Bascombe Trilogy (1)
For all its technical virtuosity, Ford's chummy narrative fails to transcend its rather tired genre: the male, mid-life crisis novel. Unavoidably confessional, this back-slapping fictional memoir by the author of A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck boasts of its "dirty realist" conceit: "the only truth that can never be a lie. . .is life itself." In this case, "life itself" (a.k.a. Real Life as opposed to the artifice of sissified fiction) means the extraordinary ordinariness of Frank Bascombe, a 38-year-old sportswriter for a magazine much like Sports Illustrated, who's part of a "modern, divided family." His ex-wife, "X," lives nearby in suburban New Jersey with their two kids and the shared memory of a "genetic" existence. What brings them temporarily together at the novel's outset is the same thing that inspires Frank's uncharacteristically introspective ramble: the birthday of their son Ralph, who died a few years back from Reyes. Until recently, Frank's managed to "face down regret" and "avoid ruin"; once a promising fiction writer, he now prefers to write about a subject for which he holds no special brief. As he tries to explain in his own meandering way, everyone touched lately by his unexemplary life seems bent on destroying the equanimity he finds in suburban anonymity. There's Herb, for instance: the crippled, ex-football player who Frank interviews in hope of an uplifting tale, but who offers instead a bitter story of a sportsman without a sport (i.e., a man without a metaphor for his life). There's also Waiter: the newest member of the Divorced Men's Club, who, by confiding some dark secrets to Frank, transforms male bonding into a kind of male bondage. And then there's Vicki: Frank's latest flame, a sexy young nurse whose taste runs to synthetics, but who refuses to be the pliant bimbo Frank really seems to want. When it comes right down to it, though, it's never very clear in this confused novel what Frank wants, except to convince the reader that "being a man gets harder all the time." Ford's singular voice seems squandered on such disposable wisdom and such an insignificant life.