White And Needy: What I Learned From Richard Ford's Sportwriter Trilogy

Be they neurotic, tragic, horny, or (preferably) all of the above, white guys entering midlife have plenty of novels to reference on their journey. But John Updike's Rabbit series, Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman books, and the like don't offer real-world models of behavior any more than Slim Shady provides neat lifehacking tips. They're nightmares, in many ways. Don't try this at home.

Frank Bascombe is, by comparison, a dreamboat. As the protagonist of the Richard Ford novels The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006), he's a white guy with a tragic past (the death of his son and subsequent divorce) and some neurotic tendencies (fear of Manhattan, an "inbred irony"). Interestingly, though, he's not especially horny. Which helps explain why he's the kind of character you want to emulate, even though you know his is a cautionary tale: He's not desperate so much as determined, intent on overcoming "dreaminess" with a scrappy combination of civic engagement and positive thinking. He's like a lovable Rabbit Angstrom, an unreliable narrator so charming in his colloquialisms, obsessive knowledge of his adopted state of New Jersey, and plain-spoken philosophizing that he becomes a celebration of male humility.

Frank Bascombe is, in other words, the ultimate dad, which makes the first-person-narrated Sportswriter trilogy the dad jeans of fashionable, late-20th-century literary fiction. Check out Frank's elevated-corny similes: "rich as a pharaoh," "happy as a swallow," "uncomfortable as a hanging," "dumb as a cashew," "naked as snakes." At the start of the series, he's pushing 40, phoning in magazine stories, and giving his ex-wife and two remaining kids reason to question his mental fitness. And yet he's the closest thing I've got, in my mid-thirties and (as ever) white and male, to the generic kind of heroes I adopted as a teenager, from Holden Caulfield to Ian MacKaye to Ad-Rock.

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Those characters, fictional and otherwise, were all, in their way, bad influences, although I turned out okay (and managed to overcome the idea that all music should be "political," which even MacKaye probably doesn't believe). Nor is Frank the kind of guy to set your moral compass by: He cheated on his wife, emotionally neglects his son and daughter, and manages to get punched out by his girlfriend at her family's Easter dinner. He is also, in his profession as a sportswriter, quite possibly a hack—"make a contribution will be my angle," he writes about a story he's planning on a crippled Detroit football player, who utterly defies that narrative.

But his approach is still laudably optimistic, and to Frank, the stakes couldn't be higher: "If sportswriting teaches you anything," he explains early in The Sportswriter, "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 avoid it or your life will be ruined."

In each of the three books, Frank plans for the best and encounters the worst, over, quite meaningfully, three different holidays: Easter, July 4 th, and Thanksgiving. He tries and mainly fails to make deeper connections with a few people he loves, and he takes it all in stride, doling out his matter-of-fact reasoning as everything falls apart. Although given the way Frank records even basic actions—which highways he takes traveling around New Jersey, the inspection of a house—practically everything reads like an epiphany, or at least a good yarn. Here's him getting cold-cocked by Vicki Arcenault, a younger divorcée relocated from Texas, after he rashly proposes marriage to her in the first book:

I give her a big signpost grin and step forward to put my arms around her, but she busts me full in the mouth with a mean little itchy fist that catches me midstride and sends me to the turf. I manage to grab onto the car door to ease my fall, but the punch is a looping girl's left hook straight from the shoulder, and I actually walked directly into it, eyes wide open.

"I'll 'bout knock you silly," she says furiously, both fists balled like little grapeshoots, thumbs inward. "Last guy took holt of me went to eye surgery."

And I can't help smiling. It is the end of all things, of course. But a proper end. I taste thick, squeamish blood in my mouth. (My hope is that no one inside has seen this and feels the need to help me.)

Frank is also, obviously, funny as shit.

I've studiously avoided old reviews of the Bascombe books and the many testimonials to the character because I've wanted to preserve my own sympathetic understanding of him. (I didn't discover the series myself until after The Lay of the Land was published.) My innocence there is soon to be lost, though, as it turns out there will be a fourth book, the awfulsomely titled Let Me Be Frank With You, to be published in November. Make a contribution will, I expect, be his angle.


Nick Catucci has written for Rolling Stone, Vulture, and Entertainment Weekly, and will soon start as Billboard's features editor, where he plans to borrow the phrase "doping out a few structural problems" from Frank. He's @catucci on Twitter.

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