person narration stretching over 350 pages, you become immersed in the character’s head as well as his world. But I always empathised with Bascombe, even if I disagreed with his actions, his motives or his way of thinking – and I certainly couldn’t say that of Updike’s Rabbit.

The reader comes to the end of The Sportswriter with a complete picture of its protagonist, due in no small part to the finely detailed portrait of Bascombe’s back story that is built up throughout the course of the book and runs concurrently with the events of the Easter weekend. This could easily come off as needlessly self-indulgent, or even unnecessary whimsy, in the hands of a much less-skilled writer than Ford, who keeps a tight – and tightly edited – rein over the unfolding of the story, and hence of Frank Bascombe. (I am sure Ford appreciates the unsung worth of a good sub-editor.)

So Andy can have his Rabbit novels and leave Bascombe to me. On the strength of The Sportswriter, I will definitely read Independence Day and The Lay of the Land. Unlike Rabbit, I am keen to find out Bascombe’s fate – although I doubt it will be the happily-ever-after kind. Ford appears to be far too good a writer to let everything work out for his doppelganger (oops – I mean, his fictional character). And although I would not really want to occupy an office cubicle alongside Bascombe, I am more than happy to delve into his further exploits.

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