It’s rare when a reader comes across a protagonist who seems to speak directly to him. For me, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, the main character of his trilogy of novels, was such a character. Perhaps it’s because Frank was a middle-aged male who did a lot of thinking about the world, his connections to the people in it, his emotional state, and the right way to live.
Ford is best known for his three novels that feature Bascombe: The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. Bascombe is the embodiment of the rootless, restless, middle-aged male—a character who evokes those of John Updike (Rabbit Angstrom from the Rabbit series), Saul Bellow (Herzog and Humboldt’s Gift) and Phillip Roth (American Pastoral).
In The Sportswriter, Bascombe’s marriage falls apart after the death of his son, one of three children of he and his wife, Anne, referred to as X in the first novel. The story takes place over Thanksgiving weekend. Frank is visiting the family of the woman he is dating and has arranged an interview with a former Detroit Lions football player who was paralyzed during a game—an interview that is as disastrous as it is hilarious. Much of the novel—and the sequels—take place in Bascombe’s head. He is a man who seems to crave the security of a marriage and family, and yet he finds himself out on his own, trying in his own way to maintain some semblance of a relationship with his ex-wife, son and daughter.
Imbued with an intense introspective quality, Frank looks for meaning in the ordinary routines of daily life. Having suffered the unimaginable horror of losing a son and a marriage, Frank avoids emotional entanglements. After writing an acclaimed first novel, Frank finds he cannot write fiction and becomes a sportswriter. Ford wrote fiction before turning to a career as a sportswriter for the short-lived Inside Sports magazine.
In Independence Day, Frank tries to connect with his emotionally fragile son, Paul, by taking him on a Fourth of July weekend tour of the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame, a trip that starts with the best intentions and ends in utter disaster. A related subplot focuses on Frank’s new career as a real estate agent, a well-chosen profession as it underscores how people’s hopes and dreams are often bound up in the homes they buy.
The Lay of the Land finds Frank somewhat more at peace with himself. Still selling real estate, Frank is in a committed relationship and he is attempting to make up for lost time with his daughter, Clarice, who we learn is a lesbian. In the third book, Frank seems to have learned how to get over the things he has lost in his life. As Ford once said, “The art of living your life has a lot to do with getting over loss. The less the past haunts you, the better.” With Frank no doubt in his mind, Ford observed, “Life is the thing that happens…a sort of acceptance that is not incompatible with aspiration, or self-knowledge, or joy. Frank wants to fail less often, even at the expense of trying less hard, and that seems to me a philosophy of life that a person could actually live.”
Ford has a singular devotion to his craft. He once said, ”A lot of people could be novelists,” he says, “‘if they were willing to devote their lives to their own responses to things.”
A native of Mississippi, Ford received his Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California, Irvine, where one of his professors was E.L. Doctorow. His first published novel was A Piece of My Heart, which he followed with The Ultimate Good Luck.
Ford’s newest novel, Canada, will be published in June. I can’t wait to read it.