Reading Richard Ford & Watching Steve Smith

by williamschack

This summer I have been reading Richard Ford’s Canada and watching Steve Smith bat in The Ashes. Ford is one of the finest American fiction writers of his generation, and Smith is the finest Australian batsmen of his generation. Ford mixed with luminaries such as Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. Smith mixes with no one that is his peer, but he did play with Ricky Ponting – the leader of the previous golden generation that will never be repeated.

In the history of Australian batsmen, there is a clear top 3. Bradman sits at the top and will not be replaced. At number two sits Greg Chappell. Some say Ponting beats him, but Ponting had the luxury of batting in a dominant side to finish with a career average of 51.85. Chappell played in some great Australian teams, but played on worse pitches, often without protective equipment and facing bowlers such as Malcom Marshall. He ended his career on 53.86. As it stands right now, Smith’s average is 63.75, and he may surpass them both. He currently sits at 76.45 as Captain.

Ford is at the peak of his powers in Canada, and this summer Smith has furthered his quest to be the second best Australian batsmen ever. It has been a pleasure to enjoy them both over the last six weeks, as Australia has regained The Ashes, and the Australian summer has beaten down on the English team.

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I first became interested in Ford in 2012 when I was visiting a friend (now the Roos Gal) in London. Her housemate had a large bookshelf, and two books stood out to me: W.G Grace – A life, by Simon Rae (1999); and The Sportswriter (1986), by Richard Ford.  I asked her housemate, who did not strike me as a cricket aficionado, why she had a book on W.G? I was suitably impressed when she informed me that she was a descendant of The Old Man, but slightly upset to find out she did not care for the game.  She also said that The Sportswriter was good and that I should read it. I did. And from almost the first page I knew I was a Richard Ford fan.

For the past 40 years, Ford has been writing stories about the ordinary lives of people from Middle and Lower America. He writes of family. Philandering. Murder. Mental illness. The poor choices that people make when they feel they have no other.

He is best known for his recurring character, Frank Bascombe, who appears in four of his novels. The Sportswriter (1986) was his first success; Independence Day (1995) his biggest success and for which he won the Pulitzer; The Lay of the Land (2006); and Let me be Frank with You (2015). It is Rock Springs (1987) and Canada (2012), however, that interest me most. It is in these stories that his characters are achingly alone and lost, trying to make sense of the times and country in which they live. Down and out, left behind in the pursuit of the American Dream in the Mid-West and West.

Ford does not like colourful language. His understated prose gives the events he is describing an unsettling gravity. He can write about the most traumatic event in a character’s life in plain language that makes it seem all the more shocking.
He also sees language differently to others. He is dyslexic and unable to read like most. He did not complete a book until he was 19 and this has informed his approach to writing. He writes in sentences that are not intended to show his skill as an author. More than most writers, he considers how many syllables are in a word and a sentence. He is direct and easy to read. Sometimes in the Bascombe books, this plainness becomes painful, but that is less a fault with his writing and more a testament to the character and the minutiae of his life which Ford intends for us to understand.

I bought Canada in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. It has since sat on my poorly positioned bookshelf in my bedroom catching northern sunlight, its cover fading and gathering dust. Recently, while watching the first Test of this summer’s Ashes series, I picked it off the shelf and flicked through it. And from the first page, I knew I loved the book.

***

Smith seems the most unlikely Australian Captain. He first came to my knowledge when he was selected for the Perth Test in the abysmal 2010/11 Ashes series – the nadir of Australian cricket in my lifetime. It was then that my friends and I bowed our heads in shame as Smith said that his role was to make gags in the field. In hindsight, he was probably just inexperienced in the media and could not articulate what he meant by trying to be a positive influence on the team, but at the time his inarticulateness articulated perfectly that Ponting was out of luck and his team was about to be trounced like no Australian team since 1986. The series ended with Australia losing 3-1 with three innings losses. The English crowd took delight in our demise as a collective, and in particular singling out Mitchell Johnson. Never before had we been humiliated in such a way. It would take Johnson 3 years to recover.

But perhaps Smith is right where he thought he should always be. He grew up in Sutherland Shire, of short-lived The Shire fame. He is not from the school of hard knocks – cricketers rarely are – but he did not complete secondary school, choosing instead to head over to England and play County cricket. This strange colonial sport was his way out of whatever he was in, but he never saw himself as the leg-spinner he was brought into the side as. And he has turned out to be so much more than that.

Smith was dropped after the 2010/11 Ashes and not picked again until the disastrous Homework-Gate tour of 2013 called for someone – anyone – to be selected as four players were dropped for not doing their homework on the opposition.  Once again, I laughed at his selection. I thought there was no point in trying him when he had already failed. He scored 92 in Mowabli, and my opinion immediately changed.

Australia needs batsmen that can play in India. Any batsmen of worth can make runs in Australia and we rarely lose here. If we are to call ourselves the best in the world again – it has been a decade since we did with conviction – then we need batsmen who can bat in foreign conditions. At the moment we have 3 (Warner, Smith, Marsh). And that is the reason Smith’s 92 meant so much to me. In a series when we lost 4-0, this was the one bright spark.

Since then, Smith has progressed to be the number 1 ranked batsmen in the world. It happened slowly, and then suddenly. At Perth in the third Test of the 2013/14 Ashes series, England was pitching the ball short at Smith. He decided he needed to step back and across the stumps, from leg to off, and to face the ball front on. This gave him more time and strengthened his defence. It was strange to make a change in the middle of a Test, but it worked. Smith said that from that moment everything just sort of clicked. Since then, he has averaged above 75 runs per wicket.

***

Canada is set in the autumn of 1960. It is the story of the Parsons, a lower-middle-class family in Montana. And it is a story of loss and alienation.

Bev Parsons, the father, is an Alabaman native and Airforce veteran from WWII whose life never returned from the heights of dropping bombs in the Pacific. Neeva Parsons, the mother, never recovered from falling pregnant soon after the war, a time when other arrangements could not be made. Their story, Dell says, is not an unheard-of story in the world.

Bev is jubilant at the prospect of a Kennedy presidency, and a Roosevelt picture hangs on his wall. The society is on the precipice of the 1960s, the decade of upheaval that delivered the Civil Rights Act.
The story is told from the voice of Dell Parsons, son of Bev and Neeva, some 50 years later as a 66-year-old. He is looking back at the events of his life with the full knowledge of American life since then. The great trick of the book is that although it is told from Dell in old-age, the story is presented as he saw it at the time through his naïve 14-year-old eyes. Things happen, but it is not immediately apparent to him what they mean. He also foretells the dark events that form the story, but rather than spoil the narrative, it propels it.

The book is split into three parts. The first follows a series of events that lead Bev Parsons to believe his only way out of a bind is to rob a bank. (There are no spoilers here, the first two sentences of the book read: First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later). Neeva helps too, but for different reasons. Part one ends with the parents in prison, awaiting a transfer to North Dakota where the robbery was committed. Their children, Dell and Berner, are alone in their house and uncertain of their future.

The second part follows Dell dealing with the ramifications of his parent’s actions. To avoid becoming a ward of the state, Dell is driven north to (fictional) Fort Royal, Saskatchewan, Canada, by his mother’s friend, Mildred Remlinger. She takes him to live with her brother, Arthur Remlinger, who grew up in the era of The New Deal and hates the government and unions. He went to Harvard, but retreated to Canada to escape his mysterious past after he became politically involved in some violent groups. He would have been more at home in Trump’s America.

Dell spends most of his time, however, with Arthur’s right-hand man, Charley Quarters. He teaches Dell how to hunt geese, and warns Dell of the dangers to be found in the town. He is a Metis who has pictures of Hitler and Mussolini in his trailer and believes they were misunderstood.
Despite his flaws, it is Dell’s period with Charley that is the most interesting in the book. Dell does not like him, and it appears Charley feels the same way about him, yet they both lean on each other and help one another in an unspoken way.
The reader is always on edge, however, and it feels as though something awful is about to happen at the hands of Charley, or perhaps someone else. We know Dell survives, as he is telling the story from the present, but the reader constantly fears for him in his vulnerable state.

The characters we meet in Canada are much like those in America. Running from their past, not looking back. Trying to make themselves a second life, but never really believing they can. We do not learn of Charley and Arthur’s fate. Charley’s, it would seem, was sealed from his beginning. Arthur goes to extreme lengths to escape his past, and might just succeed.

The third part ends in contemporary times. Fort Royal is largely gone. Only a few houses and an abattoir remain. Dell now lives in Windsor, Ontario, across the river and a now more heavily manned border from Detroit. The city that his dad used to tell him was the melting pot of the world, where you could get a good job with a good wage.

Dell flies from Detroit to the Twin Cities, Minneapolis to visit Berner. It is in the first year of the Obama Presidency, and in the trailer park where she lives, all the residents have American flags proudly waving above their places. Berner voted for Obama, but it would appear the others did not. They have signs underneath their flags stating that abortion is wrong, marriage is a sacrament, and there should be no taxes.
After their brief encounter, Dell flies back to Detroit, the city that would file for bankruptcy four years later.

***

Smith’s 5 Tests this summer have all been enthralling to watch. The first was my favourite of his in Australian conditions. He came to the crease in Brisbane on day 2 with England on top. It seems a long time ago now that the series ended 4-0, but at that stage, it looked as though England had planned everything just right. The wicket was difficult to make runs on and Australia was making them at a slow pace. England had a plan to bore Smith and ensure he could not score freely. Smith was not bothered by this. He could not make runs as he usually would, so he just waited it out. This was most un-Australian.

