Printer Friendly

The Risks of Membership: Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter."(American author)(Critical Essay)

IN THE FIRST TWO SENTENCES OF THE SPORTSWRITER, Richard Ford sets forth the issues with which his novel will be most concerned: a man, his work, his home and sense of place, his relationship with family, and his expectation of "the good life." Since Ford's writing has begun to be compared with that of Walker Percy, it would be well to consider the first sentences of The Last Gentleman, perhaps Percy's most canonical work and a book that announces its very different concerns: "a young man thinking," the emptiness of physical existence ("The rock jutted out of the ground in a section [Central Park] known as the Great Meadow"(1)), and the issues of ontology and perspective represented by the young man's telescope. It is not until the eleventh paragraph of Percy's novel that another human being enters the narrative, a fact that suggests the most important contrast between Percy's and Ford's sensibility: despite his interest in theories of language and "intersubjective" communication, Percy's fiction envisages quests in which reflection, whether solitary or dialogic, serves as the protagonist's supremely important activity. Richard Ford's central characters, however, are engaged in quests of a far less private and individualistic nature. Indeed, Ford's writing expresses an urgency concerning the collective future of American society, and, through his continual process of humorous satiric deflation, he suggests the absurdity of a privatized solution to the malaise of contemporary middle-class existence.

Richard Ford's essay review of Lancelot, "Walker Percy: Not Just Whistling Dixie," is an important statement of Ford's artistic relationship to Percy. Indeed, the essay might be viewed as evidence that Ford is writing "in the tradition" of Walker Percy, but it is in fact a "tribute" that one must read with particular care, alert to what is said and not said and to the way in which Ford turns Percy's kind of sardonic irony on Percy himself. Ford begins with large praise for Percy's ability as a stylist: "From a writerly point of view, I'd rather read a sentence written by Walker Percy than a sentence written by anybody else I can think of. Percy, to my mind, is the best sentence-writer around."(2) The initial emphasis on (and limitation to) the "writerly point of view" should raise an alarm, and indeed Ford proceeds in terms that clearly restrict his praise to the level of style and technique, as in his concluding assessment of Percy's "lovely facility for writing prose, the very thing he does best" (p. 564). Furthermore, Ford qualifies his approbation by raising certain questions about Percy's ideas and attitudes. What Ford says, in sum, is that he has learned from Percy's example as a stylist, especially from his use of "voice" and descriptive language, but that he is skeptical concerning the direction of Percy's moral philosophy after the publication of his first novel, The Moviegoer.

In fact, what Ford says about Percy's social vision is highly ambivalent. Of the character Jamie Vaught (a character that Percy treats with the utmost seriousness in The Last Gentleman and, significantly, one whom Percy connects most explicitly with the religious theme of that novel), Ford could quip that Jamie is one "who passes out good advice and good vibes throughout the book and, before he dies, makes everybody feel better" (p. 560). If, as he stated, Ford admires Percy's "faith that there is a curative, that there is a wholeness toward which his characters can aspire" (p. 561), he suggests that he may not share with Percy the same sources of wholeness and faith. Discussing Percival in Lancelot as a character who "has set himself apart from the run of men by becoming protector of various restorative and pious virtues with which he could heal the world if only it would give him a chance," Ford adds that it's "chiefly Lancelot's 1970s update of the dolorous knight's tale," with his "worldly" and "fleshly" calling, "that provokes our interest"--not Percival's role as virtuous healer (p. 562). Of "Lance's windy disquisitions" (the apocalyptic rage that Ford explicitly identifies with Percy as well as Lancelot), Ford writes that "we've simply heard it before, most of it long before the Sixties' glibness made it a cliche" (p. 563). Indeed, Ford writes that Lancelot is "a novel which Percy seems to have handled without a great deal of certainty or much real interest in the ideas he passes on as truth" (p. 563). Ford concludes his assault on the novel by stating unequivocally: "I think it all just got too grim for Percy; the specter of his own mean and incomplete vision flew back at him, and he tried to make it a joke, but it was too late" (p. 564).

