The Sportswriter

Up until this point, I haven’t read any so-called literature this year. When I say lit, I’m not necessarily talking about the classics or anything. I’m just talking about fiction that is a little more serious and thoughtful than my normal crime and thriller reading. Page through the stuff I’ve called lit and you’ll get an idea.

I’m classifying The Sportswriter, the first book of this Richard Ford trilogy, as literature. It’s the story of a guy named Frank Bascombe, a 39 year old sportswriter and divorced father living in Haddam, New Jersey. It’s set during Easter Week (back in the 1980s I’m guessing), and follows Frank around for a few days as he interacts with his ex-wife, his girlfriend, his family, his girlfriend’s family, and his other divorced friends.

Some crazy, shocking stuff happens and some boring, plodding stuff happens. Kind of like real life. This book exhibits a feature I find in so-called literature: the capacity to either really bore me or really surprise me, both in the extreme. It also contained some family carnage, another feature of literature which I find comforting, for some warped reason.

It has a somewhat somber, melancholic tone. Frank just kind of bounces around and never gets too riled up about anything. Early on, he gives this pearl of wisdom to set the scene for the book.

… For now let me say only this: if sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.

He seems to be saying, I think, that it’s a delicate balance. You must go out on a limb far enough only to face the possibility of regret, yet manage to avoid it. I struggle to tell if Frank has achieved this in his life. He’s a difficult guy to figure out and it got frustrating at times. There are long sections of him just batting things around in his head so there’s plenty of material to sort through.

His recollections are strange and the situations he gets into are bizarre, but they lay the groundwork for a constant state of wonderment. As I read, I kept saying to myself, “Wow, where did that come from?” Then there are moments of clarity amongst the chaos. He certainly set himself up for the possibility for regret, and I think he has avoided it, despite some significant hardship.

He laments things, for sure, but not regret. For instance, he seems to have been an early lamenter of the trend towards stats-minded sports leadership (remember, this book was written in the 1980s):

… When sports stops being a matter for speculation, even idle, aimless, misinformed speculation, something’s gone haywire – no matter what Mutt Greene thinks – and it’ll be time to get out of the business and for the cliometricians and computer whizzes from Price Waterhouse to take over the show.

That’s just a random thought he had, as he was listening to sports talk radio in the car, slowing down to see if his palm reader was available, while on his way to identify his friend, a fellow divorced guy who tried to kiss him a few days ago, who had just committed suicide. I probably could have broken that down into a few sentences, but it wouldn’t have sounded any less weird, so I’m not even going to try. And that only scratched the surface of the oddness.

After sorting through the deluge of thoughts in Frank’s mind, it does make you question the point of sports. I’ve come to terms with my sports obsession recently. For me, it’s not that unhealthy of a hobby and mostly manifests itself in participation (golf and running). Sure, I get deluded at times that some of my self-worth is tied to the success of ND football or my handicap index, but that passes quickly. And I often stare blankly at the TV when golf or the White Sox are on, but that’s healthier than watching reality TV or sitcoms, right? Say yes.

I dug a little deeper and found this essay called Sport and the literary imagination, by this guy named Jeff Hill, which references Frank Bascombe. It speaks to the “illusion” of sports in the minds of men. Here is how Hill puts it:

… He [Bascombe] is a victim of his own illusions, one of a group of flawed men in a novel whose force comes from sensible, purposeful, steely-minded women who set clear goals and then determinedly pursue them, on the whole successfully. Sports provides for Bascombe a romanticized view of the world which he refuses to abandon even when the ideals of sport are undermined by it’s realities (page 105).

That does sound a little like myself. I overly romanticize the hard work and determination put in by athletes in the pursuit of greatness, when in reality these athletes view it as a job – a path to riches and fame (even college athletes). I know this, yet I still get engrossed, which really makes me an idiot, I guess.

Deep stuff. Cool book. There’s a certain familiarity that makes it approachable and interesting. Frank gets into these situations that we’ve all been in (meeting your girlfriend’s parents, struggling with your job, dealing with family on holidays) and just analyzes them to death. It was fascinating to read and fun to reflect on, but I don’t know if I got the point the whole time.

I do feel like this book may have helped me understand some of the great mysteries of life a little better. I also feel like the feeling of wonderment I experienced occasionally during the reading is a satisfying feeling which adds value to my life, much like excitement, anxiety, and surprise do in the popular fiction I read. But some of the subtler points may have been lost on me. I’m certain there was plenty of symbolism that I missed. It doesn’t matter. I liked it.