The Sportswriter by Richard Ford – Accepting Who I Am, and Accepting I Can Do Better

Published in 1986, The Sportswriter by Richard Ford tells the story of Frank Bascombe, who enjoys some early success as a novelist, only to give it all up for sportswriting at a major New York magazine.

Well regarded, appearing in Time’s 100 best novels 1926 – 2010, The Sportswriter made me think about what we look for in a novel. Often readers will seek out a central character they can identify with. Reading can then be a process of ‘cheering on’ the hero through various challenges. This, of course, is reminiscent of sports fans getting behind an athlete.

But what happens when this sporting analogy is applied to real life? Frank Bascombe travels to Detroit to interview a former American football player who is now confined to a wheelchair following injury. The plan is to write a ‘former sports star meets new challenges’ story, where our damaged warrior tackles his situation with the same bravery he demonstrated playing against the Dallas Cowboys. Frank, however, is in for a shock. Herb Wallager does not fit this neat, heroic scheme. Herb is living a squalid, aimless existence. On the sports field he was respected and successful. In his rundown house, living with a long-suffering wife, who is trying to look after him, he is a broken man. Frank makes a hasty exit and abandons any idea of writing Herb’s story.

In terms of one particular skill, kicking a football say, a person might have heroic gifts. But beyond that narrow world of ball-kicking, things are more complicated. People are rarely all-round heroes. Just as Frank can’t apply his preconceived, uplifting story to Herb Wallager, Frank himself, the central character of The Sportswriter, is no hero. He’s not a villain but he is definitely not someone to shower in ticker tape. Following the death of his son, he sleeps with lots of women, gets divorced, and continues to move from one love affair to another, usually with women who are much younger than him. He is not above using his writer ‘celebrity’ status to help seduce an attractive intern at the magazine. Frank was a bit dodgy in 1986, even more so now.

But do we really want our literary heroes to be like sports stars, when sport is a discipline separate from the rest of life? It’s true that stories have always been built around a hero. Joseph Campbell’s description of the ubiquitous hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is the mythic blue print for the entire output of Hollywood, and the hero’s journey has no doubt long served as a tool to show people how they might deal with life’s challenges. But the character in a story has to deal with the whole of life, not just with the highly specific ball-kicking bit of it. Is trying to see yourself, and others, in terms of this kind of narrow heroism really healthy? One of Frank’s acquaintances from the local divorced mens’ group shoots himself. Frank thinks that things would have gone better for this man if he had given himself a break from unrealistic expectations.

So, the book is about trying to do better, accepting yourself and others as they are, and the tension that exists between these two things. If anything, the book is more relevant now than in 1986, as social expectation around behaviour has become stricter since then.

I understand unhappy reviewers who feel Frank is a hard man to get behind. But ironically, that’s where you could say the real interest of this book lies, and why it has a place on lists of best novels.

The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler – Learning to Love the Bomb

Samuel Butler wrote The Way of All Flesh in the 1870s and 1880s, but it was not published until after his death in 1903.

The book is famous for satirising Victorian morality and family life. Words like ‘scathing’ and even ‘blow up’ (V.S. Pritchett) appear in reviews. There’s a feeling that this bomb of a book was so destructive to Victorian sensibilities that it could not be published at the time of writing, having to wait for a slight loosening that came with the early twentieth century.

The book is certainly interesting for charting the effect of scientific advance – the publication of Darwin’s research – on a specific, rigidly religious family in England, and their wider society. But the quality of the book doesn’t really lie in simple demolition.

The interesting thing for me was how many echoes of the old world we find in the emerging new one. Literal interpretations of the Bible do come in for demolition. But while taking a metaphor at face value might be ridiculous, the general drift of the thing might not be so ludicrous. For example if someone tends to be positive rather than negative in their outlook, that state of mind can tend to make things go better for them. Some people would call that ‘having faith’. Separating the dogmas of Christian faith from just faith in general is the kind of thing The Way of All Flesh goes in for.

I sometimes find an assumption that the job of a writer is to act as a kind of investigative reporter with a wide ranging brief to expose social hypocrisy and delusion and make people see where they are going wrong. This is a tough task, it seems to me, when people will only want to see where they are going wrong when they are good and ready, which is usually a long time after they went wrong. Otherwise they won’t be interested and no one will buy the brave writer’s book. The thing about The Way of All Flesh is that it does show people their wrongs, but does so in a humane way, where right and wrong, new and old, can be shades of each other. In that sense The Way of All Flesh is both a modern book and a good book.

Milkman by Anna Burns – The Middle of The Troubles

Milkman by Anna Burns, winner of the 2018 Man Booker Prize, tells the story of an eighteen year old girl living in an unnamed Northern Irish city during the 1970s. The fact that author Anna Burns is from Belfast, gives us a pointer to how we should picture this fictional city. The narrator, sometimes referred to as Middle Sister, lives in the equivalent of East Belfast, a ‘renouncer’ area, run by paramilitaries fighting British rule. With trouble all around, Middle Sister tries to muddle along, attending a French evening class, going running in the park, reading nineteenth century novels while out walking, and pursuing a not-quite-committed relationship with her motor mechanic boyfriend. Then a man known as Milkman, high in the local paramilitary hierarchy, embarks on programme of intimidation designed to coerce Middle Sister into a relationship with him.

Milkman is often funny, told in a charmingly off-kilter, conversational style. But don’t expect something like Derry Girls. The narrator lives in a very hard place, trying and failing to remain neutral and middling in a situation where neutrality is impossible. She becomes the talk of the neighbourhood as rumour spreads about her ‘relationship’ with Milkman. In many ways this is a study in the contradictions of extremism. Does Middle Sister suggest the middle, as in the most important centre of things? Or is she middling in the sense of being ordinary and unremarkable and nowhere near the centre of things? The story presents her as both. The middle is a boring place that people go to extremes to avoid. It is also the best place. A character called the ‘real milkman’, who delivers actual milk, is a much better man than Milkman, the paramilitary leader.

Apart from this consideration of extremism, which of course remains very relevant, the 1970s society portrayed in Milkman also resonates in the way its truths rest on rumour, propaganda, fear, disinformation, and people believing what they want to believe. An ordinary girl living in a judgemental, divided society with fluctuating rules, suddenly finds herself the focus of something that feels very like a social media pile on.

As chance would have it, I started writing this review on the evening of Good Friday 2023, the 25th anniversary of 1998’s Good Friday agreement which brought peace to the warring factions of Northern Ireland. Milkman, describing a world long before the peace negotiated in 1998, still feels relevant. That is quite an achievement.