Again, there is plenty of evidence for Percy's technical influence on Ford, and Fred Hobson in "Richard Ford and Josephine Humphreys: Walker Percy in New Jersey and Charleston"(3) has furnished convincing evidence of it. A careful reading of Hobson's essay, however, shows that he focuses on Percy's "writerly" influence largely to the exclusion of thematic issues. As Hobson shows, Ford's narrator in The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe, resembles Percy's narrator in The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling: Frank "is another in that line of reflective and somewhat paralyzed well-bred, well-mannered, and well-educated young southern white males who tell their stories in the first person and are moved by the need to connect" (p. 55). Both narrators, as Hobson points out, are given to inventing or appropriating terms to explain themselves and their views of the world, such as Binx's "everydayness" or "certification" and Frank's "forgetting" and "literalism vs. factualism." Hobson finds other similarities of character and plot: both Binx and Frank are "watchers: one watches movies, the other watches sports" (p. 56), and "beyond that, it is the tone, the language, the cadences, the detailed social observation, the attention to southern types that links Ford with Percy" (p. 57). But, I will maintain, it is not the ideas--the ideological or philosophical grounding which, more so than literary style or narrative technique, define the author's identity and relationship to the world. As Hobson admits, "There is much more one could say about The Sportswriter, particularly how this novel, which is so much like The Moviegoer in certain ways, is so very different in others" (p. 57).

In contrast with Walker Percy's central figure of the "wayfarer" embarked on a quest for existential identity, Ford's protagonists are less decisive but more tolerant, focused not on the problem of one's very existence but on getting by, helping others in the small ways that one can and going on to the next day. Unlike the more expansive quests undertaken by Percy's heroes, Frank Bascombe never really leaves Haddam, New Jersey. What he may be said to be seeking is "solace," and solace, in contrast with "mystery" or "being," implies a context quite different from that of quest. The context in which one seeks solace is pain: solace from what, one asks? A reading of The Sportswriter uncovers the sources of Frank Bascombe's pain, not in an existential and religious context but in those complicated relationships of family, intimacy, and labor which are suggested in the novel's first lines.

The distinction between Percy's and Ford's sensibilities is suggested by Ford's theorizing of the writer's task. In several interviews and essays, as in his fictionalized comments, Ford consistently stresses the untranscendent nature of literature, and its limited and minor quality in relation to experience.(4) For Ford, writing is always a matter of attention to the "small" and less ponderous matters of existence; in his view existence is open-ended and inconclusive, the pleasing "frame of mind" of "not knowing the outcome of things"(5) The only truth, Ford writes, is "life itself--the thing that happens" (p. 374). As in his merciless satire of the literature faculty at Berkshire College--"born deceivers of the lowest sort" committing "terrible deceptions and departures from the truth" (p. 222)--Ford is angered by the travesty of literature involved in its misuse for conveying "ideas" and the illusion of permanence ("time-freed, existential youth forever" [p. 222]). Speaking with uncharacteristic directness through his narrative persona in The Sportswriter, Ford writes: "Some things can't be explained. They just are. And after a while they disappear, usually forever, or become interesting in another way. Literature's consolations are always temporary, while life is quick to begin again" (p. 223).

One misreads Ford by sacrilizing and allegorizing the secular language that his narrative employs. There are, for example, such clues as Frank's declaration that he "couldn't care less" if his children turned out "godless" (p. 204), so long as they do not grow up "factualists" lacking a sense of the mystery of life, or the novel's derisive satire of Easter service at Haddam's First Presbyterian Church, where Frank slips in for a few minutes only to find that "nothing here could matter less than my own identity" (p. 237). Leaving the service of "confident, repentant suburbanites," Frank reflects that he is "`saved' in the only way I can be (pro tempore)" (p. 238). In an angrier mood, Frank charges that Jesus "makes life a perfect misery for as many as he can, then never takes the heat. He should try resurrection in today's complex world" (p. 294). These fictional passages are echoed by Ford's comment to Kay Bonetti that The Sportswriter is "not a Christian book. The kind of redeeming that goes on in that book is entirely unreligious; it's really Frank figuring out ways to redeem his life based on nothing but the stuff of his life" (p. 85).

