The Secret Life of Richard Ford
by ELENA SCHILDER
In beginning to write this I’ve crossed out three sentence fragments already, because ornery Irish Alec Baldwin, whom I love — lust, even — won’t let go his grip on my head. His book, A Promise to Ourselves: A Journey Through Fatherhood and Divorce, is about his break from Kim Basinger and the ensuing custody battle over their daughter Ireland. On the cover he’s smiling in a way that might be impish and might also be creepy.
There is something quintessentially American about Baldwin — his ruddy cheeks, his temper, the feeling that you’re being evaded a little bit for the sake of charm and a warm handshake. He may be a bit of a Bill Clinton, which — my mother will tell yo u— has its appeal. But Baldwin is not as talented a writer as he is a showman, and a book that ostensibly reveals his deepest feelings — nostalgia, paternal love, grief over a ruined marriage, even thoughts of suicide — has a generic, flat and ultimately self-preserving tone. This comes through especially clearly in some of his two-adjective descriptions of women: “She was a brash, colorful woman who reminded me of Joy Behar from The View.”
A little while ago now, Katie Roiphe bravely took on the specter of male ego in American literature written by men since mid-century. Specifically, she dug at the current generation of white male novelists—many, if not all of whom are based in Brooklyn—for lacking the balls to write about sex as broadly, boldly and bawdily as their forefathers — the John Updike of Rabbit, Run and Couples and the Philip Roth of Portnoy’s Complaint. She bemoans the current tendency toward a male sexuality so inward-looking that it forgets even to objectify women. But what is depressing about Roiphe’s piece is not its spot-on critique of “the Jonathans" and their twee literary voices. What is more than a little depressing is that her argument assumes not only ego but an over-the-top narcissism as the ruling force behind contemporary American literature by men. As Alec Baldwin likes to put it, ego seems to be the “ruler of the day.”
Richard Ford seems to me a particularly interesting American writer because it is far less clear in his novels than in the novels of John Updike or Jonathan Safran Foer when, if ever, his ego comes into the picture. Though Ford started his career as a short story writer in the tradition of Raymond Carver, with a romantic, minimalist tone and a limited but highly recognizable set of symbols — the rifle, the whiskey bottle, the barstool, the woman in a “powder-blue dress” (one of the few physical descriptions of the narrator’s mother in one of Ford’s most famous stories, “Rock Springs”) — he is also the author of a series of novels written in a very different style, all three devoted to the characterization of Frank Bascombe, a divorced man moving through middle age in the suburbs of New Jersey.
The trilogy is comparable to Updike’s Rabbit series in its basics, at least: both follow an American everyman over the course of several decades of American history. In both series, the protagonist’s experience feels charged with the weight of history while at the same time bringing to bear something singular and personal. Both characters are unforgettable and nondescript.
Ford wrote The Sportswriter in 1986, Independence Day in 1995 and The Lay of the Land in 2006. Reading the three books in sequence, all at once, one has the odd sensation of watching Frank Bascombe age alongside his creator; in twenty years’ time, both men take on the markers of deepening middle age — the prose seems more distracted, and more often wanders toward questions of national politics. Ford was born in 1944, meaning he was 42 when he began publishing the series and 62 when he finished. I bring up Ford’s parallel aging only because his presence in these books is, I would imagine, something all readers of the series wonder about from time to time. In Roth and Updike, the degree to which their books are “semi-autobiographical” is almost comically moot, but with Ford there is more to wonder about.
Simply put, the books are built on Bascombe’s musings about life and how to live it. It’s hard to believe, actually, as you trudge deeper into the minutia of the novels, how little else there is to them, and how often he dares to bring you back to life’s “deeper” questions. Before he was a sportswriter, Bascombe was a short-story writer, and his narration never wavers in its writerly search for structure, or Cher Horowitz’s prized “control in a world full of chaos.” The weird thing about Bascombe’s inner peace is that it comes at the expense of all the big rocks the biggest male egos build their mansions on: success, family, the love of a good woman.
Frank Bascombe is divorced, chooses New Jersey over New York, and, after the success of his first book of short stories, becomes increasingly alienated from his career: he writes about sports, until he starts selling real estate. It’s unclear how devoted he really is to his children. The books feel very much like a polemic pitched against these nominal failures — he claims, over and over, until a point in the third book that feels finally like he’s admitting to having fucked up, that his life is beautiful because he has denied himself literary success and a happy home.
To be honest, he makes quite a persuasive argument at the outset. One of my favorite moments in the trilogy comes early on, when Frank reveals that he’s been going to see a palm-reader since the death of his oldest son. “Mrs. Miller, her house, her business, her relatives, her life, posed altogether a small but genuine source of pleasure and wonder. It was as much for that reason I went to see her once a week.” The books are full of treasures like this — counterintuitive pleasures, “mystery” as served up by the banal New Jersey landscape — and one of the great joys of the books is to imagine a man capable of self-consciously thwarting his own ambition and deciding, in fact, he’d much rather smell the proverbial roses. You never know quite whether to believe him.
After he’d read about fifty pages of The Sportswriter, one of my friends said that Frank Bascombe seemed like a man who can only exist in literature. I keep wondering whether that’s true, because I — twenty-five, a woman — spent all summer feeling quite kindred to him. Before reading these books I’d never seen that impulse of mine — crudely put, to subdue ego in the pursuit of some elusive pedestrian glory — not only spelled out but hammered out into dogma. But one has to wonder about a character (or a writer) who spends upwards of a thousand pages “subduing” ego in the first person.
Frank Bascombe undercuts the declamatory philosophizing to which he’s prone by insisting, in folksy tones, on his ignorance, simplicity and lack of pretension. It’s easy to identify with the intention to be humble, but by the end of the series you’re left wondering whether humility should feel like quite so much work.
Having read a semi-recent essay by Ford about whether Frank Bascombe is, as readers have asked him, an “everyman,” I worry that the author of these books suffers from some of the same self-deluding principles he’s bestowed on his protagonist. It was oddly disappointing to read Ford’s description of his writing process as “fortuitous” — he makes the case that he owes nothing to “what some people (not I) romantically call talent,” but that his — beautifully written and conceived! — novels were born of a set of happy accidents. To lyrically and verbosely understate one’s gifts is forgivable in a real estate salesman with the soul of a writer, but less so in a career fiction-writer.
I listened to a New Yorker podcast at some point in which Richard Ford read aloud a short John Cheever story that he really liked. He has a strong Mississippi accent, appropriate to a man who likes to make grandiose declarations of purpose and meaning. I think they call voices like that “mellifluous.” I like the figure Ford cuts next to the group of writers whose sexual fantasies so absorb and repel Katie Roiphe, because if nothing else he seems intent on creating something alternative to their models. There’s a sincere hopefulness in Frank Bascombe’s fictive voice, the lack of which I feel heavily when reading John Updike and Alec Baldwin alike. Those American giants are satisfied even in their displeasure. After reading three novels rooted inside Frank Bascombe’s head, you realize (maybe a little sadly) that he’s quite successfully obscured his identity from everyone, himself included. If there is something tragic in his story, it is the feeling that, dreaming all the while of great things, he has shied away from self-acceptance — as, we’re told, dreamers often do.
Elena Schilder is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Brooklyn. This is her first appearance in these pages.
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