“Mystery is the attractive condition a thing (an object, an action, a person) possesses which you know a little about but don’t know about completely. It is the twiney promise of unknown things (effects, interworkings, suspicions) which you must be wise enough to explore not too deeply, for fear you will dead-end in nothing but facts.”
This book hooked me from the initial passage with the guilelessness approach and the tranquil voice from the first-person narrator. The delivery is one of matter of fact rather than the all too typical woe is me methodology that often follows middle age characters in these types of stories. While he is constantly inundated with characters dealing with their own personal struggles he continually placates them in being an attentive listener, given them what they need at the time and going on his way. The premise is quite simple as this is a look at a week in this man’s life as he goes on a quick vacation/work to Detroit with his current girlfriend. For a woman from Texas, she had always wanted to go to, of all places, Detroit, while he lays the groundwork for his next piece. There are periods of retrospection to give the reader a clearer understanding of his state of mind and a reason for the way he handles novel encounters. Dreams are a thematic point made throughout the book, as you read it you almost feel like you are in a trance-like state rather than reading a plot-driven story which in the end makes for a truly unique experience.
This is a classic introspective look at the life of a sportswriter as he deals with grief, failed relationships, cynicism, mortality, and increased stages of pensiveness. To be absentminded as a child is an endearing trait, but as you age it becomes discouraged as it shows a lack of focus on the more mundane aspects of life. The unique features of these thematic events is that our protagonist does it all without the presence of self-pity or regret. From city to city, woman to woman, Frank Lanscombe encounters the same issues that have him living in a transitory state waiting for something to attach to, or to obtain an inner peace in solitude.
At the beginning of the story we learn that Frank Lanscombe is a thirty-eight-year-old sportswriter for a glossy New York Sports Magazine. He has an ex-wife he refers to as “X” and two kids Paul and Clarissa that he rarely sees. At twenty-six-years-old he was offered the job after failing to take advantage of the success he achieved on his first short story collection that made him a rich man. While having three kids at home he has avoided the common pitfalls that commonly afflict his peers in a life filled with airports, choices, experiences, and isolation. In the mean time, his first-born son Ralph died of a rare illness called Reye’s syndrome and his marriage eventually ended due to presumed infidelity. While looking at the bright side of life Frank contends that while something vital has ended, something new, exciting, and unpredictable is right around the corner. Through all the time, woman, and limited communication with his children our man Frank marches on and continues to hold out hope that he will eventually reconcile with his wife and resume the life of the All-American family despite the generic nature that he would force himself to re-embrace.
“A lot happens to you in your life and comes to bear midway: your parents can die (mine, though, died years before), your marriage can change and even depart, a child can succumb, your profession can start to seem hollow. You can lose all hope. Any one thing would be enough to send you into a spin. And correspondingly it is hard to say what causes what, since in one important sense everything causes everything else.”
What we quickly learn about Frank is that unbeknownst to him, is that while he assumes he is traveling to his next interview in another small town, he is truly in the depths of an existential crisis. He is the proverbial actor distancing himself from his true feelings on the big stage of life. X mentioned that Frank had made mistakes in life by only having made few external friendships and to only have concentrated on family and career. She believes his choices have limited Frank of much needed life experiences that bring a varied perspective. Sometimes when you get to be an adult you start becoming the thing viewed and not the viewer anymore. She seemed to conclude that it was based on his little time with his parents and not knowing them very well. To some degree he couldn’t agree more. Being a man of constant forward motion, anything in the past, is just that, in the past and not of much importance to Mr.Lanscombe as it is for the pervasive people around him. Fortunately for him is his childhood brought him a sense of independence, unfortunately for him no one seems to understand. As he grows older his relationships with woman end as soon as they figure him out and his on to the next one. C’est la vie, que sera, sera.
“As I’ve said, life has only one certain closure. It is possible to love someone, and no one else, and still not live with that one person or even see her. Anything or anyone who says different is a liar or a sentimentalist or worse. It is possible to be married, to divorce, then to come back together with a whole new set of understandings that you’d never have liked or even understood before in your earlier life, but that to your surprise now seems absolutely perfect. The only truth that can never be a lie, let me tell you, is life itself – the thing that happens.”
Some of the drawbacks that I had while reading this book was that it lacked a consistent flow unless of course a consistency can be expected from going a half step forward three steps back, four steps forward, six steps back… It wasn’t hard to read but it didn’t do much to maximize the importance of the present rather it asked the question; where are we going again?
Now onto the positives; I loved how Frank Lanscombe’s writing was described as hard-nosed and complex by the managing editor of the magazine he would later work for, but I found Richard Ford’s writing to be equally intricate yet fearlessly uncompromising. There are plenty of conversations in this novel and by that I mean long diatribes with plenty of past recollections, but the one moment that stood out for me was the discussion Frank had with his new girlfriend’s father Wade Arcenault. I don’t know why, but it did, and I had to make mention of it because with all of the intrinsic fear expected with the situation, a sense of hope was made persistent throughout the initial encounter. This novel will not suit everyone’s fancy, but for people that enjoy a story about life and all of its complexities, complete with a thinking man’s protagonist, I would highly recommend it.
“Death is not a compatible presence hereabouts, and everything is in connivance – forces municipal and private – to say it isn’t so; its only a misreading, a wrong rumor to be forgotten. No harm done. This is not the place to die and be noticed, though it isn’t a bad place to live, all things considered.”