Book Reviews

Author: Richard Ford
Titles: The Sportswriter, Independence Day; A Piece of My Heart; The Ultimate Good Luck; Wildlife; Rock Springs; Women With Men

Update - Jan. 2007 - The Lay of the Land was released a few months ago, and it's part 3 of the Bascombe saga. Worth the wait!
As far as I'm concerned, Ford is one of, if not the best writer in contemporary American literature. The wealth of detail and grounding in "real-life" situations are fascinating and eye-opening, with a true storyteller flair that keeps you reading until you can't prop up your eyelids anymore. This is the author whose books you pack when you want maximum time with a minimum of suitcase weight - I guarantee you'll need quite a bit of time to ponder.

In The Sportswriter, we meet Frank Bascombe, who is pretty average at first glance - middle-aged, living in Jersey, divorced, three kids, job, girlfriend. Except his oldest son died of Reyes' Syndrome, and the novel begins with a visit to his grave on his birthday by Frank and his ex-wife (referred to throughout the novel as simply "X"). Frank is, as the title implies, a sportswriter, and is headed off to Detroit to interview an injured football player with his girlfriend along for the ride. Of course, many things go very wrong in all kinds of strange ways, and Ford's genius (one of them, anyway) is in displaying them all in the most matter of fact manner, as if to say, "Hey, this happens to everyone." And it does. Which is what makes it so great. The characters are "normal people" (whatever that means, but hey...) - case in point, his girlfriend's father is a tollbooth worker. You know, they stand out in those booths in the middle of nowhere, either hand you a ticket or take your money, and that's that, interaction over. Ever think about where they go when they leave? Yeah, me neither, but I do now. Admittedly, there are some pretty screwball twists and turns - when X announces she's getting remarried, Frank decides to buy her house. Which was never "their" house, he's already living in that one. It gets complicated. For example, Frank and some friends have formed a divorced men's club. One of the other members - someone Frank doesn't even know that well - comes to him with a rather large problem (no, I'm not going to tell you what it is) and "solves" it in a rather shocking manner (not going to tell you that, either) which leaves a large burden on poor old Frank and essentially derails his life for a few years.

Okay, so that's where Independence Day comes in, after those few weird years have passed (Florida, France, stuff like that). The main idea here is that Frank is going to take his son Paul to the basketball and baseball halls of fame over the Fourth of July holiday, but because of Ford's "if it happens, put it in" style it takes about 200 pages before that even gets going. Frank now sells real estate (oh, and X has been named, but you won't find out what here) and in the course of his on-the-job outings many more "normal" people pop up with their idiosyncrasies, histories, and just plain lives. These aren't your cardboard characters - you can easily imagine them continuing on after they've left the page and going about the other sections of their routine (this is one reason they took me a while to read - I kept going off on unwritten tangents with minor characters, which is kind of fun). A murder, a serious injury, and a long-lost step-brother all appear at some point, plus some aging hippies and a few familiar faces from The Sportswriter, but everything is so detailed and complex that it would really ruin things to lay it out here. If you want serious mental stimulation, Ford's your man.

His other novels and collections of short stories are also excellent, if sometimes erratically so; here's a quick run-down of the ones I've gotten through (I may have missed one somewhere, but I think this is all of them as of now):
Rock Springs and Women with Men are the short stories - not as incredibly detailed as the novels, they nevertheless have the fleshed-out characters and well-drawn scenes that make Ford's writing so memorable. Set all over the US (and one in France), all sorts of situations are introduced, developed, and dealt with - or sometimes not. Excellent for periods of shorter attention span (say, when you've got three holes in your belly and anesthesia running through your system...).
Wildlife is set in Montana and focuses on a three-person family and what happens when the husband/father of the trio heads off to fight the wildfires.
The Ultimate Good Luck is one of the weirder ones; a guy is in Mexico trying to get his not-exactly-ex-girlfriend's brother out of jail and encounters all sorts of drug-world figures, alive and dead.
A Piece of My Heart is Ford's first published novel, and although the format is rather confusing (told from several points of view) the "life in the South" motive ties it all together fairly nicely. He's no Faulkner, and honestly it took me a while get get going on this one, but everyone had to start somewhere.
Obviously, those are major simplifications there, but I was hooked after Wildlife and once I got into Frank Bascombe's world, well, I just had to run out after the rest (see the quote from Davies about book accumulating...).

Published by Vintage, these paperbacks run about $12-15, but they're more than worth it. They aren't quick reads - not in the slightest - but novels to savor, examine, re-examine, and get into long email discussions with your friends about (vielen dank, Phil {and friends} - for the recommendation, the thoughts, and the word from Ford). They'll make you think. A lot. And as far as I'm concerned, a brain-boost is always welcome.

Legare est amare...

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