Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe back in poignant new collection
Richard Ford’s new novel “Let Me Be Frank with You” brings back Frank Bascombe, the iconic character created by Ford for “The Sportswriter,” for four more stories of Frank’s life. Ford reads Thursday, Dec. 4, at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
The author of “Let Me Be Frank with You” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, at the Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle. Free (206-386-4636; spl.org).
“Let Me Be Frank with You: A Frank Bascombe Book”
by Richard Ford
Ecco, 256 pp., $27.99
Readers who have followed the character of Frank Bascombe, from his midlife musings in Richard Ford’s 1986 breakout novel “The Sportswriter” through the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winning “Independence Day” (1995) and into Frank’s first faceoff with mortality in 2006’s “The Lay of the Land” will feel as pleasantly surprised as Frank does himself to be enjoying some bonus “end of days’ time” in these four stories. This collection makes a poignant and graceful coda to the Bascombe trilogy.
Ford had previously said he was finished with Bascombe, but his buoyant and opinionated narrator had other ideas. Less an everyman than a winning observer of middle-class American life whose eloquence, candor and wit every man might aspire to, Frank Bascombe has seen his share of dead ends and comebacks over the years. His fans can be thankful in this case for the latter.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas 2012, as New Jersey struggles to dig out from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, the 68-year-old Bascombe watches the retreating tide of years carrying away superfluities — meaningless expressions, false attachments, vain worries. He welcomes this inevitable less-ness with a wry existential shrug. Less may be more; at any rate, it’s easier.
Having retired from real estate and survived the “Big C, ” Frank has leisure for such good deeds as reading V.S. Naipaul to the blind or contributing satirical squibs to “We Salute You,” a magazine handed out to returning troops to help them survive their first hours stateside. To be sure, aging has its indignities: “Rice Crispies” in the neck bones, a newfound fear of falling, the nagging worry “that you reek like a monkey’s closet.” Yet life is not so diminished that a little Aaron Copland on the car stereo can’t lift his mood.
Largely on his own, as his wife, Sally, spends the holiday season volunteering as a grief counselor for hurricane victims, Frank relates four encounters which each center on some aspect of home.
He awkwardly comforts a man who purchased Frank’s seaside home eight years back and now owns a pile of sandy debris, and whose recent plastic surgery only makes him seem more pathetically adrift. He visits his ex-wife, Ann, who has been diagnosed with “The Big P” (Parkinson’s), and now resides in a sleek, feng-shui’d apartment in an upscale extended care community, where “being sick to death is like a passage on a cruise ship.”
In another story, Frank is visited by a childhood resident of his current home in Haddam whose recollections eloquently suggest the burdens and privileges of race in America (she is black), and the insufficiency of “closure” when the past, as Faulkner wrote, “is never dead. It’s not even past.” The abiding perplexity of race relations in America — and particularly in Obama’s America — is a major undercurrent throughout. Frank finds far more value exchanging Christmas Eve pleasantries with Ezekiel Lewis, the black man who has come to refill a heating oil tank, and with whom Frank enjoys a mysterious and sympathetic remoteness, one invisible man to another.
Although less ambitious in scope than its predecessors, “Let Me Be Frank With You” resounds with all their cadences, keen introspection and humor. Shifting from Epicurean to Stoic in his philosophy, Frank calls it as he sees it, and he sees it with more clarity than most of us. It is a pleasure to spend the holidays in his company.
David Wright is a reader services librarian at the Seattle Public Library.