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.