Frank Bacombe is shown striving, often unsuccessfully, toward an understanding of social reality. In the course of representing this striving, Ford has his protagonist indulge in a use of abstract .terminology and descriptive generalization that resembles that of Percy's heroes, but in Frank's case his grandiose philosophizing seems trivial and inconsequential, and his caricatures of everyone around him, from "cheerleader" Vicki Arcenault to Haddam banker Carter "Knot-head" Knott seem a means of avoiding rather than connecting with others. It is as if, in a highly subtle maneuver, Ford has turned Percy's sardonic style upon itself. In contrast with his essential goodness and human understanding, Frank's philosophical discourse is flawed and escapist, as in his facile distinction between a "literalist" ("a man who will enjoy an afternoon watching people while stranded in an airport") and a "factualist" (one who "can't stop wondering why his plane was late" [pp. 132-133]). In contrast with this kind of impertinence, Frank is capable of the most sincere feeling, as in the understated description of his relationship to his deceased and beloved parents, who left him alone to enjoy a childhood pleasantly oblivious of the adult world: "They simply loved me, and I them. The rest, they didn't feel the need to blab about" (p. 205).

One of the superficial similarities between Percy's and Ford's writing rests in their mutual appreciation of the absurdity of American political groupings. Percy's writing is marked by attacks on "liberal" ideas, as well as by disdain for Southern conservatives. Ford also writes some very entertaining satire at the expense of liberals, but equally his ridicule is directed at conservatives such as Frank's ex father-in-law, Henry Dykstra, "somewhere to the fight of Attila the Hun" (p. 122). The thrust of Percy's politics, however, is more radical in its effort to reinstate the authority of a religious community. According to Percy's analysis in "The Loss of the Creature" and other essays, the rise of a scientific and rationalistic culture in the nineteenth century led to an increasingly alienated culture in which human beings lost a meaningful relationship to their own being. The sense of "creatureliness" can only be restored following an apocalyptic crisis leading to the restoration of a relationship to the "everydayness" of existence.(6) As Percy portrays this "return" at the conclusion of such novels as The Second Coming and Love in the Ruins, it coincides with the establishment of an "interpersonal" relationship with another human being. Percy implies that the recovery of everydayness--the recovery from a condition of "suicide"--points to psychological and spiritual reintegration, including the apprehension of the "mystery" of human existence.

In a meticulous and insightful essay, Edward Dupuy points to a similar dialectic of loss and return operating in The Sportsurriter. For example, Dupuy cites the poem which Frank Bascombe, who carries it to Ralph's grave, describes as "a poem about letting the everyday make you happy--insects, shadows, the color of a woman's hair" (p. 19), a description that I would read as sentimental and insincere. Dupuy characterizes Frank's attitude at this point as "the freedom and dispensation of the ex-suicide," revealing an emotion that reflects Frank's "relenting nature."(7) Although Dupuy does not explicitly identify Percy as the source, the terms in which he discusses Ford connect Ford's references to "relinquishment" with Percy's dialectic of loss, crisis, and acceptance of "mystery." It can be demonstrated, I believe, that these are not the terms in which Ford conceives of his own writing: to cite one of many examples from The Sportswriter. When he derides the sense of being "anxious in the old mossy existential sense" (p. 145) or describes crazed Herb Wallagher as "alienated as Camus" (p. 208), he is shown to be mocking the sort of existential anxiety that informs Percy's novels and such essays as "The Man on the Train." Frank's anxiety is of a different order, the product of cultural and social disturbances rather than the disturbance of "being itself," and one would have even more difficulty fitting Frank Bascombe's later history in Independence Day into Walker Percy's mold: surely by this point, a dozen years after the conclusion of The Sportswriter, Frank must have learned an acceptance of mystery, if he is ever to do so, yet it is clear that his pain has not been relieved by his relenting. Why? Perhaps because the historical world continues to impinge on Frank's private existence. Even if he has learned a greater degree of "acceptance" in his own affairs, as he enters middle age Frank finds himself more and more engulfed in the difficulties of others (represented primarily by his son's emotional distress).

