- Independence Day by Richard Ford
Harvill, 451 pp, £14.99, July 1995, ISBN 1 86046 020 8
Richard Ford’s narrator, Frank Bascombe, quit serious writing to become a sports-writer. This was the making of Ford. It wasn’t until he became Bascombe, the sportswriter, that Ford turned himself into a major novelist.
At odd moments in The Sportswriter, Frank looks back on his abandoned literary career. He had published a ‘promising’ collection of stories, Blue Autumn, and had then started on a novel which he never finished. It was going to be about an ex-Marine in Tangiers, a place Frank had never visited but which he ‘assumed was like Mexico’. In his late thirties, with the abandoned manuscript in a drawer, Frank looks back with bemusement at these efforts to sound ‘hard-nosed and old-eyed about things’.
This is an accurate enough diagnosis of what was wrong with Ford’s first two books, A Piece of My Heart (1976) and The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), both of which were published in Britain only in the wake of the success of his third, The Sportswriter (1986). A Piece of My Heart was swamped by low-lit contrivances, by loading the banal with a freight of what Frank comes to call ‘hard emptinesses’:
‘I ain’t hot,’ he said, keeping his head sealed against his wrist and spitting in the dust.
She got quiet, and he decided to let things be quiet awhile.
‘I’m waitin,’ she said.
‘What’re you waitin on?’ he said ...
She sat staring straight out at the long curve in the road, breathing deeply.
Set in Oaxaca – a place like Tangiers? – The Ultimate Good Luck is harder (‘Quinn wanted the money put away fast’) and emptier: ‘Money gave him nerves. It was too important to fuck with.’ Quinn is a Vietnam vet (naturally) who, in the opening pages, takes a girl he’s just met to a boxing match. ‘He wanted this fight to be over and better fighters to come in, and so did the Mexicans.’ The boxer has an eye put out but Quinn doesn’t even blink. After the fight the girl sucks him off in his room, and after that there’s a lot of bad-ass chat and some shooting. In both these early novels, incidentally, cigarettes are not ‘put out’ or ‘stubbed out’ but ‘mashed’.
According to Frank Bascombe, the problem with his earlier stories was that he could always ‘see around the sides’ of what he was writing, just as we can see around the sides of what Ford was doing in his first books: when male American writers take us to a boxing match, it’s generally so we can watch them squaring up to Hemingway. Writing about sport, though, Frank hit on a style that was entirely his own, ‘a no-frills voice that hopes to uncover simple truths by a straight-on application of the facts’. That was Hemingway’s intention too, of course, but by now Papa’s has become a frill-a-minute legacy; sparseness has itself become ornamental. No, this is an ambition that all writers have to fulfil – unfrill – for themselves. For Ford this was the discovery of writing frankly, or Frankly. If anything of Hemingway survives into this phase of Ford’s writing it is what John Cheever (himself an influence) claimed you could sniff in all of Hemingway’s work: the smell of loneliness.