Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Literature of Male Aging.

c. David Grim (taken 4/4/10)

A couple of days ago I finished my reading of Richard Ford's "Independence Day", an installment in a trilogy concerning a middle-aged man named Frank Bascombe. Ford's book won the Pulitzer Prize- a fact that helped me finally overcome my resistance to reading his work. The author just didn't seem to jive with my interests. He'd written about (and actually been) a sports writer, and set much of his output in the suburbs. It wasn't so much that I believed that Ford had nothing valuable to say, but rather that I had plenty of other stuff on my list that demanded my attention. Eventually I found a copy of "Independence Day" on a shelf at Half-Priced Books for a dollar, and that circumstance pretty much ensured that I would get around to working my way through it.

The timing of all of this makes more sense in retrospect. Bascombe may be a wealthy man listlessly making his way through his 40's in a second career in real estate, but he does share a few commonalities with my life. He lives in New Jersey, which is an environment very close to (and with much in common with) the area in which I was raised. And he is divorced from his wife, and trying to forge a relationship with his teenaged son.

While my own son is not even three years old yet, I can anticipate negotiating some of the same types of issues that Frank Bascombe must contend with. How does a father contribute to the growth of his offspring if he lives separate from them? What arrangements work best in forging a parenting partnership with someone one was once intimately involved with, but who now exists as a virtual stranger? And how does a man in the second half of his life find satisfaction through a career that he may be stuck with, while balancing his energies in such a way that he can pursue meaningful relationships outside of it?

It's too easy to be cynical when one realizes his major life decisions have yielded less than the desired results. And at the gateway to middle age, there's a risk of becoming seriously disheartened at the prospect of several decades of steady decline. We live in a culture that's obsessed with youth and its possibilities. Perhaps it is too easy to fall into the traps of self-pity and regret, even if one can count achievements in a reckoning of the past. How do we avoid a weary resignation and/or the malaise that accompanies a close analysis of ones's own record of action?

While Ford (and his proxy Bascombe) may actively be searching for some answers, this reader was largely left discouraged by his conclusions. That's not an indictment of the author's style or ability, but IS an indication that I'll likely avoid delving further into his work. Ford is a bit too disjointed for me to overlook his flippant despair. Maybe if he was as funny as Richard Russo, I'd feel different. But I don't think I'll be returning to this particular emotional well.

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