Indeed the term "mystery" suffers a process of comic deflation in The Sportswriter since, for Ford's rather ingenuous hero, "mystery" is not that much different from a romantic adventure. A conspicuous example of mystery in this sense is Frank's one-semester affair with Selma Jassim, Berkshire College's resident literary theorist. Frank is attracted to Selma in part because of their similar skepticism (like Frank she "preferred to stay as remote as possible" [p. 227] from other people, particularly from other altruistic Christians on the Berkshire faculty). Frank comments that "mystery emanated from her like a fire alarm" (p. 229), and in Frank's case mystery leaves him with only a nostalgic remembrance of happiness at a quite human level.

Frank's potential loss of contact with society, following the death of his son and the ensuing divorce, remains an issue throughout the novel, and after the climax of Walter Luckett's suicide, Frank is shown as reestablishing more meaningful human contacts. However he may ridicule Waiter's hapless psychological condition, the fact of Waiter's very real despair intrudes, as Frank thinks repeatedly of "poor Luckett" over Easter weekend. Later Frank realizes that he "might've warned" Walter that he was making "a terrible mistake" (p. 304). Indeed, it is Waiter's death that "has had the effect on me that death means to have; of reminding me of my responsibility to a somewhat larger world" (p. 368). That afternoon Frank even feels a solidarity with Sergeant Benivalle of the Haddam police force, a very different sort of man from himself, and adds that "it never hurts to show someone that their own monumental concerns and peculiar problems are really just like everybody else's" (p. 323)--after which he invites the sergeant to attend meetings of the Divorced Men's Club. While this encounter undoubtedly suffers the same satiric diminishment as nearly all assertions of sentiment in the novel, it is also a step toward Frank's social reintegration, for a section of narrative that is not qualified by satiric humor follows soon after. Visiting Waiter's apartment with X, Frank feels for a moment that he shares "the grief poor Walter must've felt alone here but shouldn't have" (p. 335). In the lonesome night after Walter's death, Frank drives to the Haddam train station, where, watching the arrivals and reunions of passengers, he realizes that "[t]o take pleasure in the consolations of others, even the small ones, is possible" (p. 341). Walter's suicide note, which he reads later, causes him to consider how "we get bound up with people we don't even know" (p. 350). By the end of the novel, this larger world includes even a new contact with his deceased father, through the intermediary of Frank's forgotten cousins in Florida. Uncharacteristically, Frank comments toward the end of the novel: "I have taken the time to get to know them" (p. 370).

Frank's own heritage (and Ford's as well) is clearly within the provincial and working-class culture that his cousins still inhabit (and which contrasts markedly with the privileged milieu of Walker Percy's fiction): his parents, originally from rural Iowa, have moved about from one workingclass job to another before settling on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. When Frank's father dies in 1959, his mother remarries the plebeian if modestly successful Jake Omstein of Skokie, Illinois. Frank's character is shaped by his family's misfortune, but also by its integrity, and by his own uncomfortable position on the margin of the American Dream. The major events of his personal history--his working-class roots, the premature death of his father, his separation from his mother after her remarriage, the relatively early death of his mother, his lonely schooling at Gulf Pines ("Lonesome Pines") Military Academy, his chance ROTC assignment to the University of Michigan, his marriage and divorce with X, and the tragic death of his son--are inseparable from the social context in which he has lived; they are not merely idiosyncratic events in a personal history but reflect the shared history of a generation. Indeed, by assigning his birth-year as "1945" (a significant year later than Ford's own birth), marking the end of the War and the beginning of a new collective history, Ford suggests the representativeness of Frank's story. His unabashed sentimentality concerning love and family, his nostalgia for the carefree misdemeanors of frat life, his odes to pastoral suburbia, his tendency toward boosterism, inspirational talk, and even pomposity--wall are Ford's means of assembling the novel from the collective voices of contemporary American culture.

