The Sportswriter by Richard Ford : It’s good enough, so it is strange that the only feeling this book has inspired in me thus far is boredom. I’m backtracking a bit with this one, having read the sequel Independence Day last summer (and liking it quite a lot). I was aware reading that book—an awareness I don’t often experience in the realm of grown-up literature—of the impracticality of myself reading about adult dilemmas and mid-life crises. That sensation is even more pronounced reading The Sportswriter, in which our hero Frank Bascombe is a mere five years younger than in the sequel and even more profoundly unrelatable (to me). Given Frank’s (dumb) belief that personal histories are uninteresting and don’t reveal anything, reading in reverse chronology seems quite self-defeating. Frank, a former successful short story writer and budding novelist, also has some annoying ideas about fiction (annoying at least to someone like me who is not yet past the point of anticipating a life that might somehow be involved with literature). About the larger world, he says, “That we all look at it from someplace, and in some hopeful-useful way, is about all I found I could say—my best, most honest effort. And that isn’t enough for literature.” Actually, it is enough for literature, and since Richard Ford is writing literature that espouses such ideas, how am I supposed to feel about Frank? That he’s a poet and he doesn’t even know it? Also, why the insistence on the use of the word “Negro” in a book from 1986, along with statements like, “This is the reason New Orleans defeats itself. It longs for a mystery it doesn’t have and never will, if it ever did”? Taken together, these seem to be some sort of revelation of Frank’s inner character so subtle as to be both baffling and irritating. Frank likes to remind the reader that he lives an ordinary life, and he is often celebrated as one of literature’s few good, honest men, but he seems unaware that only a fraction of the world’s population lives his brand of comfy suburban life, and the critics seem unaware that he is boring. I don’t know why this book is upsetting me so. It’s not markedly different from the sequel, which deserved its Pulitzer, and I’ll continue with it though I seem to be in a poor frame of mind for doing so.
Other recent reads:
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy : This, on the other hand, is great, the type of cynicism that Richard Ford is constitutionally unable to deliver. Fairly experimental in its construction, and I thought all the formal devices worked really well. There’s the paralleling of the courtroom with the dance marathon (obvious but not overdone) as spaces where America’s outcasts are judged. The place from which events are narrated is simply but powerfully rendered in a series of intertitles, and those intertitles are something in themselves, including both the oft-repeated generalities of a prisoner’s death sentence, and information that locates that death sentence in time and space, the specific tags of person, place and date. The way those titles interact with the main narrative is interesting, often surprising. The bulk of the story is a bleak portrait of drifters in 1930s California. Some people hold up Jim Thompson as the darkest chronicler of America’s criminal class, and some say it’s Horace McCoy. I’d go with McCoy. There’s a fair amount of pizzazz in Thompson’s writing, while McCoy simply seems to be saying, “This is the shit.” Thompson’s America might be a bad place because his characters make it bad, but McCoy’s characters have been dealt such a bad hand that there is nothing to do but want to die. A question of immorality versus amorality? Our hero does the humane thing, and the unlawful thing, and morality never enters into it.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill : As great as its reputation. Sad, sad, sad, but the one salvation may be that this is a family that talks to each other, truly talks (like the representative American families in two of my favorite movies, The Best Years of Our Lives—“You may find it very cute and late Victorian of us,” approx.—and Happiness). This is a good one to read (even if you’re lucky enough to live in a theater town): Some of the stage directions are very meticulously phrased and further the themes of the play (the mother’s hands in particular).
In The Killer Inside Me, we eventually get a textbook definition of paranoid schizophrenia, advanced type, and it fits our narrator perfectly. But it’s not a creative shortcoming that the novel takes this definition and has it walk around in the body of a Texas deputy sheriff—the book’s a lot more fun than that, for all its depravity. Strangely, the sheriff's psychosis doesn't make him an unreliable narrator so much as an overly reliable one (hard to believe the stuff he's peddling). I wonder if a movie today could get away with half the stuff that’s in here. Absolute insanity, sir. The ending is spooky, the narrator coming to feel as one with his victims, a community of the too-good-for-this-world. Or too vulnerable, in spite of all the homicidal urges.