Richard Ford’s narrator, Frank Bascombe, quit serious writing to become a sports-writer. This was the making of Ford. It wasn’t until he became Bascombe, the sportswriter, that Ford turned himself into a major novelist.
At odd moments in The Sportswriter, Frank looks back on his abandoned literary career. He had published a ‘promising’ collection of stories, Blue Autumn, and had then started on a novel which he never finished. It was going to be about an ex-Marine in Tangiers, a place Frank had never visited but which he ‘assumed was like Mexico’. In his late thirties, with the abandoned manuscript in a drawer, Frank looks back with bemusement at these efforts to sound ‘hard-nosed and old-eyed about things’.
This is an accurate enough diagnosis of what was wrong with Ford’s first two books, A Piece of My Heart (1976) and The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), both of which were published in Britain only in the wake of the success of his third, The Sportswriter (1986). A Piece of My Heart was swamped by low-lit contrivances, by loading the banal with a freight of what Frank comes to call ‘hard emptinesses’:
‘I ain’t hot,’ he said, keeping his head sealed against his wrist and spitting in the dust.
She got quiet, and he decided to let things be quiet awhile.
‘I’m waitin,’ she said.
‘What’re you waitin on?’ he said ...
She sat staring straight out at the long curve in the road, breathing deeply.
Set in Oaxaca – a place like Tangiers? – The Ultimate Good Luck is harder (‘Quinn wanted the money put away fast’) and emptier: ‘Money gave him nerves. It was too important to fuck with.’ Quinn is a Vietnam vet (naturally) who, in the opening pages, takes a girl he’s just met to a boxing match. ‘He wanted this fight to be over and better fighters to come in, and so did the Mexicans.’ The boxer has an eye put out but Quinn doesn’t even blink. After the fight the girl sucks him off in his room, and after that there’s a lot of bad-ass chat and some shooting. In both these early novels, incidentally, cigarettes are not ‘put out’ or ‘stubbed out’ but ‘mashed’.
According to Frank Bascombe, the problem with his earlier stories was that he could always ‘see around the sides’ of what he was writing, just as we can see around the sides of what Ford was doing in his first books: when male American writers take us to a boxing match, it’s generally so we can watch them squaring up to Hemingway. Writing about sport, though, Frank hit on a style that was entirely his own, ‘a no-frills voice that hopes to uncover simple truths by a straight-on application of the facts’. That was Hemingway’s intention too, of course, but by now Papa’s has become a frill-a-minute legacy; sparseness has itself become ornamental. No, this is an ambition that all writers have to fulfil – unfrill – for themselves. For Ford this was the discovery of writing frankly, or Frankly. If anything of Hemingway survives into this phase of Ford’s writing it is what John Cheever (himself an influence) claimed you could sniff in all of Hemingway’s work: the smell of loneliness.
Ford had always been a writer with a message, in the sense that there was always a mood, a resolution, his fiction was drawn towards; he wanted to put over a generalised sense of the way things tended. But he had done this through people (like the hero of Bascombe’s unfinished novel) on the edge of things. With Frank Bascombe he was able to realise this ambition through a man who was in the middle of everything: born in the middle of the century, middle-class (Ford’s earlier protagonists were drifters), suburban, stalled in the middle of life’s journey. Born into ‘an ordinary modern existence in 1945’, he is ‘an ordinary citizen’ living the ‘normal applauseless life of us all’. Years ago, in the Marine cadets, he was ‘somewhat more than average’ – and still is in the sense that his is an achieved ordinariness, an ordinariness Ford renders with extraordinary precision.
Emptiness, here in the suburbs, is not hard but delicate, manageable even. The Sportswriter opens on Good Friday, when Frank and his ex-wife meet at the grave of their dead child. The whole book circles around the loss (of child, of wife, of literary ambition) and the ‘terrible searing regret’ that underwrites – but is all the time threatening to undermine – Frank’s accommodation with the everyday. Not least among the novel’s remarkable achievements is the way that, for Frank, acknowledgment and evasion are indistinguishable from each other. Ford sustains a tone in which numbness, comfort, desolation and contentment are present in equal measure. This complex of antinomies generates tremendous, unrelieved suspense – we never know where the consequences of the smallest actions will end – which leaves the reader of this awful almost-comedy in an appropriately compounded state of relaxed and exhausted admiration.
The sequel, Independence Day, finds Frank in his so-called ‘Existence Period’. Having abandoned serious writing for sports journalism, he has now given up sportswriting to sell real estate. He’s in his forties, still living in Haddam, New Jersey (in his ex-wife’s house), going about his unremarkable business: collecting rent – or trying to – on a house he owns, showing properties to a couple of increasingly wretched clients, and preparing, as in The Sportswriter, for a holiday weekend away. Not, this time, with a ‘lady friend’ but with Paul, his troubled teenage son.
Since Ford locates the novel so precisely, on a Fourth of July weekend in 1988 with elections looming, you think initially that Frank, like John Updike’s Rabbit, will serve as some kind of litmus test for America’s larger fortunes. This turns out not to be Ford’s intention, or at most it is only tangential. He battens everything down, anchors the details of every action to a particular historical moment, because he needs to hold his novel tightly in place while simultaneously allowing Frank’s monologue to drift where it will. A digressive novel by most standards, The Sportswriter was, by comparison, wire-taut. It hummed. Ford’s version of suspense in Independence Day is to leave things hanging. He seems to pay out the narrative willy-nilly, carelessly, haphazardly. When calamity strikes and the novel snaps, the wrench is even harder because of all the apparent surplus that has been piling up in harmless coils and loops. Only then do you realise that the narrative rope has been measured out inch by inch.
It’s a risky business, though. At times Independence Day nudges too close to the ordinariness it depicts. When Frank advises us of every twist and turn of his itinerary – ‘up to 80, where untold cars are all flooding eastward, then west to Hackensack, up 17 past Paramus, onto the Garden State north (again!), though eerily enough there’s little traffic; through River Edge and Oradell and Westwood, and two tolls to the New York line, then east to Nyack and the Tappan Zee, down over Tarrytown’ – we switch off, let it wash over us without registering where he’s going. Whisking us off on a ‘bystander’s cruise’ through town, he succumbs to what is either an exhaustive short (or a highly abbreviated long) hand:
past the closed PO, the closed Frenchy’s Gulf, the nearly empty August Inn, the Coffee Spot, around the Square, past the Press Box Bar, the closed Lauren-Schwindell office, Garden State S – L, the somnolent Institute itself and the always officially open but actually profoundly closed First Presbyterian, where the WELCOME sign out front says, Happy Birthday America! * SK Race * HE Can Help You At The Finish Line!
As narrator, in other words, Frank is carrying some extra weight these days, suffering a little middle-page spread. Not that it bothers him. In his semi-resigned way he’s actually pretty chipper, ‘larrupping’ down the ole highway, heart going ‘ker-whonk’ as he notices a girl sway ‘waaaay back’ on her heels. When prose is as easy on the ear as this you have to attend carefully lest, lulled by the lope of Frank’s voice, you miss important turns (of phrase, of action). In the itinerary passage quoted earlier, it turns out, there were none; but it is by tailgating the quotidian like this that Ford captures these interludes, too vague and drifting even to be termed states of mind, the aggregate of which gives the Existence Period its characterless character.
Frank’s voice also proves surprisingly flexible. With no perceptible change of gear it can cry out like Rilke before gliding back into the humdrum:
My heart has begun whompeting again at the antiseptic hospital colours, frigid surfaces and the strict, odourless, traffic flow yin-yang of everything within sight and hearing ... And everything’s lugubriously, despairingly for something: nothing’s just for itself or, better, for nothing. A basket of red geraniums would be yanked, a copy of American Cage Birds magazine tossed like an apple core. A realty guide, a stack of Annie Get Your Gun tickets – neither would last five minutes before somebody had it in the trash.
Lucky American writers, for whom the dominant narrative voice of literature is so close to the lives of the people within the narrative! ‘Every time I talk to you I feel everything’s being written by you,’ complains Frank’s ex-wife at one point. ‘That’s awful. Isn’t it?’ Skew things round a little, though – everything Frank writes sounds as if it could have been said by someone in the book – and it becomes anything but awful. Think of the hoops James Kelman has had to wedge himself through to close the gap between narrative and dialogue; then think of Ford and that all-accommodating, middle-of-the-road voice that is equally at home either side of inverted commas.
As in The Sportswriter, much of the action of Independence Day involves Frank chatting with people he bumps into. Characters – even those with walk-on parts like Mr Tanks, the removal man, his wristwatch ‘sunk into his great arm’, or Char, the cook with whom Frank almost gets something going – step into the book and are instantly, vividly present. They don’t even have to be present to be present: when Frank phones through to check messages on his answering machine, a deserted motel lobby is suddenly jostling with six or seven people, all breathing down his neck. (Ford, as far as I know, is the first novelist to have tapped the potential of this relatively recent technological innovation; I’m surprised Nicholson Baker hasn’t made a whole book out of it.)
I mention these messages because of the way they reveal Ford’s skill at conveying entire lives in very few words. (Nothing in The Sportswriter is more suggestive of the gulf/bond between Frank and the world than the exchanges with his near-suicidal acquaintance Walter Luckett, each of them finishing everything they say with the other’s Christian name.) He also has an uncanny ability to make what characters say somehow contain the light or weather that surrounds them. A gesture is implied by a voice, a state of mind by a gesture. In Wildlife, the fine short novel Ford published in 1990, between the two Bascombe books, the teenage narrator sees his mother on the phone to her lover, ‘winding the phone cord around her finger and looking at me through the door as she talked to him’. The new book is dense with moments like this, where the psychological dynamics of a scene are inherent in a few simple movements – as when Frank is ferrying around a couple of house-buyers who are close to ‘realty meltdown’:
‘Maybe we should think about renting,’ Phyllis says vacantly. I have her in my mirror, keeping to herself like a bereaved widow. She has been staring at the hubcap bazaar next door, where no one’s visible in the rain-soaked yard, though the hubcaps sparkle and clank in the breeze. She may be seeing something as a metaphor for something else.
Unexpectedly, though, she sits forward and lays a consolidating mitt on Joe’s bare, hairy shoulder, which causes him to jump like he’d been stabbed. Though he quickly detects this as a gesture of solidarity and tenderness, and lumpily reaches round and grabs her hand with his ... It is the bedrock gesture of marriage, something I have somehow missed out on, and rue.
The journey made by Frank and his son both locates Independence Day quite consciously within the tradition of the American novel and implicitly tugs that tradition towards Ford’s own preferred territory. From Haddam they head to Cooperstown, to the dawn, as it were, of the American novel, where James Fenimore Cooper’s name is preserved in dozens of variants of the Leatherstocking Giftshop or the Deerslayer Inn, where Frank and Paul spend the night. Frank is struck by the geography involved in their journey from Haddam, by the way that ‘in three hours you can stand on the lapping shores of Long Island Sound, staring like Jay Gatz at a beacon light that lures you to, or away from, your fate; yet in three hours you can be heading for cocktails damn near where old Natty drew first blood – the two locales as unalike as Seattle is to Waco.’
And in the middle of these two literary poles, of course, is Haddam, New Jersey, where Fordstakes his own claim to literary greatness. It’s tantamount to his saying – to making exactly what the book’s title commemorates: a declaration – that he is right up there. I would not dispute the claim: it’s not just that Ford deploys the he-did-this, she-did-that traditional tools and qualities of the writer’s art so abundantly; also, and perhaps more important, he reminds us that these qualities are themselves difficult to surpass. You can go beyond them but you cannot better them.