Frank does suffer from a sense of alienation, of course, as well as a gentler condition of abstraction that Ford terms "dreaminess," but these conditions have a cultural or social, not an existential basis. The confusion and incoherence he feels results from the superficiality of his cultural roots; due to his transient and disjunctive family history and the national history of dramatic social change during his lifetime, Frank is alienated from home, family, and local culture. He is an apologetic and indifferent Southerner, and like many in his generation it is difficult even to speak with any assurance of his "home." His life lacks a historically grounded sense of identity based on local or regional connections, and as a result Frank reacts to all crises with benign fatalism, denying the pain he has lived through ("Let things be the best they can be. Give us all a good night's sleep until it's over," he says [p. 52]). That Frank's life and to a large extent the suburban culture in which he grows up lack coherent significance is attested by the superficiality of his social relationships at the beginning of the novel, as the narrative ironically asserts the "meaningfulness" of Frank's least sincere relationships: for example, his weekly visit to Mrs. Miller, the palm-reader who for five dollars says "hopeful, thoughtful things that no other strangers would ever think to say to me" (p. 100). If Frank finds particular solace in his palmist, "the stranger who takes your life seriously" (p. 100), he is generally content with even more ritualized relationships or with solitude. In a particularly droll and ironic passage, Frank lauds his family's use of catalogue shopping as "the very way of life that suited us and our circumstances ... we were the kind of people for whom catalog-buying was better than going out into the world" (p. 195). Surely it is not just Frank Bascombe and X who are the comic butt of this mocking narrative voice: "A lot of people we know in town did the same thing," Frank notes, adding that "[y]ou can see the UPS truck on our street every day" (p. 196).

The need for social connection is reiterated in The Sportswriter, as for example in the account of Frank's brief friendship and correspondence with Peggy Connover (ironically, a friendship that proves the immediate cause of his divorce from X). In the supportive, asexual relationship of man and woman, Frank discovers a reward of happiness, and of the letters from Peggy that follow their brief meeting he says, "[I]t pleased me that somewhere out in the remote world someone was thinking of me for no bad reason at all, and even wishing me well" (p. 147). From a complicated series of signs, Frank begins to infer that "life ... is not as disconnected and random as it might feel" (p. 143). Yet the problem of "being a stranger to almost everyone" (p. 152) continues to worry Frank to the point that he rationalizes its advantages: "I have a clean slate almost every day of my life, a chance not to be negative, to give someone unknown a pat on the back, to recognize courage and improvement, to take the battle with cynicism head-on and win" (p. 152). This passage is certainly undercut by derision, but it simultaneously acknowledges Frank's recognition of the origin of his predicament. As he admits not long afterward, however, it is cynicism of a particularly selfish kind--"lifelong self-love and the tunnel vision in which you yourself are all that's visible at the tunnel's end" (p. 172)--that is his problem.

It is hardly coincidental that the incoherence and isolation of Frank's life are mirrored in the lives of many others in the novel, as Frank discovers (though never fully admits) that his own despair is symptomatic rather than individual. In Wade Arcenault, Vicki's father, Frank discovers another who shares the grief of sudden loss: Wade's first wife, Esther, died suddenly when Wade was forty-nine, casting him into a lifelong despair that he buries in his "devil's dungeon"--the basement workroom where he locks up all pain. Another important example is Herb Wallagher, an ex-pro lineman from Walled Lake, Michigan. Herb's paralysis resulting from a ski-boat accident duplicates the freakishly accidental, arbitrary quality of Frank's own inexplicable loss of a child. The narrative of Frank's visit with Herb bears close scrutiny, for it is one of the more significant of Frank's failed attempts to establish connection with others. From the moment the day begins with an unexpectedly heavy snow falling from an overcast sky, the meeting of Frank and Herb is threatened by catastrophe. Herb's residence turns out to be less imposing than one would expect of an ex-pro-lineman, and Herb himself is "much smaller" than Frank thought he would be. Frank senses that neither Herb nor his wife, Clarice, has "gotten what he or she bargained for" in life (p. 155), and indeed Herb has drifted into angry self-pity, having given up his job as "spirit coach" of other athletes. Herb, in fact, turns out to be dangerously paranoid, living in a state that is "too close to regret" (p. 164)--the sort of regret that Frank must avoid at all costs. For Frank, the significance of this encounter is surely something of a lesson in the despair to which he also is susceptible. It is a warning about the consequences of withdrawal from society--a bunkered isolation and a ruined life seeking refuge at "Walled Lake." It seems appropriate that Frank should flee from Walled Lake in the comfortable fellowship of Mr. Smallwood's cab. For his part, Smallwood is on to Herb Wallagher: "`Sur-burban peoples, I'm tellin you. Houses full of guns, everybody mad all the time. Oughta cool out, if you ask me'" (p. 165). Back with Vicki at the hotel, Frank senses a new wariness and "gloomy remoteness" in their relationship (p. 170), but Detroit itself, with its unpredictable weather, is capable of inspiring hope as well as loss. As Frank puts it, "You can never completely count on things out here. Life is counterpoised against a mean wind that could suddenly cease" (p. 171).

