It took me a while to get through Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. It’s narrated by Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged man whose life fell apart after his young son’s death, so it’s probably better suited for a rainy week in October.
At any rate, here are some writing techniques I picked up. Spoilers ahead.
1. Ford has a gift for physical descriptions of characters, especially minor ones. For example:
Sergeant Benivalle appears through a back office door, and he’s exactly the fellow I expected, the chesty, flat-top, sad-eyed man with bad acne scars and mitts the size of work gloves. His mother must not have been a spaghetti-bender, since his eyes are pale and his square head stolid and Nordic. (His stomach, through, is firmly Italian and envelopes his belt buckle, squeezing the little silver snub-nose strapped above his wallet.) He is not a man to shake hands, but looks at the red EXIT sign above our heads when we meet. “We can just sit here, Mr. Bascombe,” he says. His voice is hoarse, wearier than earlier in the day (319).
In this brief paragraph, we learn a little about the narrator (expectations, preconceived notions about Italians), but most of our attention is directed at Sgt. Benivalle. Note that in addition to the visual descriptions (chesty, flat-top, sad-eyed), we also learn about the cop’s demeanor and, through the quick line of dialogue, both what he says and how he talks.
First impressions count, and there’s something odd and appropriately shabby about how the cop appears through a back office door and conducts official business with Frank while they’re sitting on a public bench. It’s as if the author is gently reminding us that there will be no closure here, no tidy epiphanies.
I should also mention Ford’s description of Wade Arcenault (261), which is just as precise. Later, during a conversation between Frank and Wade in the basement, we get a number of abstract-yet-specific descriptions of facial expressions and attitudes. Maybe “airs” is a more apt word, though it feels too Victorian:
“So now how was the trip down, Frank?” Wade says with brusque heartiness. There is a frontier tautness in his character that makes him instantly trustworthy and appealing, a man with his priorities straight and a permanent twinkle in his eye that says he expects someone–me, maybe–to tell him something that will make him extremely happy. Nothing, in fact, would please me more (262).
2. Frank’s first encounter with Walter Luckett could have easily been a necessary but rote scene, an information exchange/comparison between himself and another sad sack divorcee. However, Ford livens up the scene in a few ways:
a) We learn a few pages before the scene begins that Bascombe and Luckett had an unbearably awkward meeting in the past, and that nervous energy helps propel this scene forward.
b) Ford adds tension to the scene by giving Bascombe another obligation that night (he’s late for a date), so he really doesn’t want to meet with Luckett anyway.
c) Bascombe’s reluctance makes him more interested in the bar’s decorations and patrons–they become distractions and take on an interesting significance as such.
d) Seemingly out of nowhere, Luckett makes a startling confession that completely derails the scene and ultimately alters the entire novel’s trajectory. It’s a neat trick, and perhaps a necessary one. On page 92/375, Ford is letting you know that this novel still has a few surprises in store.
4. Speaking of Walter Luckett. He only appears in the novel twice, and the second meeting is also significant. I think subtlety is incredibly difficult to pull off as a writer. If a connection or idea is written too subtly, the reader will probably miss it completely. If a connection or idea is too overt, you’re talking down to the reader.
When Walter Luckett appears the second time, notice how his visit is basically a pretense to tell his story about Ida Simms, a woman with mental problems who disappeared. Before telling it, he finally “bolts” his drink and asks, “Do you want to hear it, Frank?”
After, Luckett changes the topic and provides a distraction by talking about his ex-wife. We learn about Luckett’s suicide later in the novel and the connections become clear; the story about Ida Simms was a cry for help, one Frank didn’t really recognize.
5. A novel should have a horizon, and The Sportswriter’s slow pace is bearable mostly because there’s always something on the horizon. Usually, it’s an event in a specific location: Frank is taking his girlfriend Vicki on vacation to Detroit. Frank goes on assignment to interview a paralyzed football player. A meeting with Vicki’s family in Barnegat Pines. Frank is always leaving one appointment and on his way to another, which is the main way the novel propels itself forward. However, not everything on the horizon is tied to a place. Frank carries Walter’s suicide note around for awhile, which changes the tension briefly to “When will he read it and what does it say?”
6. This isn’t exactly a technique, but I was impressed by how this novel shows Frank’s interests and problems through his occupation. Aside from the obvious connections (Frank gives up a promising creative writing career to become a sportswriter), the narrator is interested in mystery, and to my mind, one of the novel’s central questions is which factors or events determine the course of one’s life, how someone ends up in a particular situation. It’s a maddening issue in sports: teams spend countless hours watching tape and observing players, but it’s difficult to predict how successful a player will be on the field. The paralyzed football player Frank interviews highlights this (as does the unpredictable nature of the interview itself).
Sports and mystery converge several times, but one moment that stuck out to me was when Frank gives a perfect metaphor to explain the mystery of teams: “A team is really intriguing to me, Wade. It’s an event, not a thing. It’s time but not a watch. You can’t reduce it to mechanics and roles” (281).
7. Ford does this a couple times in the novel: he’ll introduce a character by having Frank mentally check off what he knows about someone while filling in gaps with speculation and projection. For example:
“Do you work here,” I ask disingenuously, since I know with absolute certainty that she works here. I saw her down a corridor a month ago [….] She is an intern down from Dartmouth, a Melissa or a Kate. Though at the moment I can’t remember, since her kind of beauty is usually zealously overseen by some thick-necked Dartmouth Dan, with whom she is sharing an efficiency on the Upper East Side, taking the “term off” together to decide if a marriage is the wise decision at this point in time. I remember, however, her family is from Milton, Mass., her father a small scale politician with a name I vaguely recognize as lustrous in Harvard athletics (he is a chum of some higher-up at the magazine). I can even picture him–small, chunky, shoulder-swinging, a scrappy in-fighter who got in Harvard on grades then lettered in two sports though no one in his family had ever made it out of the potato patch. A fellow I would usually like. And here is his sunny-faced daughter down to season her resume with interesting extras for med school, or for when she enters local politics in Vermont/New Hampshire midway through her divorce from Dartmouth Dan. None of it is a bad idea (358).
Since this exposition is related to an important character, the reader is engaged as s/he discovers in the next 18 pages which of Frank’s observations were actually correct. (For example, we learn a page later that this woman’s name is not Melissa or Kate. It’s Catherine Flaherty.)
Not all of Frank’s descriptions of strangers are this extensive, and Catherine’s is unique because so much of it is in Frank’s head–it describes her family history and shoots us way into her future. Many of Frank’s descriptions are of minor characters, and they’re colorful and detailed enough that we don’t need to know any more about them. It’s interesting, though, that seeing characters only through Frank’s eyes suggests that they also exist independently of his projections. The world of the novel feels a little more alive as a result.