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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Friday, August 25, 2006

The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford

Started 8/13, Finished 8/29

This review should be subtitled "America: Okay By Me!" or "Worshipping the Midwestern Mediocrity".

I hated it... nearly every stinkin' page. There's your review.

The Good

Sometimes the Mark Twain comparisons played out and he delivered a witticism or bromide that worked. It probably happened every twenty pages or so. I'm not going to go find one.

I definitely enjoyed his analysis of atheletes and of sports in general... I just wish he had spent more than ~10 pages talking about sports or being a sportswriter. That's kind of the expectation I had, not unfairly I think, given the title.

The Bad

Time has this in their top 100 list, and I don't think I'll ever be able to understand why. I know I'm way off compared to what most critics thought. I tried so hard to "get" it, going through the list of ways I can build empathy... if my kid were dead... if I were divorced... if I had trouble fitting into society because of the transient nature of the sportswriter's life... But in the end I only felt more and more contempt, for new and varied reasons with each page, until the epilogue (which was windy and FAR too long). I only finished it because I can't imagine really writing a thoughtful review of a book I didn't finish. I want to believe I have more respect for literature than that. If I hadn't finished it, I just wouldn't have mentioned it.

Nothing worked for me. I read the book because I knew the protagonist's son Ralph had died before the beginning, and I wanted to see if I could handle such a gut-wrenching, horrid affair. Well it turns out I had nothing to worry about, because the writer doesn't spend much time on it. Doesn't seem like all that big an event in the main character's life. Neither does anything else. What drives this guy? What is interesting about him? What is supposed to drive me to care? Do hijinks ensue? I couldn't tell, because I couldn't see through the bullshit.

You get nothing. Just a bunch of wry observations about life, each of which is boldly declared and then backpedaled from. It was a predictable enough pattern, a consistent enough rhythm, that it must be intentional. I have a feeling that if he or one of the sycophants who voted this thing a Faulkner award (!) read my review, s/he would say I just didn't get it. Guilty. Here's my attempt to illustrate the fundamental problem with this book. Call it satire if you will.

The grief you feel after you've lost in love is a lot like the pain of stubbing your toe. You sit, staring at the open window, wondering which tree you should stare at, how you would be judged by your family if they could see you wondering which tree deserves the attention, feeling the pain of your toe and trying to feel something like the love it reminds you of. The best parts of life can be felt through pain. It reminds us of who we are and how we live. We need our love like we need our toes to give us stability, and stubbing love is like stubbing a toe: cutting it short or banging it into a large piece of furniture. It's all the same pain. It can be the worst pain in the world. But right now in the light of a dull morning, I'm realizing for the first time that stubbing your toe, like abandoning your dream of a youthful affair, just isn't all that bad. At least it never affected me in that way.

Yep. 375 pages. Three hundred seventy five pages. How's that sound?

Another thing I couldn't get past is that old saw: "I wouldn't want to write about a man who isn't at the end of his rope." (I can't remember who said it). Frank was at the end of his rope... two years before the novel started. Four years earlier, his eldest son died from Reye's syndrome. He became dreamy and listless, and in his grief he "self-medicated" (oh, there'll be more on that later) by sleeping with approximately "18 women", most of whom were students at a small community college where he taught literature for a term. Within two years of his son's death, he is divorced. That sounds to me like a man at the end of his rope. That story might be about something. But this story isn't about that guy. There's no conflict aside from the drama Frank stretches to contrive for himself. You get a detached commentary on the facts, with some aw shucks observations on how the pain can be bearable and chin up and so forth. Maybe I don't have enough years under my belt, but I didn't feel the slightest bit of emotion toward those events. It just didn't work for me.

Here's something interesting: excerpt of a New York Times review from when the novel came out:

"In fiction, the loss of a child is by definition an exploration of a loss of faith. For the novelist, it generates a mysterious, perhaps impossible equation with which to struggle: how much does such a death contribute to upsetting the precarious balance of a faltering marriage?"

Yasee, that's not what this book was about. Those questions were generated, avoided, and tucked away long before the start of this story. They're never addressed here. This is a man whose detachment has become a badge of honor. Now, I know full well that was the intent of developing such a character. My question is, why do so many reviewers give this book more credit than it deserves? They treat it as though subtext abounds like it does in Roth and Franzen. I think they've plainly got it wrong: this is 375 pages about a man (the author, not the protagonist) whose self-loathing has given him hope of selling a lot of copies. He's hoping against hope that subtext will be gleaned by New York literary types who don't understand the midwest, and are willing to take Ford's word for it. The fucked up thing about it is that it worked. This book sold so well he wrote a sequel, and a third is coming out in October of this year.

Clearly I'm not the target audience. According to incandragon's rules of writing reviews I am officially not allowed to write a review of the Independence Day (unless I like it, of course). I doubt I will, but many reviewers on Amazon say they hated this one but loved the second. You never know.

The other thing that bothered the CRAP out of me was the dialogue. If Pat Holt were to have a #11 on her wonderful Top 10 list of mistakes that mark you as an amateur, it would probably be this: People don't address each other by name during most conversations. People only address each other, in my experience, when angry or when in a crowd.

The conversation below drove me so crazy I almost threw the book across the room (well, I almost did that about 30 times, but this was bad enough that I yelled at the author. Out loud. In bed. At 1:30am while my wife slept in the rocking chair, infant at her breast. I woke them both up.)

"What do you worry about, Frank, if you don't mind my
asking?" Walter is still ghost-solemn.
"Really not that much, Walter. Sometimes at night my heard pounds. But it goes back to normal when I turn on the light."
"You're a man with rules, Frank. You don't mind, do you, if I say that? You have ethics about a lot of important things."
"I don't mind, Walter, but I don't think I have anythics at all, really. I just do as little harm as I can. Anything else seems too hard." I smile at Walter in a bland way.
"Do you think I've done harm, Frank? Do you think you're better than I am?"
"I think it doesn't matter, Walter, to tell you the truth. We're all the same."
"That's evading me, Frank, because I admire codes, myself. In everything." ...
"Good, Walter." ...

"But let me ask you, Frank, what do you do when something worries you and you can't make it stop. You try and try and it won't." ...
"I usually don't get get in such a bad state, Walter."
"You know what I think, Frank?"
"What, Walter[?]"
"You don't seem to be somebody who knows he's going to die, that's what."

That last sentence is, no kidding, the first one in that whole section that doesn't have one addressing the other... and after that one line, the pattern resumes again. Could this be a "device"? A sort of "technique"? A severe lack of "editing", perhaps? I can't give him that much credit.

My wife suggested that they were playing a game with each other, setting a rhythm to their conversation. I can accept that. I could accept that, rather, if he didn't have exactly the same conversation with his girlfriend's father Wade. Or exactly the same conversation with every other man in the book. Not the women, strangely. Somehow the female characters don't merit being called by name. Probably because this man thinks so little of the women in his life I'm surprised he can remember their names.

Which brings me to...

The Ugly

What I find most contemptible (and here is where I've buried the lead) is how entrenched this man's privilege has dictated every move he's made. It's nice to be alive in the 80s!

Especially if you're white. Oh, and
  • male
  • protestant
  • middle-class
He calls his ex-wife "X". He doesn't remember the names of many of the 18 women he slept with during his... whatever you want to call it period-of-grief. When he meets the intern he's trying to seduce (he's 38, she's 20, and this is the closing pages of the book where his success here means a happy ending), he thinks of her as Melissa/Kate until he finds out her name is Catherine. Every female character in this book (his own age and younger) is assessed in terms of her sexual relationship with the narrator. There's even a reference to his daughter's white cotton panties that disturbed the hell out of me. Sure he'll "tell" you they're smart or wise or wide-eyed or something. But his character is only in the search for body parts.

To an extent, I am a believer in Harold Bloom's idea that you should keep politics and political views out of literary criticism... but I can't give this guy a pass. It's not that these views are at the forefront, or that they're used to expose character. They're every bit a part of the prose as the letters in the words. It is entirely unaware. Since the 1980s produced such films as Porky's and The Eiger "By the way, how's that black stuff?" Sanction, it should come as no surprise to our descendants to know that in the 1980s, white men were very honest about their sense of privilege: so much so that they failed to address it as it was. This book shall be our ambassador to posterity.

The racial attitudes were just as entrenched, they just didn't come up as much. Here's the best I could find just by flipping through. It's about Frank's boarder, an seminary student from Africa named Bosobolo:

"Two times lately, from my car window, I've seen him arm-in-arm with a dumpy white seminary girl half his age... What a piece of exoticism it must be! A savage old prince, old enough to be her father, whonking away on her like a frat boy."

This next quote was great. Very telling, and on multiple levels. It's from a New York Times review of another Ford book (A Multitude of Sins, a collection of short stories that I shan't read):

When asked last year by The Kenyon Review what kind of relationship he has with his characters, Ford replied: ''Master to slave. Sometimes I hear them at night singing over in their cabins.'' Singing. So that's what that was. It sounded like whining.

There's a lot more to be said on this subject, but this has gone on long enough.

I'll close with a little gem I just discovered. Here's a pull-quote from the back of the book, referencing the same NYT review I found earlier:

Richard Ford is a daring and intelligent novelist [with an] extraordinary ear for dialogue and the ability to create the particulars of everyday life with stunning accuracy

Here's the full quote (this is AWESOME):

If there are layers of irony and perception, they are too subtle and diffuse. Mr. Ford's admirable talents, which include an extraordinary ear for dialogue and the ability to create the particulars of everyday life with stunning accuracy...are not well served in a novel given to abstract analysis.

And here's a nice clunker from near the end, for those who believe Mr. Ford to be such the distinguished stylist:

"If I could write a short story, I would. But I don't think I could, and do not plan to try, which doesn't worry me."

Almost sounds like Dr. Seuss, doesn't it?

Book #22 will be Lincoln, by Gore Vidal. I already started it last weekend when I left this tripe at a friend's house. Let me tell you it was difficult to come back to this.



Blogger incandragon said...

So ... here's a little trick that works for me:
If you don't like the book, don't read the book, and subsequently don't review the book. Then you can use your 2k words on something that's important to you.
Although your bit about the out-of-context blurb was astonishing!

Wed Aug 30, 05:14:00 AM  
Blogger Jess said...

I don't know about Marcus, but I do feel weird about starting books and failing to finish them. Also, if it's not a difficult read I try and slog through just so I can say I gave it a fair chance. I hope against hope that it improves, or that some revelation will make me 'get it', or something.

Wed Aug 30, 07:40:00 AM  

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