The Setting Of Detroit Michigan In Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter Essay Sample

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Ford Motor, Family, Literature, Relationships, Women, Love, Cold, Happiness

Pages: 3

Words: 825

Published: 2021/01/02

The majority of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter is set in a quiet and predictable middle class suburb of New Jersey. However, an important part of the narrative takes place in Detroit, Michigan, and this setting plays a more symbolic and important role in the story. Ford went to Michigan State, and went on to teach middle school English in Flint, and it is clear that Ford is intimately familiar with the region. The novel’s protagonist, Frank Bascombe, is an overly-cerebral depressed writer, with a dead son and a failed marriage. Ford uses the setting of Detroit to represent Frank’s cold and bankrupt psychological state.
The first person narrator Frank Bascombe is middle aged, lonely and feels estranged and alienated from everyday life. He is depressed and disassociated, which he calls ''dreaminess'' but seems more like a existential crisis. He is unwilling to even admit his son’s death is the cause of his depression, and the tone of the novel reflect his flat depressive state. A relationship with a girlfriend is empty and going nowhere, he calls his ex-wife X, and his daughter is distant and estranged, briefly entering the narrative towards the end. Frank is an intellectual writer, who spends too much time in his own brain, and turns to writing sports journalism as a form of escapism. His ideal person is not a neurotic intellectual, but an athlete , because ''athletes, by and large, are people who are happy to let their actions speak for them, happy to be what they do and never likely to feel the least bit divided, or alienated, or one ounce of existential dread” (Ford 22).
Frank is divided, alienated and weighed down with a ton of existential dread, which be projects into the world around him. Michigan plays an important role in the story of his existential dilemma, and is portrayed as a cold, flat, windswept force of nature. Frank takes his girlfriend Vicki on a business related trip to Detroit. She is ordinary and good natured, but not content with his morose and aloof behavior. She tells him that she does not love him “in the right way” to marry him. Their trip to Michigan in winter represents the coldness of their relationship. He wants to entertain her and make her happy, but fails. They go to the Belle Isle Botanical Gardens on the Detroit River, but instead of a place of natural beauty, it is an alienating and disappointing public space, where “the most interesting rooms all seemed to be closed” (Ford, 67). One of the exhibits is closed, a sign informing visitors that Detroit taxpayers are unable to support the luxury of an 18th century French herb garden. It is clear even in the 1980’s, that Detroit is on a downhill slide, and Ford’s descriptions of Detroit detail the “transformation of American urban landscapes” (Duffy 10). Vicki gets a headache and Frank decides that “public places can sometimes let you down no matter how promising they start out” (Ford 166).
Frank is not comfortable in Michigan. His suburban New Jersey neighborhood is an oasis of regularity and sameness, while Michigan represents something else entirely.
The purpose of the trip is inherently depressing. Frank has to interview a permanently paralyzed ex-football player. Football is big in Michigan, but usually involves positive and fun connotations. Here, Ford even makes the state passion for pigskin dark and existential. Overall, the trip is a disaster. Frank wants to make the trip fun for Vicki because he wants their relationship to get more serious. However, he is naturally distrustful, and Vicki catches him going through her bag in the middle of the night. As a result, she does not trust him and the relationship deteriorates. Frank has an angle for his story on the paralyzed football player, which involves optimism, courage and hope. Instead, the man is angry, depressed and bitter. Frank is unable to feel sorry for the man because he feels exactly the same way. Throughout the trip to Michigan, Vicki is reading self-help books which make her want to break up with Frank.
In The Sportswriter, Detroit is portrayed as a disappointing place. However, Frank is fond of the midwest, “where old normalcy floats heavy on the humid air, and where I happen to have gone to college” (Ford 4). His ex-wife, X, from Michigan, is an “old-fashioned, solidly Michigan girl whom I met in Ann Arbor” (Ford 8). Her father own a car bumper manufacturing plant and the entire family is “Midwest” which implies a solid moderate background. Ford portrays Michigan in two ways, as a dark and morose landscape the represents his divorce, loss, alienation and hopelessness. It also represents middle class normalcy, and his familial roots; from a time before his version of the American Dream started to unravel.
Ultimately, Richard Ford is not portraying Detroit as a negative place. Instead, he is showing his readers the flat and cold landscape of Frank’s psyche. New Jersey and Detroit are “these literal and anonymous cities of the nation, your Milwaukees, your St. Louises, your Seattles, your Detroits, even your New Jerseys, something hopeful and unexpected can take place” (Ford 55). Location and setting mean nothing to Frank. He molds, describes and perceives the landscapes to fit his moods and situations. He is sent on an absurd and existential wild goose change to find a dead friends nonexistent daughter, but then ends up just staying there and settling in Florida. Frank is escaping from serious writing, marriage, family, Michigan and finally New Jersey. While he lives in New Jersey, and moves to Florida, it is Michigan that defines Frank Bascombe. He describes New Jersey as ordinary and predictable, and Florida as new and full of possibilities. However, Michigan is the real setting of the story, where Frank realizes he has no future with Vicki, and no real talent or ambition as a sportswriter. He and his ex-wife are from Michigan, so taking his new girlfriend back to his roots was an idea doomed for failure. Moreover, Detroit had changed, and had become a “postmodern” city, that represents things and ideas that are not even currently relevant or applicable (Bone, 44). so there was little for him there, except describe the cold, the urban concrete bleakness of Detroit and other aspects of Michigan that matched his psychological state. Frank is a sympathetic character, and is clearly a quitter (he was in the Marines for six month). Change seems to be the only thing that makes him happy. Michigan is where Frank comes from, and he had run away from there a long time ago.

Works Cited

Ford, Richard. The Sportwriter. London: Fontana Paperbakcs, 1986. Print.
Bone, Martyn. "The Postsouthern'Sense of Place'in Walker Percy's" The Moviegoer" and
Richard Ford's" The Sportswriter"." Critical Survey (2000): 64-81.
Duffy, Brian. Morality, Identity and Narrative in the Fiction of Richard Ford. Vol. 176.
Rodopi, 2008.

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