A Novel Concept

Let Me Be Frank About ‘The Sportswriter’

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By Michael Malone

What an odd novel “The Sportswriter” is.

By Richard Ford, it is the tale of a sports scribe in New Jersey. He’s divorced and has two children. He lost a son a few years before.

As the title suggests, “The Sportswriter,” published in 1986, is much more a character-driven novel than a plot-driven one. I can’t really say I saw a discernible plot in the book. But one learns a ton about sportswriter Frank Bascombe.

He’s in his late 30s and had some promise as a novelist. But his imagination ran dry and he was hired by a sports mag of some prestige – it sounds like Sports illustrated, though it is never mentioned by name. He finds intriguing human-interest sports stories around the country, and flies out to chase them down. “Mixed pairs body-building, sky-diving, the luge, Nebraska 8-man football,” Ford writes.

After his son died, he was unfaithful to his wife, many times over. Following his divorce from the woman he refers to as X, he has a few girlfriends, and is always keen to take an attractive woman to bed.

Frank’s office is in New York City, but the city freaks him out. He loves New Jersey.

Bascombe’s hometown, midway between New York City and Philadelphia, is Haddam. It is, like his employer, fictional. Being midway between the two cities means you’re not all that close to either, but Bascombe describes Haddam as way upscale and full of influential residents.

“Editors, publishers, Time and Newsweek writers, CIA agents, entertainment lawyers, business analysts, plus the presidents of a number of great corporations that mold opinion, all live along these curving roads or out in the country in big secluded houses,” Ford writes.

Frank chats with his neighbors, the Deffeyes, at one point. They are older and play tennis on a court on their property. They see the world in a manner that a certain real estate mogul who goes on to be president does.

“Caspar and I think that the States should build a wall all along the Mexican frontier,” Delia said, “as large as the Great Wall, and man it with armed men, and make it clear to those countries that we have problems of our own up here.”

There’s an awful lot of New Jersey in the book, fictional or otherwise, including Frank driving a fairly long distance to see girlfriend Vicki in central Jersey. One can almost hear “The Sopranos” theme (“got yoself a gun!”) as Frank steers through Jersey.

One character that stands out is Walter, who, like Frank, is a member of the divorced men’s club of Haddam. They are not close, but Walter shares with Frank one night how his wife left him for another man and moved to Bimini, and he had a fling with a guy at a Manhattan hotel. Walter’s life ends prematurely and tragically, but Frank, being Frank, is mostly unmoved.

At one point, Frank finds himself in New York City, and it does not freak him out the way it usually does.

“The usual demoralizing firestorm of speeding cabs, banging lights and owl-voiced urban-ness has yet to send me careening into the toe-squeezing funk of complication and obscurity, in which everything become too important and too dangerous to be tolerable,” Ford writes. “Here, out on Seventh and 34th, I feel an unaccustomed lankness, a post-coital Midwestern caress to things.”

As the references to Time and Newsweek indicate, “The Sportswriter” feels old. Black people are referred to as Negroes. Ford describes a suitcase with wheels. Frank works at a magazine. His deceased son is named Ralph.

Chapters are long, like 30 to 40 pages. Ford often goes several pages without dialogue, just narrative about Frank finding his way. It is not a fast read.

Ford’s writing is good, not great. He does not write female characters well. Frank’s girlfriend Vicki is, for lack of a better term, not clever. In this scene, she thinks she sees X sneaking off with this jackass doctor Frank knows.

“If it hadn’t been he kissed her, I would’ve thought it was just innocent,” Vicki says. “But it isn’t innocent. That’s why I acted so peculiar at the airport. I figured y’all was about to fight.”

Frank remains deeply in love with X, but one does not see exactly what is loveable about X. She’s smart and confident and good at golf, but not all that endearing.

And why does he refer to her as X? X is somebody you want deleted from your life, someone you hate. Frank still adores X and wants to be remarried.

And the death of Ralph was an opportunity for rich character development that Ford does not see to fruition. Ralph is referred to often, but the reader does not learn a whole lot about what the kid was like. It felt like Ford tossed in a juicy plot point with Ralph, but could not muster the energy to truly make it work.

Like Bascombe, Ford published a novel or two before landing at a sports magazine, the late Inside Sports. He is 79 years old.

“The Sportswriter” got a 3.7 out of 5 from GoodReads. Ford’s other novels include “Independence Day,” “The Lay of the Land” and “Let Me Be Frank With You.” All feature Frank Bascombe as well.

Would I choose to read more Frank Bascombe? Probably not.

Journalist Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his wife and two children.

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