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  Richard Ford’s depiction of recently divorced sportswriter Frank Bascombe has been praised for its portrait of the American male written in the footsteps of predecessors such as John Updike and Ernest Hemingway. The main character, Frank Bascombe, narrates the story of his own struggle after the death of his young son, Ralph, and a painful divorce from his wife of fifteen years, whom he refers to only as X. As Frank describes his life as a traveling sportswriter and former author of fiction, the reader begins to question the sympathy he elicits at the start of the novel. The more Frank reveals about his marriage to X, his new relationship with Vicki, and his friendship with fellow divorcee Walter, he seems less confused and more cruel.

Frank Bascombe has had his share of ups and downs. He lives in the New Jersey town of Haddam in a beautiful colonial house which he bought for his family years ago. Now he is lonely and his ex-wife and two children, Paul and Clarissa, live across town. He spends much time focused on his old life, the way it had been before his little boy died of Reyes Disease. No family or marriage can ever be the same after something like this occurs. Without Frank supplying details, the reader feels empathy for Frank and his wife X. He still loves her so much that he drives by his family’s new house often, watching to see if a new man has come. Why doesn’t he ask them to come home, the reader wants to know?

Vicki is nurse and a new woman in Frank’s life. Although he is clearly still in love with X and longs to have their old life back, he takes Vicki on a work related trip to Detroit. During the short course of his relationship with Vicki, it becomes obvious that Frank has no idea what he wants in his life. He believes he loves Vicki, so to escape the misery he feels about X and his children he invites her to marry him. Yet, Vicki seems to realize what the reader has known all along, she is only a temporary fix for Frank. Much of the novel crawls by instead of being a page turner. The only attention-grabbing reading involves the true connection between X and Frank. Will she take him back, the reader wants to find out?

It isn’t long before Frank discloses the real reason behind the divorce. He never really wanted to be a sportswriter. The job was offered to him after he wrote his first novel and it seemed like an easy position. After Ralph died and sadness took over their lives, Frank traveled to different cities for work,where he conveniently collected mistresses at sports venues along the way. One day, he was offered a teaching position at Berkshire College and took it without even asking X. X and the children came to visit him at the school and she asked him to resign. He said he could not, knowing he could and X went home. The two did not speak again or see each other until the semester ended. Frank had the choice to go home and repair his marriage after having already cheated on X numerous times, but instead he stayed at Berkshire College and had an affair with Selma, a fellow professor. Frank returned home at the end of the semester and he and X were divorced. But marriages fall apart you might argue, he isn’t so bad.

This is not the only terrible thing Frank does. He belongs to a Divorced Men’s Club in town. A suicidally depressed man named Walter Luckett joins the club after his wife has left him for another man. Walter has no friends and chooses Frank as a confidant. But Frank, despite his knowledge of the most sad and lonely individuals, continuously attempts to avoid Walter and makes it blatantly obvious that he wants nothing to do with him. Walter only wants to talk and ask Frank simple questions about his marriage, what he thinks about when he’s alone, etc. But Frank dismisses him. Finally, after giving Frank warning of his plans, Walter kills himself. Even though Frank was the only person he turned to and Frank knew what he was planning, Frank tells X he doesn’t feel guilty. ‘He should have helped himself.’ The reader cannot help but feel that Frank has acted inhumanely toward Walter. This is a completely cruel and selfish person.

Throughout the novel everything Frank does, every thought is about only him. He takes X to Walter’s home to see where Walter killed himself, not because he feels bad bout Walter, but to try and find answers to his own problems. It is that night that X wants to invite Frank to her house to reconcile, but she realizes what a bad person he has become. ‘I remember why I divorced you now. I don’t like you very much at all.’ It may be in this moment that the one person he truly loves makes Frank realize that the happiness he had in life is gone and he isn’t ever going to get it back.

There was once a true happiness that existed between X and Frank and he wants more than anything to get it back. He spends much of his time in what he calls a ‘dreamy’ state considering what will happen in the future when everything will work itself out. Finally, he comes to the sad realization, as Walter did, that the past is over. That perfect moment may have already passed him by. Waiting for things to improve may just be a hopeless pursuit. People need to appreciate the things they have before it’s too late. Too bad he didn’t know that while he had the things he wanted.

Final Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

For more information: Guardian Interview with Ford

The Bascombe Sequels: Independence Day and The Lay of the Land