Friday, January 11, 2013

The Sportswriter Starts Slow but Finishes Strong

We did not like The Sportswriter.  At least through the first few chapters.  And then the focus shifted from an exhaustively thorough examination of a New Jersey suburb and the protagonist’s unchecked introspection to the real-time interactions of an engrossing set of characters and we simply couldn’t put the book down.  This novel and the entire Frank Bascombe series came so highly recommended that we trudged on.  And we’re glad we did.   
The Sportswriter is the story of Bascombe, a divorced suburban WASP sportswriter in his late-thirties, who, by his own admission “just [tries] not to do any harm.”  He has no illusions about life and is able to find satisfaction in things like a cozy armchair, a well-mixed drink and no-hitters.  He takes the days as they come; an extremely self-satisfied man.  Recovering from the death of his oldest child he is slowly coming back to orbit after his life became shrouded in “dreaminess” following the tragedy.  The story unfolds over a long weekend in his beloved Haddam, New Jersey and a quick excursion to Detroit to interview an ex-football player. 
It’s easy to see why Pat Ford has a Pulitzer on his shelf (Independence Day, the third novel in the Bascombe trilogy) as his gift for finding meaning in the smallest details is evident from page one.  The way that he unearths beauty and truth in his straightforward description of small town life in the Northeast makes him something of a New Jersey Faulkner. 
But this is also perhaps the single aspect of the book that we struggled with the most.  For anyone thirsting for an exemplarily thesis on the Jersey ‘burbs, the first hundred odd pages of The Sportswriter is paydirt.  Add to that a protagonist that has been characterized as smug, even shallow by some critics, and you have cause for valid criticism.  But The Sportswriter is so much more than a man driving through his neighborhood describing what he sees out his car window.  And Bascombe is a comfortably sympathetic character -something like a white collar Springsteen for the Wall-Street commuter class- which Ford impressively employs to cover nearly every square inch of human emotional terrain in just 375 pages.    
Ford is a gifted and empathetic writer and The Sportswriter reads like a cross between The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Updike’s Rabbit novels, with a dash of baseball to spice things up.  It strikes an entertaining balance between character, story, and environment as Bascombe’s existential contemplation weaves almost seamlessly with the character interaction and clever dialogue.  Insightful observational nuggets that can be gleaned from nearly every single page and it’s the type of rewarding read that you won’t soon forget. 
Independence Day (1995) is the more celebrated book of the Bascombe trilogy but The Sportswriter is the introduction to the series and a very impressive book in its own right.  It’s difficult to walk away from this novel not being impressed by Ford’s skill as a writer and eager to read his other works.