Richard Ford has resurrected Frank Bascombe, the star of his breakout novels, The Sportswriter, Independence Day and Lay of the Land, for a fourth outing, of sorts – but whereas the first three books were substantial novels that cumulatively built up Bascombe as an every man for the latter half of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty first, Let Me Be Frank With You is a quartet of longish short stories, best approached in the same way as Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins’ collection, Six Easy Pieces: in other words, if you like Ford and Bascombe, you’ll enjoy this but you may come away feeling (a) you would rather have had a novel and (b) you hope that this isn’t the last word on Bascombe from Ford. Which isn’t to say that Let Me Be Frank With You isn’t every bit as good a piece of writing as we’ve come to expect from Richard Ford (it warmed the heart of this reader, on several occasions, set the old grey matter percolating, had me rubbing my jaw in agreement with Bascombe, and added to the picture of Bascombe Ford has been working on for over thirty years) – and more, possibly, that it seems to speed by in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-all-of-the-enjoyment-of-the-ride kind of way.
The book runs over the two weeks before Christmas 2012, nearby New Jersey still recovering from Hurricane Sandy, the talk radio Frank listens to awash with all manner of cranks blaming Obama for the bad weather. What we get are ostensibly four meetings: Frank meets Arnie Urquhart, a guy he once sold a house to (his own house, formerly, a beach house, swept away in the hurricane); Frank meets Charlotte Pines, a middle aged coloured lady who once lived in the house Frank currently shares with his wife, Sally (herself in another period of doubt – you’ll remember Sally and Frank were having a bit of a crisis in Lay of the Land which seems to have passed although perhaps not entirely, Sally studying to be a grief counsellor and helping the people whose homes have been swept away but starting to question her own life, we sense); Frank meets his ex-wife Ann, currently living in an expensive care facility and coming to terms with the initial onset of Alzheimer’s; and Frank meets Olive Medley, a former member of the Divorced Men’s Club who is defiantly on his way out. We say ‘meets’, but each tale is in its own way different: Frank is summoned by Arnie and Olive, in the tales that bookend the collection, Charlotte doorsteps him and Anne, we gather, is a regular rendezvous, one more thing Frank does to make himself feel better about his place in the world (he also regularly travels to Washington to welcome troops home from the war, writes a column in a veteran newspaper that attempts to highlight the ridiculousness of the world thereby, hopefully, deterring a newly returned veteran from doing away with themselves for five minutes, and he also reads on a radio station for the blind).
Bascombe, like Ford, is a Democrat (who, we sense, like a great many Democrats, can see the faults of the Democrats as easily as he can see the faults of the Republicans and the Tea Party crazies) and much hay is made about the way in which Republicans and Democrats are forced to rub shoulders in the town of Haddam that Bascombe calls home. But there is more to Bascombe’s internal monologue than politics. This is a skin Ford is obviously comfortable in and each tale is as much an opportunity for Ford to riff as it is a series of events leading from A to B to C etc. The riffs themselves are both internal and external, ruminating on the self (his own, other people) and the world about him. When he is in with his wife, for example, he aims to be his Default Self:
“I do this by portraying for her 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.”
Later, in considering the way in which his wife Sally may or may not be re-evaluating him, he acknowledges:
“Sally views life as one thing leading naturally, intriguingly on to another; whereas I look at life in terms of failure survived, leaving the horizon gratifyingly – but briefly – clear of obstructions.”
Let Me Be Frank With You is rich with this kind of aphoristic wisdom. In many ways, it reads like a fictional return to the poetry Ford’s friend Ray Carver was writing at the end of his life (Ford used to be compared to Carver, for writing ‘dirty fiction’ – but Ford’s fiction, whilst sharing the keen observation and warm humour in the face of life’s occasional shittiness, always occupied a slightly higher social sphere to Carver – Ford’s characters, we know – because he tells us – read The New Yorker, but at the same time, still struggle, still have issues, are not so separated from every day reality as to lose our sympathy – Ian McEwan could learn a lot from Ford).
Could there possibly be more from Frank Bascombe? He’s sixty eight. His children have grown up. He knows his life is entering its final phase. But Let Me Be Frank With You does show that there is life in the old dog yet. Personally, I wouldn’t like an episodic check-in to be the last we hear of him. At the same time, as Canada shows us, Ford’s non-Bascombe books are pretty terrific too. He’s basically reached the point where he’s spoiled us. But I guess that means that whatever he does next will be pretty damn fine.
Any Cop?: A slight but welcome return for Frank Bascombe. Let’s hope he sticks around longer next time.