There is also an element of solidarity in Frank's unusual degree of sympathy with subaltern figures--his willingness to cross social boundaries, to empathize with the excluded, and to submit the class assumptions of his suburban community to critical examination. Indeed, Ford represents Frank Bascombe as a "human weak link, working against odds and fate" (p. 254)--a man who sympathizes with other weak links. A failure himself (explaining, for example, his choice of profession as "I failed at everything else, and that's all I could do" [p. 308]), Frank sympathizes with failure in the world around him. His social tolerance naturally involves him in conflict with his own class, although Frank's "class" is more ambiguous than it might seem at first. From The Sportswriter one learns that at age twenty-four, Frank moved into "a large Tudor house" at 19 Hoving Rd., Haddam, New Jersey, bought from profits from a movie contract for his first book. The section of Haddam where Frank lives is upper middle class and culturally elite: in the cemetery behind his house, "three signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried in sights of my son's grave" (p. 4), yet Frank has "nothing in common" with his neighbors, the Deffeyes, and is "invited to few of their or anyone else's cocktail parties" (p. 5). Frank's "voice" is "a frank, vaguely rural voice" (p. 11). His preference is for companions like Vicki Arcenault, a matter-of-fact working girl newly arrived in the Northeast by way of Waco and Dallas.

Surprisingly, perhaps, in Vicki--whom Frank has originally typed in the most dismissive fashion--the narrative suggests that he begins to discover some reality of feeling outside himself. During their argument after he is caught jealously looking through her bag, Frank records his imagining of this reality of her suffering, and he broadens his imagination of human pain beyond Vicki and himself to include "the least of us": "She has seen all this before. Motel rooms. Two A.M. Strange sights. The sounds of strange cities and sirens. Lying boys out for the fun and a short trip home. Empty moments. The least of us has seen a hundred. It is no wonder mystery and its frail muted beauties have such a son-of-a-bitching hard time of it" (pp. 137-138). At this point Frank cannot, however, imagine Vicki in terms other than condescension, as his trivializing of an imagined marriage shows ("A life of possible fidelity, of going fishing with some best friend, of having a little Shiela or a little Matthew of our own ..." [p. 140]). Yet if Frank cannot imagine well enough at this point, the text records that his imperfect imagining is interrupted twice by emergency sirens in the city, "as if the sirens were going out into this night for no one but me" (p. 141). It is indeed "outside" that Frank needs to relocate his imagination, for Frank is at least enough of a "loner" for X to accuse him of being one. Certainly it is significant that the best he can do for friendship is a relationship like that with Bert Brisker, an acquaintance with whom he "had nothing to talk about": "[W]e see each other on the train to Gotham, something that happens once a week" (p. 45).

Despite his irresolute and flippant manner, Frank is represented as a figure with serious ethical concerns. One of the most striking moments in The Sportswriter is his memory of a dream in which "someone I knew ... mentions to me--so obliquely that now I can't even remember what he said--something shameful about me, clearly shameful, and it scares me that he might know more and that I've forgotten it, but shouldn't have" (p. 144). The representation of "shame" is not exactly fashionable in postmodern art, for the reason that it implies a stable social culture out of which an act can be judged "shameful." Of all ethical intuitions, shame is the most historical. It is asserted out of a coherence of social responsibilities--a continuity that, as Charles Newman notes, is necessarily discounted in postmodern art in which language constitutes its own reality, but in which, paradoxically, "[a] truly autonomous language could convey no human relations whatsoever."(8)

