By Mark Roosevelt, President
There are many reasons to read, of which the most significant is illumination. Figuring out what life is about occupies our thoughts sooner or later, and those of us who are not religious look to writers to throw a little light on it all. Wallace Stevens wrote that “in an age of disbelief, it is for the poet to provide the satisfactions of belief with his measure and his style.” Robert Frost described reading as “a momentary stay against confusion.”
So, yes, while I often read to relax and to get my thoughts away from my own worries, I mostly read to see things clearer and also to feel less alone. Writers and their books have become long-term and rather intimate friends, sharing thoughts, fears, and dreams to an extent that is unusual except in the most honest and intimate real-life relationship. Often when reading a good book, I will get a jolt, realization, or insight that makes something important a bit easier to understand. Sometimes that jolt comes from confronting something in my own life that I would rather have kept hidden away and that might otherwise only be forced on me by one of those dreams in which your self-conscious leaves you no other choice.
Sometimes it is just in sharing. When you have read a writer for a long time you feel that they are not only an old friend but that they are also your advance scout, experiencing and reporting back on what lies ahead. Walter Jackson Bate spent much of his life studying Samuel Johnson and said that reading him was deeply consoling because “wherever you are going in life you will meet Johnson on his way back.” Updike has played that role for me, and the stories and poems written towards the end of his life move me greatly and help prepare me for what comes next. Many such late-life ruminations, full of longing, gratefulness, regret, and the struggle to hold on to what one has loved remind me that fear of death has more to do with losing one’s memories, one’s past, than with losing whatever future days might offer.
I have been reading Donald Hall’s poetry since college, following his path through his deeply personal poems and essays. The experience is similar to getting an honest, beautifully written annual holiday letter from a friend who pulls no punches. From his books I know of his struggles with career, family, and an early divorce; his early love of rural New Hampshire and his “smartest thing I ever did” relocation to live in the farmhouse his great-grandparents bought in 1865; his great joy in a healthy marriage and rewarding work; his own successful struggle with colon cancer; his wife’s (the wonderful poet Jane Kenyon) early death from leukemia and his pained struggle to regain his footing and find some joy in his last years living with her absence. Because of all his ups and downs a faithful reader can seek answers alongside Hall to the lament in his great poem, Kill the Day, “How many times will he die in his lifetime?”
No writer has offered me more jolts of apprehension than Richard Ford. His first two books were too hard boiled for me. Some of his later work, including his most recent novel, Canada, is exceptional. He has also written some spectacular short stories. None of these works share the grand aspiration and achievement of the Frank Bascombe trilogy.
We are first introduced to Bascombe in The Sportswriter. A former fiction writer, Bascombe is numb, off-kilter as he grapples with the personal crisis resulting from the death of his young son, Ralph, from disease four years earlier and the subsequent end of his marriage. Ford likes setting his stories on holidays (“holidays are often when people want to be most themselves, when they want to be the best they can be”) and The Sportswriter takes place during Easter week. Bascombe is on a search similar to Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and Ford is similarly engaged in examining the way a life unravels and a fairly ordinary man attempts to regain his footing. Moving from writing fiction to sports writing is part of Bascombe’s attempt to lead an unexamined, ordinary life (Ford did just the opposite, leaving reporting on sports to become a fiction writer), but events or relations with other people keep making this transition difficult.
We meet Bascombe again in Independence Day, my favorite modern American novel, which takes place on July 4th weekend. He is now a real estate agent and in what Ford calls “the Existence Period,” which is that period after the crises have subsided. He has regained his footing, and the novel explores the cost of it, and whether and how he can again connect—really connect—to the people around him, in particular his 14-year-old son, Paul, and his girlfriend, Sally Caldwell.
There are so many parts of the book I relish—descriptions of characters and places, philosophical ramblings about America, fatherhood, real estate, almost anything. I will offer one passage and insight from the very beginning of the book that has stayed with me. It is an insight that has affected the way I look at the world, and it is in Ford’s typical meandering style that frustrates a few and that pleases me immensely.
“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things that you’ll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon. You see them as the problems they are, you worry like hell about them, you make provisions, fashion adjustments; you tell yourself you’ll have to change your way of doing things. Only you don’t. You can’t. Somehow it’s already too late. And maybe it’s even worse than that: maybe the thing you see coming from far away is not the real thing, the thing that scares you, but its aftermath. And what you’ve feared will happen has already taken place.”
In other words, we spend most of our life in the “aftermath” dealing with things that have already happened, that cannot be undone, but we take so long to realize it that we do not get on with what can be done to adapt to the next approaching wave. Ford further notes, “And in that very way our life gets over before we know it. We miss it. And like the poet said: ‘The ways we miss our lives are life.’”
The next volume in the trilogy is The Lay of the Land, which takes place at Thanksgiving in 2000 during the struggle to decide who won the 2000 Bush vs. Gore presidential election, which Ford has described elsewhere as “a time of peculiar moral lethargy.” Bascombe is 55 and Sally Caldwell, now his wife, has left him to reunite with her first husband, who disappeared for decades after returning from Vietnam. Bascombe has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and is in what Ford calls his “Permanent Period.” He has achieved a reasonable level of “acceptance” of his son’s death and of his own life, although he still faces rough times. The novel explores what “acceptance” means and also what it means to be “thankful,” just as the earlier novel explored what it means to be “independent.” But this description makes the whole enterprise sound more analytical and less captivating than it really is.
Ford gives great interviews. He talks about what he is seeking to accomplish in his stories, about his own life, and how it connects to his books. His father died when he was sixteen, and he remarks that “it is always easy to write about things that go kaflooey, and people leave and the door slams and that’s the dramatic end. But I am always interested in what happens after somebody walks out the door. … The most constructive impulse in my own life is that I don’t ever walk out the door; I don’t do exits … [b]ecause people left me when I was little. I never thought it was better to be alone than to be with someone you loved.” Such interviews often cause me to dip into the novels again, usually just particular sections or episodes, and when I do, I am struck again by the beauty of the language and the emotional pull of Bascombe’s struggles.
There is no escaping comparison to Updike’s Rabbit books. In many ways Ford’s trilogy picks up where Updike left off. Both Bascombe and Rabbit participate in and examine American middle class life (there is far more examining in Ford than in Updike) and absorb cultural shifts. Ford also embraces conventional narrative, and, like Updike, he writes exquisite sentences and is deeply respectful of his subject matter—America, its suburbs, yearnings, and sweet joys as well as its many failings. Of course there are differences in tone and writing style, and Ford tells his story in the first person, whereas Updike wrote in the third.
Ford and Updike became friends, and Ford told Updike “that if he hadn’t written those novels, I wouldn’t have written mine. The fact that the Rabbit novels had such a large presence in American culture allowed me to think that such a thing could be done.”
The most important similarity is in the scrupulous, loving attention to details of everyday life. Updike believed his duty was “to give the mundane its beautiful due,” and Ford does that as well. At the beginning of The Sportswriter, Bascombe describes what life was like before his son died: “we paid bills, shopped, went to movies, bought cars and cameras and insurance, cooked out … stood in my yard and watched sunsets with a sense of solace and achievement, cleaned my rain gutters, eyed my shingles, put up storms, fertilized regularly … spoke to my neighbors in an interested voice—the normal applauseless life of us all.”
“The normal applauseless life of us all” that Bascombe ran from when it no longer made sense and then had such trouble getting back to. The life we all struggle to come to terms with, and that literature, at its best as in the Bascombe books, can help us understand just a little bit better.