January 5, 2009

They Have It All in Haddam

For several months after I moved, twenty-five boxes of books took up the floor space in my living room. Another thirty boxes, accumulated since I was fifteen years old, had gone straight to storage. When I finally unpacked the books in my apartment there were some surprises. Among the books that popped out were Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, Leonard Michaels's The Men's Club, several novels by Walker Percy, and The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway. I thought I'd read The Sportswriter before, but it turned out that I hadn't. I read it straight through and then went out and bought a copy of Ford's most recent novel, The Lay of the Land. After that I reread the middle one, Independence Day.

Richard Ford rose from the dead. He wrote two admired novels and a short story collection that made no money, and he quit. He became a sportswriter and apparently expected that would be his career. The magazine he worked for failed and he had to do something. Happily, along came Frank Bascombe (an oddly English-sounding pun in French, roughly Underwood, as in typewriter).

Ford hails from the same region as Walker Percy--the Mississippi Delta or Gulf Coast--and given his look, lean and thin-lipped, sharpshooter eyes, the face of a Confederate Civil War officer, he might have passed himself off as an old-style southern gentleman. But he didn't spring from pure-D southern aristocratic gothic stock, whereas Percy might as well have sprung from the House of Usher. Ford was in real life more like the people Percy wrote about: footless, highly mobile, middle-class New Southerners. Ford concluded early on that it was a liability to be a southerner or a southern writer in the boomer generation if he was going to be a regionalist, let that region be representative, and anyway Fred Barthelme had already appropriated the modern Gulf Coast. Ford chose another backwater, still untouched by a writer: New Jersey, the fictitious town of Haddam, about half way between Princeton and West Egg. He erased every trace of the southerner in him and from his fiction. It was necessary because with the plantation went metaphysics, whereas if in real life you are a sportswriter or a salesman whether of stocks and bonds, used cars, insurance, real estate, or fiction, your feet stay on the ground.

The Sportswriter is a shrewd update of The Moviegoer, Walker Percy's first novel. Ford also borrows some of the traits of the main character from Percy's better second novel, The Last Gentleman, to create Bascombe. He even borrows Will Barrett's trick knee (Ford makes sly jokes throughout the series about the Percy influence). Like all boomers a latecomer, Ford had to deal with the influence on him of two major novels by a writer who clearly mattered to him but with whom he had a major bone to pick. In a way, it was a generational difference, and the way Ford deals with it made him into his own writer.

No writer has thought harder about what the novel can tell us. Ford's disagreement with Percy was philosophical, but also about what a novel is supposed to be, and we can be pretty sure Ford doesn't think there is such a thing as a "philosophical novel." (He even jokes from time to time about what a 'real writer" would do with his material.) He wrote a novel that embraced Percy's influence, but corrected what Ford saw as Percy's mistake; in place of Percy's metaphysical drifters he gives us a self-described "positivist" who lives in a horizontal world, never getting closer to transcendence than the nave of a Presbyterian church like someone idling in the stairwell of a jazz club. Ford decided to stay at ground level whatever it cost him; he cut the metaphysical balloon loose. The Moviegoer was a philosophical book of the Camus type, and in fact, Percy's Lancelot, an update of Camus' The Fall, got beaten up in the reviews for being too philosophical.

Ford's insight was that as long as he got along with his story he could say anything he wanted. He is no metaphysician, but he might be someone who has gotten over metaphysics. There is a strange key to the problem that runs through Percy's work, but which Percy seems never to have understood. Starting in The Moviegoer, when Binx sees a young man on a train reading the same book he's reading (Charles Doughty's baroque Arabia Deserta), Percy characterizes the Romantic as one who "puts that which he most desires just out of reach." For Percy the world is out of joint because of a transcendent/immanent split in society at large. Ford, however, grasps that the metaphysical head and romanticism are one thing. By jettisoning transcendence he freed himself to write extended essays on American life, even to drag in Emerson and de Tocqueville by the back door.

In Ford's terms, Percy himself was a romantic, unable to believe that the simplest things in which his characters were interested in were what really mattered most to them, making money and having sex. "Get him a wife and live him a life," for instance, carries no implication that there is anything missing or that anyone is a sleepwalker. Ford took it farther: for Frank Bascombe, life is lived on the senses mainly and in terms of basic desires: to own a piece of real estate, to wake up every morning looking forward to the day, and to have one's feet flat on the ground. He took Percy's advice, as Percy himself didn't: Look around the neighborhood. Ford sometimes describes it as the effort of making the unlikely look plausible or even enduring, but the weight of all three books is squarely and flatly on the side of living in the world. he replaces Reality, which is out of reach, with realty.

Ford's novels have a disconcerting feature that only grows more pronounced as the series progresses. In an a scene early in The Sportswriter, which is powerfully written, it remains hard to see why Frank and his wife, called only X at first, but later identified by name as ann Dykstra, have gotten divorced. This is typical of Ford's men and women, who just up and leave each other on a whim. Frank and X have lost a young son to a rare disease, but this would not separate all couples. Nor is any melodrama involved in their marriage. Frank just drifts away, he becomes dreamy, the closest he ever comes to turning into a Walker Percy character. He is about to become a Romantic! But Ford does something unexpected. Frank can seem like an affectless, uncommitted, unmoored man, even cold. Freud would have clucked and wagged a finger at him. But Ford is doing something new with this drift through life. Bascombe understands, dimly at first but with slowly gathering force that carries through all three books, that life goes on. This catches him by surprise. In Ford's hands it's no cliche but a complex, hard-won truth. Frank is repeatedly confronted by other people who try to make an emotional connection with him. One of the members of his divorced men's club makes a pass at him, from which he recoils. The other man later kills himself--not because Frank rejects him, and not because he's a homosexual, but because he's a Romantic. The puzzle is that Frank seems unable to connect to other people, even pushes them away--but that's not what's going on in The Sportswriter. It slowly grows clear that he is moving away from the past, pulled forward by the processes of life itself, and his strength as a character and narrator is his refusal to give in to the attempts of others to drag him back. It's part of his acceptance of life that he refuses, and a testimony to the strength of Ford's vision that his character resists. He lets you know right away that Frank is not interested in the past. He feeds out the minimum of back story to tell you where he's from, but unlike a Percy character, where he is from is not the main thing, but where he is.

The choice of Haddam as his home is not milked for nostalgia, even though he does eventually move into the house his wife vacates in order to remarry and move away to Deep Water Mooring, Connecticut, on the Essex River. He moves into his X's house precisely because it isn't his past, and he's at home there. It's an interesting development, because the reader begins to understand that this is just how it is. Rather than allowing it to become a problem, a testimony of despair as Percy would have done with his persistent desire about modernity and loss, Ford has Bascombe understand, through instinct honed by experience, that the past is just gone, and life is something else every day.

This was a profitable decision for a novelist, for it allowed Ford to write three novels, each of which, like John Updike's Rabbit books, takes stock of a decade. Love is transferable, Ford has Bascombe say somewhere. These books have no happy endings. Otherwise there would be no more books about Bascombe. The interesting thing about Frank is that he doesn't change. His circumstances change, and that, one must feel in the end, is what happens to us all.

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