It is the coherence of social existence that underlies Ford's employment of Frank to interrogate "the good life" of post-war America ("Just exactly what the good life was--the one I expected--I cannot tell you now exactly" [p. 3]). The peculiar seductiveness of this culture, with its promise of limitless opportunity and freedom, is suggested in Ford's description of "the bricky warp of these American cities.... Choices aplenty. Things I don't know anything about but might like are here, possibly waiting for me. Even if they aren't" (p. 7). Frank's relationship with X marks his entry into bourgeois American culture--a culture which he initially finds distasteful. One recalls Frank's first meeting with X, who impressed him as "a rich [Michigan] girl, and I didn't like rich Michigan girls" (p. 35). X in fact is "an opinionated Michigan girl, who thinks about things with certainty and is disappointed when the rest of the world doesn't" (p. 19). Nor does Frank approve of the country club milieu of her family: "I hated the still air of privilege and the hushed, nervous noises of midwestern exclusivity. I thought it was bad for the children ..." (p. 66).

Clearly, Ford is interested in analyzing the dynamics of this culture in its relationship to "the rest of the world." Dupuy accurately notes that when Frank returns to Haddam at the end of The Sportswriter, he sees suburbia in a new light--no longer "neutral" and comfortable but "a lie ... it tries to provide closure while at the same time excluding the ultimate closure--death" (pp. 102-103). Frank particularly notes the deceptive optimism of the suburbs--not just the deception of a way of life that excludes the existential consciousness of mortality, but the everyday lie of middle-class culture itself, its promise of a bounteous and happy life that rests upon the assumption of an ever-expanding base of wealth and power. Ford interrogates the superficiality and oppressiveness of the suburbs conveyed, for example, in those moments of vacuous praise, including Frank's unctuous ode to "the suburbs I love," where "from time to time" the odor of "a swimming pool or a barbecue or a leaf fire you'll never ever see will drift provocatively to your nose" (p. 14). Early in his married life, Frank objected to the disingenuousness of communities like New Lime, Connecticut ("sad Shetland-sweater, Volvo-wagon enclaves spoke to me only of despair and deceit, sarcasm and overweening informalities" [p. 39]), but his complaint now extends much further. Haddam itself is full of affluent men such as the five members of the Divorced Men's Club, among whom Frank sometimes feels "an awful sense of loss ... as profound as a tropical low" (p. 82). Frank says flatly that "the suburbs are not a place where friendships flourish" (p. 79), and his unfortunate relationship with Walter Luckett, who weirdly imagines Frank to be his "best friend," is evidence of this.

It is of course an index of Frank's pain that he seeks a "neutral" place in which to live. Haddam, however, is not merely neutral--it is dangerously unreal, as even Frank admits: "You could complain that such a town doesn't fit with the way the world works now. That the real world's a worse and devious and complicated place to lead a life in ..." (p. 51). The unreality of this existence can be gauged by its effect on Frank's children, particularly on his son. Who is more the product of suburban society than Paul, Frank's delinquent, antisocial teenage son? Even in The Sportswriter Paul Bascombe was shown to "display a moody enthrallment" (p. 107); by the time period of Independence Day his moodiness has changed to fierce detachment and instability. Who better than Paul to illuminate for his middle-aging father the insincerity of middle-class life? Their trip from New River, Connecticut, to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is an ironic pilgrimage to the shrines of American national pastimes (and perhaps to the increasing commercialization of those pastimes)--but it is a pilgrimage of a postmodern and not a medieval kind, conducted by a pair of tight-lipped, street-wise, cynical detectives bent on unmasking the contradictions and myths of American culture at century's end. Within this culture, purportedly the land of opportunity and universal happiness, father and son encounter their own images in the mirror of American society: a homeless, transient father and daughter living out of an automobile; a succession of middle-class, professional types befogged by their own "success" and insincerity; a black truck driver searching without a clue for the "right place" to buy a house. Most important, they encounter their own grief and despair (metonymically focused on the loss of Ralph and the divorce of Frank and X but expanding to embrace a much larger society). They are faced with the need to divest themselves of their security and contentment within a deadening suburban environment, and to take on risk, involvement, and pain--the attributes of true responsibility and membership."(9)

