Richard Ford

The Sportswriter

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The Sportswriter Summary

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The Sportswriter (1986) by American novelist Richard Ford introduces the loveable, if mediocre, Frank Bascombe, a character Ford would develop in three future novels, including Independence Day, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. Collectively, the four novels are known as “The Bascombe Novels.” The Sportswriter was praised for its detailed descriptions and criticized for embarking through a has-been genre about a mid-life crisis. Its themes include alienation, tragic loss, happiness and its lack, as well as recovery.

Made up of many flashbacks, the majority of the plot centers on Frank Bascombe’s life during the week of Easter, and how he loses almost everything important to him (or that he assumed was important). It is told in the first person, present tense, which adds to the dreamlike quality of Frank’s thinking.

Frank refers to his ex-wife as “X.” When X discovers a group of letters Frank had written to a bored housewife he never had a physical relationship with, X believes that he has been cheating on her. She wastes no time in pressing for a divorce. She and his two children move out of their home in Haddam, New Jersey (a fictional town that may be modeled on Princeton, New Jersey). He once had three kids, but his son, Ralph, died from Reye syndrome at just nine years old, and Frank never totally recovered from his immense depression. The novel opens with “X” and Frank meeting at Ralph’s tomb for his birthday, a ritual they do every year.

Thirty-eight years old now, Frank started working as a freelance sportswriter for a famous sports magazine when he was twenty-six. (The magazine seems to be like Sports Illustrated). To the surprise of all his friends and even himself, Frank stopped working on his “big” novel and focused on being a father and writing about sports. This is after the successful publication of a group of short stories (called Blue Autumn) and a solid college career at the University of Michigan. Since he gave up writing fiction, Frank has felt an internal anxiety over being incapable of saying what he really wants to say.

He is drawn to sportswriting for the sort of order that athletes provide. He reflects that athletes are all superficial, let their actions speak for themselves, and don’t become depressed. Unlike most of life, the world of athletics is placid and one-dimensional. Sports writing allows Frank to live contently without having to think too much.

His much younger girlfriend, Vicki Arcenault, has moved in with him all the way from Dallas, Texas; they bonded after Vicki helped treat his thumb in the ER where she worked (Frank had nearly sliced his thumb off with a lawnmower). Frank capriciously proposes to Vicki, and she says yes. Frank had figured such an attractive woman would also be dim and a reliable partner, but Vicki ends up having far more personality and curiosity than Frank had bargained for.

Though Frank possesses a relentless sort of optimism, not all of the people he interviews are uplifting. When he interviews Herb, a former football star who’s now a cynical man, Frank is forced to think about life without meaning. He had heard that Herb wanted to go to law school; Frank had expected to hear a powerful story of recovery after a debilitating physical accident. Instead, Herb admits that he’s going to law school to make more money and have a stable job; he doesn’t want to change the world with his law degree, and he’s not interested in inspiring others.

Frank has never been the most accurate of journalists, but fortunately, with sports writing, his superiors forgive his frequent errors. Though he’s supposed to be an expert on football, he often confuses which players used to play at which colleges, or even what their current positions are.

Frank joins a “Divorced Men’s Club” where he can talk to other men about the challenges he’s going through. In private, one of the men, Walter, comes out to him; he then asks if Frank would like to date him. Frank has to politely decline. Walter later commits suicide. Frank tells himself that he had no role in the man’s death, though he has trouble entirely believing that is the case. When he comes across letters from Walter, he takes it upon himself to execute all of Walter’s final wishes.

After Vicki leaves him, Frank tries to seduce a nineteen-year-old intern at the magazine he works for; she seems to flirt back with him and eagerly agrees to dinner. But the advance toward the intern, along with Frank’s increasing sluggishness at work, leads to his dismissal as a sportswriter. Frank thinks, in depth, about all of the other women he has been with. It’s hinted that he relies on romantic relationships with women to ward off oppressive thoughts.

Months pass, and Frank is now living in Florida. He’s down south to look for Walter’s daughter, whom he had learned about in a letter Walter wrote to him asking that Frank explain to his daughter why her father committed suicide. No longer a sportswriter, Frank feels oddly liberated from his past self. He looks forward to the future, feeling as though his life can finally begin. He starts dating a far older woman, though as the novel concludes, Frank admits he doesn’t believe the relationship will last.