THE SPORTSWRITER. By Richard Ford. Vintage. 375 pp. Paperback, $6.95.
FRANK BASCOMBE, the narrator of Richard Ford's third novel, is a 38-year-old writer for "a glossy New York sports magazine you have all heard of," a career he pursues as a relatively easy alternative to the more demanding one of writer of fiction, for which he had originally seemed intended. A couple of years ago his eldest child, Ralph, died of Reye's syndrome; since then he has separated from and divorced his wife. He continues to live in their large old house in a New Jersey suburb; his ex-wife and their two surviving children live in another house not far away. His current romantic interest is Vicki Arcenault, a pneumatic nurse lately moved north from Texas; she is sweet and sexy and accommodating, but self-preoccupied and unsophisticated as well.
The principal business of the novel has to do with these people, but others play roles intended to assume significance. One is Walter Luckett, a member of an informal divorced- men's club to which Bascombe belongs; Luckett seeks out Bascombe's friendship, confesses that he has homosexual leanings -- however reluctantly he may at first pursue them -- and finally makes a pass at him. Another is Herb Wallagher, a former professional football player who has been severely injured and whom Bascombe hopes to make the subject of "a little inspirational business on the subject of character for people with their own worries"; but Wallagher turns out to be a borderline lunatic who insults Bascombe and howls incoherently. Then there are the other members of Vicki's family, whom Bascombe meets during an awkward Easter encounter that emphasizes nothing so much as that, though their welcome to him is sincere, the cultural gap between him and them is too wide to be crossed.
While all of this is taking place there is also, in the background, the question of Bascombe's relationship with his former wife, whom he identifies only as "X" -- a conceit that, whatever its ostensible purpose, has the actual effect only of calling attention to itself and eventually of alienating the reader. It is clear, his stated desire to marry Vicki notwithstanding, that Bascombe's heart still belongs to his former wife, and he concedes as much when she asks if he still loves her. He thinks of their family, though broken, as a continuing unit: "Families are very hard to break apart forever. I know that." Yet every move he makes toward regaining her affections is awkward and halfhearted, because he is a person for whom strong connections are difficult if not impossible.
Emotionally and professionally, Bascombe is a loner and an outsider. He genuinely wants intimacy and affection, yet he is neither strong nor mature enough to seize love when it is offered. He is a decent man who wants the best as much for others as for himself, and whose sympathies are easily engaged, yet his instinct invariably is for escape and flight. Sportswriting, which permits him to be a spectator and to report on the triumphs of others, is an apt occupation for one who is divorced from the action in his own life. This distancing, which he describes as "feeling dreamy," he traces back to his son's painful, protracted death; he thinks of his dreaminess as "a response to too much useless and complicated factuality." In an introspective moment -- of which, unfortunately, The Sportswriter has all too many -- he characterizes himself:
"I hate for things to get finally pinned down, for possibilities to be narrowed by the shabby impingement of facts -- even the simple fact of comradeship. I am always hoping for a great surprise to open in what has always been a possible place for it -- comradeship among professionals; friendship among peers; passion and romance. Only when the facts are made clear, I can't bear it, and run away as fast as I can -- to Vicki, or to sitting up all night in the breakfast nook gazing at catalogs or to writing a good sports story or to some woman in a far-off city whom I know I'll never see again. It's exactly like when you were young and dreaming of your family's vacation; only when the trip was over, you were left faced with the empty husks of your dreams and the fear that that's what life will mostly be -- the husks of your dreams lying around you. I suppose I will always fear that whatever this is, is it."
BASCOMBE can't make lasting connections with family and friends, so he turns instead to a fortune- teller, Mrs. Miller, whom he visits frequently. She is both impersonal and welcoming, and thus in his imaginings becomes "the stranger who takes your life seriously, the personage we all go into each day in hopes of meeting, the friend to the great mass of us not at odds with much," and he believes that "her philosophy is: A good day's a good day. We get few enough of them in a lifetime. Go and enjoy it." This may not seem unduly weighty as philosophies go, but it is ample for Bascombe, whose own philosophy is: "Things happen." Roll with the punches, is his motto: "If there's (one) thing that sportswriting teaches you, it is that there are no transcendent themes in life. In all cases things are here and they're over, and that has to be enough."
It may be enough for a private philosophy, but it's hardly enough to keep this novel moving. The Sportswriter is intelligent and compassionate, but it's terribly difficult to sustain the reader's interest in a narrator/protagonist who is not himself interesting. Though there are lively passages here and there -- Ford is especially good when writing about suburbia in general and New Jersey in particular -- most of the novel simply drones along just as Bascombe does, maintaining an amiable curiosity about things but never getting fully enaged with anything. The result is a book oddly deficient in energy, one that lazes around in circles without managing to go anywhere. Readers who are attracted to Frank Bascombe may want to make this trip, but their numbers are not likely to be legion.