In The Sportswriter Ford is not content to represent Frank's experience in existential terms, although he does present his character as that of a man frequently nostalgic, reflective, and lost in "dreaminess"; in the sequel, Independence Day, the narration is considerably less focused on the inner self, as Frank, now well into middle age, is even more entangled in a web of social responsibilities. A rich cast of memorable secondary characters peoples the novel, suggesting that Frank's life is inseparable, as indeed it is, from all those in his family and community. Prodded by such meetings, and by Frank's openness toward others, the narrative moves eventually from grief to healing, from solitude back to society. Later, in Independence Day, Frank attempts, with truly heroic courage and will, to step back into the roles of father and husband, and he reenters the community of Haddam and the world as he engages a host of friends, associates, and strangers in purposeful communication. Not surprisingly, Frank's interest in "mystery" is largely absent in this sequel; he is too busy attending to the intricacies of selling real estate, developing a stable relationship with Sally Caldwell, and, most important, nurturing his troubled children (if from a distance). If there is mystery during this "Existence Period" of middle age that Frank has entered, it is in the possibilities of human kindness and love.

I began this essay by reading the opening lines of The Sportswriter, contrasting them with those of The Last Gentlemen as a way of suggesting the profound difference in sensibility in the writing of Walker Percy and Richard Ford. It seems appropriate to conclude by examining the final paragraph of Independence Day, which would take us as far along with Frank Bascombe as we can yet go. Watching the Fourth of July parade in Haddam, Frank reflects on his own independence: the prospect that his son will come to live with him in the future, that he may "soon be married," that he will inevitably enter the "Permanent Period," the "long, stretching-out time" that leads past middle age and ends with death. Significantly, however, watching the parade that involves so many of his townsfolk, Frank now sees that" [i]t is not a bad day to be on earth" (p. 450). Frank joins the crowd along the curb just in time to catch the end of the parade--just in time to "see the sun above the street, breathe in the day's rich, warm smell" and, in the final words of the novel, to "feel the push, pull, the heave and sway of others" (p. 451). Immanence, in Ford's view, is quite opposed to Percy's treatment in Love in the Ruins or The Last Gentleman. If Sutter Vaught in the latter of these novels seeks "descent" into immanence as an alternative to salvation, Frank Bascombe finds that "pleasure" is "eighty percent" of life's good (unfortunately he doesn't specify the source of the other twenty percent). If immanence is the last-chance of despairing figures in Percy's novels, it is the positive good in Ford's, one reason why Frank Bascombe has landed in "gloomy New Jersey" to begin with and stayed put at 19 Hoving Rd. in Haddam for nearly a quarter of a century, by the time of Independence Day. The present and here-and-now are never perfect, but they may possibly prove to be enough.

(1) Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), p. 11.

(2) Richard Ford, "Walker Percy: Not Just Whistling Dixie," National Review, 29 (May 13, 1977), 558.

(3) The essay was published as Chapter 3 in Hobson's The Southern Writer in the Postmodern Worm (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), p. 55.

(4) See for example Ford's comments in an interview with Kay Bonetti ("An Interview with Richard Ford," Missouri Review, 10 [1987], 71-96), and his discussion of art's relation to "lived life" in the essay "The Three Kings," (Esquire, 100 [1983], 577-587).

(5) Richard Ford, The Sportswriter (New York: Vintage, 1986), pp. 369, 354.

(6) Walker Percy, "The Loss of the Creature," ( ), p.

(7) Edward Dupuy, "The Confessions of an Ex-Suicide: Relenting and Recovering in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter," Southern Literary Journal, 23 (Fall 1990), 96-97.

(8) Charles Newman, 7he Postmodern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985), p. 81.

(9) Richard Ford, Independence Day (New York: Vintage, 1995).
COPYRIGHT 1998 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Folks, Jeffrey J.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 1998
Previous Article:The Immolation of Influence: Aesthetic Conflict in Robert Penn Warren's Poetry.
Next Article:Interview with Lee Smith: May 18, 1997.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters