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John Self 9th May 2006 23:33

Richard Ford
Richard Ford first came to my attention in the early 90s as one of a trio of American writers loosely (and wildly inaccurately) termed 'dirty realists' - the other two being Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. (In fact the three were friends, as detailed by Carver in his essay in the collection Fires.)

This is exalted company. Raymond Carver, who was dead five years by the time I heard of him in 1993 with the British publication of his selected stories, Where I'm Calling From, gave literature a new word - Carveresque - referring to bare, lean, often ambiguous stories that are so understated they're practically translucent. I don't love his stuff unreservedly but at its best - stories like Cathedral or A Small, Good Thing, both from the collection Cathedral - he can simultaneously blow your mind and take your breath away. But, like, subtly. And what better beginning to a story could there be than this?


In the kitchen, he poured another drink and looked at the bedroom suite in his front yard. The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom--nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side

His side, her side.

He considered this as he sipped the whisky.
And for my money, the mighty Tobias Wolff (as you'll see in the thread linked above) can do no wrong, whether in stories, memoirs or novel. He's just got it. He's the real thing.

So what about Richard Ford? He seems to have slipped off the literary radar of late, his high point probably being the Pulitzer Prize win in 1996 for Independence Day. This, to me, sang sweetly from the very title, which it shared with the dumb movie blockbuster of the same year. Independence Day in the movie spoke of brainless 4th of July jingoism; Independence Day in the novel brought to mind a tentative mood of celebration for a man pulling his life back up after a series of failures and losses.

The man was Frank Bascombe, protagonist of Ford's earlier 1984 novel The Sportswriter. He was a reflective, fairly timid character in the earlier book, recently divorced and with one dead son. I devoured both books when I first read them, ten years ago now; they seemed to me to be full of low-key wisdom and an invigorating blend of irony and honesty in Ford's portrayal of Bascombe. So I was somewhat surprised to see, when I decided to pull them out again for a re-read, ahead of this autumn's publication of the next Frank Bascombe novel, The Lay of the Land, that my copy of The Sportswriter had a bookmark beached in it, about a third of the way through, on page 148. Ah yes, I remember now: I started re-reading it a few years ago, but got sidetracked, or misplaced it, or something...

But no. I started reading it again this week and after much puffing and fidgeting now have the bookmarked beached at page 162. (Starting again on page 1, I mean - I didn't just read 14 pages...) Here's the thing: The Sportswriter is actually kinda boring. This is odd. I mean, I knew the character Frank Bascombe was supposed to be dull, but shouldn't Ford have got around that somehow? I had thought the first time around that the book was full of little nuggets of quotability, but nothing here resides (after the excellent opening pages, anyway). Instead we get oddly mannered and overworked sentences like this:


Only our house got broken into, hateful Polaroids scattered around, the letters from the woman in Kansas found, and X seemed suddenly to think we were too far gone, farther gone than we knew, and life just seemed unascendant and to break between us, not savagely or even tragically, just ineluctably, as the real writers say.


And even though I cannot say we like each other, I definitely can say that we don't dislike each other, which may be exactly the quiddity of all friendships that have not begun with fellows you knew before your own life became known to you - which is the case for me, and, I suppose, for the others, though I truly don't know them well enough to say.
This, remember, is supposed to be an ordinary Joe (albeit one who has published a collection of short stories before turning his talents to sportswriting) talking to the reader unmediated. I must have read that last sentence over half a dozen times trying to get one end or another of it. And that ain't good.

So all I can presume is that Independence Day is the kicker, the one that all those years ago blocked out the bad memories of The Sportswriter and had me filing Ford in my personal pantheon along with - well, Carver and Wolff. Nonetheless I couldn't help feeling that if, as the publication of a third instalment suggests, Ford seeks to make the Bascombe books into the new Rabbit series - well, I don't think John Updike need lose sleep just yet (particularly as Ford shares his stamping ground of the whole men and women, women and men, it'll never work thing). Of course, I will probably still reread Independence Day, and get The Lay of the Land when it comes out, hope springing eternal as it has a habit of doing.

Where I can put in an unqualified good word for Ford is in his stories. His last collection, A Multitude of Sins, was superb, all about relationships again, and all wonderful. He has a real knack of making the reader believe that each story really has been whittled down from a much greater wealth of material - that it really is, in other words, a snatched scene from a life. It just remains to be seen whether he can sustain it at novel length.

HP 10th May 2006 9:32

Re: Richard Ford
Am grinning here, John .... don't know if you recall it or not, but you once slapped me soundly on the wrist for daring to suggest I thought The Sportswriter was dull and vacuous fare. As you say, a wannabe Updike but without the insight or the blinding writing skills. All many moons ago, now - too many to go hunting for it that's for sure, but jim will back me on this, 'cos he sprung to my defence. But I think we all tend to do it - this moving on thang, and it takes a reread to make you realise it; for ages I was quite convinced that poor ol' Stephen King was much misunderstood, a victim of his own popular success - all because eons ago I'd read a few Kings (when I still had so much better stuff yet to discover) and thought them excellent, fresh and original and utterly gripping. Ha! An abortive attempt to read him a few months ago soon put me wise. Who knows, if we keep travelling long enough down that literary road, thee and me, we might even come around to appreciating Bellow!

John Self 10th May 2006 11:07

Re: Richard Ford
Hell, you're right Honey! :oops: And it's never too late to do a search. Here's how the original Ford discussion went, in the Palimplist Conversations 2005 thread...


Originally Posted by m.
HP, you didn't like The Sportswriter? I haven't read it but it's been for some time at the top of the list of the books that I would read if they were available to me at the moment. I've read the first short story from The Multitude of Sins and I liked it a lot - and I'm not a fan of short stories in general, though it seems like slowly I'm acquiring the taste. And I've read the beginning of The Sportswriter on Amazon, and thought it was very promising. :-D


Originally Posted by John Self
The Sportswriter and its sequel Independence Day are superb. Richard Ford is a real talent although his low-key approach can sometimes make his stuff a little hard to get into.


Originally Posted by HoneyPotts
Oh, this is a difficult one. I did enjoy Ford's The Sportswriter, but only to a limited degree. I've been tossing up whether to write a review of it, or not, because I have a strong feeling it was not entirely the book's shortcomings that earned it a meagre 3 stars from me, but rather my mood at the time of reading. Ain't this always the case, however? The biggest difficulty I had with it was the sameness of the sentence structure. After a little while, the repetitive length and rhythm of Ford's writing began to lull me off to sleep! Over and again, I had to yank my mind back to the task in hand. When I did - well, there were gems to be harvested and savoured, but I rather resented the fact that it all seemed such an effort to stay conscious! It also didn't help, that I tend only to read at night when nestled up in the silkies and lately, have been hitting those silkies nearer midnight than not. In other words, I've only been reading it in small chunks before the Sandman comes a-stealing and the book slips from my hand. Some books - and this may well be one - need to be read in nice big meaty chunks, not bite-sized nibbles. That said, I do think there is an added difficulty, here. Namely - not a great deal happens. That's no big deal as far as I'm concerned - I'm not the sort of reader that gets her kicks from devilishly complicated plots; nor am I dependent on highly dramatic turns of events for my enjoyment - but with the soothing sameness of Ford's writing and very little going on, I'm afraid whole pages skimmed before my eyes but never penetrated the HP skull! Another reason I struggled was the central character and narrator, Richard Bascombe - The Sportswriter in question - is just an ordinary Joe making out as best he can, (in fact, the whole book is pretty much his thoughts, emotions, hopes, fears as he shuffles through another week) - which, again, is fine. Nothing wrong in that. And nothing wrong with Ford choosing a character who is essentially everyman - flawed but well-intentioned. But after a promising start, halfway through, I began to realise that I really didn't much care what became of him. He's good; he's honest; his love-life is a bit of a mess - not entirely his fault; and he loves his kids. Well, good. But inevitably, comes the question: so what? I had high hopes of this book, and like you, thought the beginning was excellent, drawing me in and pleasing me with some fine observation and equally fine writing, but little by little I knew I was losing interest in our Mr Bascombe and once that happens, you're on a hiding to nowhere.

However, let me just repeat, most nights, I was tired when I read this and Ford's mellifluous, soothing sentence structure was just too damn sleep-inducing for that time of the day.

Yup - I'm all too aware this is considered a fine novel - damn it, it won the PEN/Faulkner citation for fiction, and is spoken of as one of Ford's best efforts - AND the writing is fine stuff (if you ignore the soporific effect of those same-length sentences) - but - But - I think there is a huge temptation to override your own judgement and reactions to a book, for fear of appearing a poorly-educated judge in literary matters - i.e. if the general word is that such and such a book is a great literary success, then who am I to argue even if I didn't rate it particularly or derive much pleasure from the sum of its pages? But such considerations would make a personal rating meaningless, wouldn't they? No: I think one has to stick one's neck out and speak as one finds. Sooooo .... having said all that, would I recommend The Sportswriter? Well, strangely, perhaps ...Yes! And quite an emphatic Yes, too. It's an honourable, well-considered study of an unexceptional man that affords the reader warts and all insight into the life of that man. And given no distractions (or late nights) you may very well enjoy it.


Originally Posted by jim
By way of moral support HP I agree with your comments in relation to the Sportswriter to the extent that I gave up in the end about half way through. By that stage I was starting to skip chunks so I thought what's the point? As you say very little happens and when you get to the stage when you don't care what the character thinks about anything then you're left with very little. No doubt my inability to complete the book says more about my own shortcomings as a reader than than it does about the author's skill but sometimes life is too short.

So now we're all up to date...

John Self 16th Jul 2007 21:03

Re: Richard Ford
Richard Ford has impeccable taste in fiction, as we know from his introductions to UK editions of James Salter’s Light Years and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. He also enjoys greatness by association with his old friends, the late Raymond Carver and the not late (except when it comes to turning out novels) Tobias Wolff. And his last collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, was a delight. But I get the impression that what he wants to be remembered for are the Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1984), Independence Day (1995) and now The Lay of the Land. A clue to this comes in the early pages of chapter 1, where the uncommon word angstrom appears. Of course! It’s Rabbit by Richard.

And The Lay of the Land does seem more than either of the others to be Ford’s attempt to square up to Updike and give the world his own Harry Angstrom. It seems less interested in doing something new (it copies the structure of Independence Day: the detailed moment-by-moment recreation of the days approaching a public holiday - this time Thanksgiving - and a dramatic event near the end), and is content to examine Bascombe’s life with positively forensic attention.

This is not without event - Bascombe gets involved along the way in a bar brawl, a terrorist attack, and several switchbacks of his present and previous love lives - but there’s no denying that it does get at times extremely boring. It’s hard to tell whether this is deliberate - Frank after all is an estate agent and not a man given to outbursts of emotion - and at times this quality made it the ideal holiday read, as I had nothing else with me to put it down for. Ford’s prose is not the match of Updike’s, or Salter’s for that matter, and in storytelling circles Yates leaves him standing.

Nonetheless the book was not at all a difficult or reluctant read, and there are moments of brilliant observation, such as this assessment of Bascombes’ Tibetan employee, Mike Mahoney:


In this, he’s like many of our citizens, including the ones who go back to the Pilgrims: He’s armed himself with just enough information, even if it’s wrong, to make him believe that what he wants he deserves, that bafflement is a form of curiosity and that these two together form an inner strength that should let him pick all the low-hanging fruit.
This also plays into the Rabbitesque background to the book: the recounts and court challenges to the 2000 Bush/Gore election, which gives Ford a chance to put some choice anti-Bushisms in Bascombe’s mouth.

Finally, there is the inevitable impressed satisfaction of reading any book this length, that the author should have managed to sustain the performance for so long, even if we didn’t always enjoy it that much (or perhaps, as Forster once suggested, we tend to overpraise long books simply because we have got through them). Oh, and a word about that: my obsession with flagrant page-bloat has been mentioned before, but I think swelling the page count from 496 in the hardback to 726 in the paperback sets a new record. Unless of course you are even more anally retentive than I am about things like that, and know better.


Stewart 23rd Jul 2007 0:14

Re: Richard Ford
I think I might buy up this trilogy next week. It's one I keep looking at. And now I see Amazon are selling all his books for £3.99 each (£35.91, to save anyone the math) and I'm tempted. Really tempted. (And I'm basing that on John saying The Sportswriter is boring. I must be mad.)

John Self 23rd Jul 2007 0:32

Re: Richard Ford
To be honest Stewart, the more I think about The Lay of the Land, the more I think it was boring too. I mean I know I said it was boring above, but now I'm struggling to remember what it was that outweighed that. Might mark him down to ***00.

Not sure if you've read any of his other stuff but I would recommend his most recent collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins. Of course if you like that, then you might be (wrongly) persuaded that the novels are as interesting. On the other hand I fully understand the desire to do the big ones, as it were.

Stewart 23rd Jul 2007 0:45

Re: Richard Ford

Originally Posted by John Self (Post 69840)
Not sure if you've read any of his other stuff but I would recommend his most recent collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins.

I've read nothing by him. So: noted.


On the other hand I fully understand the desire to do the big ones, as it were.
Yeah, I've been looking at my collection over the past few weeks. I've got three bookcases which are now filled and so I think the plan of action, after Tobacco Road, will be to read the ones I don't want (i.e. The Life Of Pi, Vernon God Little and other assorted shit I've picked up over time) and sling them on eBay thus making room for some manic completism. I've got all the Yates, all the Ishiguro's thus far, almost all the Penguin Steinbecks, and so it's a case of picking up those authors who I want to read. I've never read Greene, Waugh, or Wodehouse. Never read Dickens. Or Hardy. Or Chekhov. My preference would be to move the crap out the door and keep bringing in Penguin silvers and blacks. A collection for the future. (And I keep looking at those Canadian Penguins too.)

I'll no doubt buy the trilogy anyway as it's twelve quid. Three for less than the price of Steinbeck's To A God Unknown.

leyla 1st Aug 2007 20:45

Re: Richard Ford
The Sportswriter was the first Richard Ford book I'd read, and when I embarked on it, I hadn't read the thoughts on it posted above, which is just as well, or I may have given up on it halfway through. It's a book that is plodding and ponderous in many respects, but, in the same way that you can warm to an introspective, endlessly self analysing friend, it slowly drew me in.

Introspective is a key word here. Frank Bascombe, the sportswriter of the title, is a thirty eight year-old divorced father of three kids given to self reflection on an epic scale. The fact that one of those kids - his first born, Ralph - is dead, accounts for part of this navel gazing, and the book opens with Frank meeting up with his ex wife - named only as X - on the annual pilgrimage to Ralph's grave. The rest of the novel follows Frank over the course of the next few days, during which he takes an unsuccessful trip to Detroit with his new girlfriend Vicki and then visits Vicki's family on their return.

As with Updike's Rabbit books, much of the story is given over to understanding the central character's personality and his motivation for behaving as he does. And there are similarities between the two men - both Harry Angstrom and Frank Bascombe are selfish, indecisive, detached from others to a certain extent, follow their dicks, and lack self insight. The difference is that Frank WANTS to understand himself and life, and much of the novel is dedicated to his thoughts and reminiscences, whereas Harry was happy to amble through life doing what he wanted without really dissecting it cerebrally at all.

Yet for all Frank's endless musing and his view of himself as a good person and as someone who speaks about his feelings - at one stage, he agrees with Vicki that he is a New Age man - he is, like many men who declare themselves modern - deeply selfish, often more so than 'traditional' unreconstructed males who don't self analyse, and his self appraisals lack criticism and objectivity. He looks back, for instance, on the fact that he slept with eighteen different women in the two years after Ralph died and while he was still married to X with fascination, yet never admits to any guilt for how X must have felt about the infidelities.In fact, in his emotions, Frank is so detached as to seem almost Aspergen, although much of this is probably numbness secondary to Ralph's death. At one stage, he thinks back to a period when he taught in college in Boston and lived away from the family home while still married: during this time, he had a long-standing affair with a mysterious and seductive Arab woman. He reflects on her with longing but with no hint of remorse for his infidelity. And, back in the present time, he follows his libido without engaging his brain - he propositions two different women in the same day without thinking how they would feel afterwards or of the implications. Even while he proposes marriage to Vicki, he is thinking that it doesn't have to be forever.

Ford is no Updike, and his sentences lack the delightfulness of the latter's, whose words can be savoured and pored over like exquisite, perfectly formed jewels. In comparison, Ford's tone can feel monotonous and the lack of leavening spirit can make the prose heavy and leaden - what humour there is is not sharp and quick, dancing off the page in a shimmer of sparkle and wit, but considered and deliberate like the rest of the prose. But Ford is expressive and articulate in a more steady, less dazzling way, and there is a considerable slow burn appeal to the novel. Sometimes, a sentence will encapsulate a place or feeling perfectly, as this description of Manhattan when Frank arrives one night:

'Here, out on Seventh and 34th, I feel an unaccustomed lankness, a post-coital midwestern caress to things - the always dusky air still high and hollowish, streets alive with the girdering wheels of hungry traffic that pours past me and quickly vanishes',

which perfectly captures the balance between the languorous sense of possibility and the frenetic rush of city life. Admittedly, for every gem like this, there are a few irksome quirks, such as Ford's occasionally grating vocabulary - 'complexer' and 'vivider' instead of more complex /more vivid, 'unexplainably' instead of inexplicably,'lighted' instead of lit, 'real' twice in the same sentence, and his liberal use of the word 'literal', which seems to crop up every few pages, as well as the unironic, unhistoric use of 'Negroes' which made me cringe a little. At one point, Frank wonders if his African lodger has a 'long aboriginal penis' - no capital on aboriginal, so presumably Ford is referring to an original inhabitant of Africa rather than a native Australian, but the cliche (black man, big knob) still made me shudder. And elsewhere, Frank identifies two besuited men getting off a train as 'Jews' with no context to the observation (how did Frank know? etc). But perhaps these are things that didn't cause the same unease in parts of the US back in 1984, when this book was first published.

So, despite the long, rambling, very dreamy style of this book - and Frank admits that 'dreaminess' is a trait of his, so this wandering may be in character - The Sportswriter has enough of interest to commend it. As a picture of alienation, of a man trying his best but hopelessly goofing up again and again, it works well, and many of the peripheral characters - the drawling Southern belle with bite Vicki, her likable father and Neanderthal brother - are portrayed beautifully. All in all, this is a tale of suburban angst which meanders rather than marching, and once you adapt to the pace and style, it has much to offer.
***00 1/2

Stewart 2nd Aug 2007 0:41

Re: Richard Ford
leyla, any chance you can put proper paragraph spacings in your reviews? I guess you are copying from a Word document.

leyla 2nd Aug 2007 13:23

Re: Richard Ford
Done Stewart. Thanks for that tip, it does look a bit more readable now. Did you buy the Frank Bascombe trilogy in the end?

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