Richard Ford opens his latest book with a scene of shell-shocked Jersey Shore residents buying home-repair items in the weeks following Hurricane Sandy. The image prompts his aging, increasingly forgetful, cancer-surviving, vertigo-suffering narrator to quip, “Nothing smells of ruin as fragrantly as the first attempts at rescue.”
But take note — that’s not just any old cynic throwing (even more) cold water onto the hopes and dreams of plucky storm survivors. It’s none other than Frank Bascombe, a character who knows a thing or two about loss and rebuilding. As uttered by Frank, the line isn’t a glib dismissal: It’s an affirmation of spiritual kinship. I’ve been there, man. Good luck.
Ford won a Pulitzer Prize for “Independence Day” (1995), the second in an acclaimed trilogy of novels, written over a 20-year period, in which he carefully transcribed the heady internal monologue of Frank, the author’s entrant into American fiction’s Deeply Contemplative Everyman contest. (Previous winners include Rabbit Angstrom and Augie March.) Now Frank has returned, ushering us through the four linked novellas in “Let Me Be Frank With You” — which arrives, like an early Christmas gift, to soothe fans who assumed they’d never again have the pleasure of wading through his stream of consciousness.
It’s a winding stream, to be sure, and not always a fast-moving one. But it’s hard to think of another that runs past so many major landmarks of our anxious era: the dissolution of families, the fear of failure, the erosion of faith and — especially — the supplanting of old, familiar social structures with a new, esoteric code that exists primarily in the smartphone apps of people born after 1980. To this list of psychic burdens we can now add a few more that the 68-year-old Frank has racked up as he’s drifted out of middle age and into (slightly) cranky senior-citizen status: the fear of falling and breaking a hip, the near-certainty that valet parking-lot attendants are taking his car out for wild teenage joyrides, and the uneasy conviction that pick-yourself-up, dust-yourself-off optimism represents a high-risk bet against a house that almost always wins. Or, as Frank puts it: “I try not to hope for too much. It puts pressure on the future at my age.”
Things fall apart; people, too. The four lengthy stories in this collection, each of them set during the lead-up to Christmas 2012, present Frank in the winter of his mild discontent, doing his best to remain placidly philosophical amid signs of entropy from within and without. He has managed to survive not only prostate cancer but also the gunshot wound that made for the climactic ending of “The Lay of the Land” (2006). His ex-wife, now suffering from Parkinson’s, has recently moved into a high-end assisted-living facility just close enough to Frank’s current home to oblige him to visit her every now and then. Meanwhile, his former home, which he reluctantly revisits post-Sandy, has been “washed backwards off its foundation, boosted topsy-turvy across the asphalt, turned sideways” and “ridded of its roof.” An old but estranged friend is — noisily, entreatingly — dying of pancreatic cancer. And all of these messy, complicated, energy-sapping exigencies are arising at precisely the moment in Frank’s life when he’s diligently trying to minimize everything, all “in the belief that life’s a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence.”
Ever since we were first invited to tag along with Frank on his inner journey in “The Sportswriter” (1986), we’ve had to marvel at this character’s enviable capacity for accepting big changes, and especially for saying goodbye: to children, wives, youthful ambitions, careers, states, cities, houses and more. In these stories, Ford gives us a weathered and winded Frank, someone who has roughly calculated how many laps he has left around the track and is now doing all he can to remove any hurdles that might trip him up. Frank’s larger goal is to jettison all that is distracting and unnecessary, and by doing so live more fully in what he calls his “Default Self,” by which he means the self “I’d like others to understand me to be, and at heart believe I am: a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.”
Although he rarely makes jokes (to be honest, Frank Bascombe rarely even talks — he’s much too busy reflecting), Frank is essentially a comic character, and a stock one at that: the earnest yet hapless planner whose plans are forever being thwarted by fate. All Frank wants to do is spend some quiet time with his wife (with whom he has happily reconciled after a breakup), volunteer at the local radio station, hand out “welcome home” packets to returning servicemen and servicewomen at the airport, and generally just ease his way toward life’s finish line in as gracious, honest and respectable a fashion as possible. But like Buster Keaton, another deadpan philosopher who preferred to keep quiet, Frank is never allowed to get what he’s after. Something keeps getting in his way. And that something, almost always, turns out to be the ravenous hunger of others for witness and forgiveness, for company and closure.
There’s the rub. As self-aware as he is, Frank seems continually surprised not only by how much others need him, but by how good he actually is — despite himself — at offering his counsel and sympathy, at simply being there for other people. Approvingly quoting Emerson on the topic of friendship, he insists that “an infinite remoteness underlies us all. And what’s wrong with that? Remoteness joins us as much as it separates us, but in a way that’s truly mysterious, yet completely adequate for the life ongoing.”
But in the last pages of the collection’s final story, set on Christmas Eve, Frank gives an old, sick friend a much-needed gift and then walks outside to receive a much-needed gift of his own. In both instances the gift is little more than a basic, tender, human connection of the sort that’s capable of shrinking that “infinite remoteness” down to the space between two people who happen to be talking and listening to each other. It’s a small, quiet grace note of an ending — so small and quiet, though, that one has trouble believing this is really the way Ford wants to leave things between us and Frank. The author has already extended his Bascombe “trilogy” by one book. At this point, many hopeful readers are wondering, who’s counting?
Turrentine, an editor at OnEarth, is a frequent Book World contributor.