Since I have watched cricket, I have been bombarded with talk from commentators that players need to be aggressive and must play their natural game. I agree with this mainly because Shane Warne thinks this, but when the team is so inconsistent, there are times when a player should just match the conditions and acknowledge that perhaps they won’t be able to play like they want to. Smith recognised this on day 2. He also recognised it in India earlier this year when he made the greatest performance by an Australian captain in a series on the sub-continent. He is the kind of batsmen who can read the play and bat accordingly, which as an Australian is very refreshing to watch.

He blunted the attack and built a partnership with Shaun Marsh. On Day 3 it continued – slowly.  I was sitting by the pool listening on the radio. Then I was sitting on the couch watching. Waiting. And finally, he passed the hundred and almost 6 hours had passed. Had it been an Englishmen batting, or even another Australian, it would have been boring. As it was Smith, however, and we knew he could do so much more, each ball was fascinating. Each leave, each scream of “not now”, each scrambled single, was another thread in a rich tapestry that was this unlikely century. He celebrated with a fierce fist pump to his heart, atop which sat the Australian emblem.

He performed his worst in the second Test, but his time at the crease was very entertaining. In his first innings of 40, pantomime villain Stuart Broad took upon himself to get verbal with Smith and put him off his game. He was only too willing to engage. Jimmy Anderson then got involved.  In his Telegraph column before this Test, he said Australians were a bunch of bullies. In his subsequent column, he wrote that his clever comments got under Smith’s skin and was all part of the game.

Then there was Smith’s pièce de résistance of the series – 239 at the WACA. The second double century of his career and his most dominant performance of the series. Root had won his third toss for the summer, and England put 400 on the board. In any Test that is difficult to compete with, but Smith had has made imposing scores on the WACA (RIP) pitch over the last two years and said it was impossible to get out. He walked out with confidence and quickly arrived at 92 by stumps. The question was not whether he would make a hundred, but how far he would go.  He went on and on and on and on, despite taking the lesser role and allowing Mitch Marsh to make of the runs in their impressive partnership, ending up on 229* at stumps. He only added ten the following day, and it is a testament to his skill that this felt like a letdown. A triple century seemed an inevitability.

The first innings in Melbourne turned out to be a letdown. His wrist was struck in the nets in the lead up to the game, and he responded by saying he might have to change the way he bats. He came in on day one at 2/35. I had tickets to day two and three of the Test and hoped to see Smith bat all day and make another century. I arrived about 30 minutes late, and by the time I was in the standing room section of the MCC to watch the game, Smith was off the ground, and Mitch Marsh was running toward the centre.

Alistair Cook stole the show with a legacy leaving double century. It was not the prettiest of innings but was a determined effort by someone whose career was on the line, and I am glad I was there to see it. England had a chance of winning their first Test since 2011 in Australia, but in the end, the weather and pitch won out and the game ended in a draw. Smith batted time until the end and in the process made his 23rd century. Plenty has been written about the pitch so there is not much more that I can add other than that the Boxing Day Test was the most boring Ashes Test I can remember.

When his wicket fell on 83 on the morning of day three at the SCG, a hush went around the ground, and the nation was shocked. So expectant have we become, that we are bemused when he goes out.

And that was Smith’s golden summer. It ended with an average of 137.4. Almost more than Bradman in 1930, who averaged 139.14. Granted, Bradman never played on pitches as flat as Smith did this summer, nor did he wear a helmet. Nevertheless, this summer Smith has taken a strong step towards being the best Australian batsmen since.
So dominant was Bradman in 1930, that England took extreme measures to ensure he would not do it to them next time. It will be interesting to see what England come up with next series. They will probably bowl the same, but ensure he plays on the most un-Australian pitches ever, and hope for the best. For that is all they did this series, hope that they could get him out.

***

The most intriguing about Smith is that he is not the archetypal aggressive Australian batsmen looking to impose himself on the game at all times. He is so confident in his defence and not losing his wicket that he knows the runs eventually will come. Sometimes they flow easily; sometimes they don’t. He doesn’t seem to mind and has no ego about it. As long as they come.

This is much the same as Ford, who eschews flashy language. He has no ego about his sentences. He just wants to have readers and wants them to enjoy his books. He does not have the dazzle of Fitzgerald or the spare surfaces of Hemingway. He only has his characters, and he does his best to tell his readers everything about them in as few words as possible. And from this comes his brilliance in explaining the everyday.

They both make the mundane seem entertaining. A leave from Smith can be enthralling. For almost 200 pages in Canada, Ford describes a few weeks in Saskatchewan, Canada, in which Dell Parsons cleans a hotel, hunts geese and plays chess by himself. The plot subtly runs through this period and the promise in the second sentence of the book of ominous times ahead keeps the pages turning, and makes his day-to-day life all-the-more intriguing.

And I guess that is why each and every ball that Smith faces is enthralling. The plot of his career, from plucky up-start Leggie who can bat a bit, to the very best Test batsmen in the world, weaves through every innings in which plays.  And the allure of seeing just how far his greatness can reach is why we are all captivated and blessed to watch him as his career develops.

 

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