LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU (2015)
Ecco, 272 pages, ISBN: 9780061692079
* * *
Frank Bascombe is Richard Ford’s answer to John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom. We first met Bascombe in The Sportswriter (1995) as a 38-year-old newspaper scribe who trashes his failed novel and then loses his job, his son, his wife, and his faith in government during the early Reagan years. We saw him re-emerge in his early forties at the tail-end of the ‘80s as a real estate agent in Haddam, New Jersey in Independence Day (1996), and followed him to the turn of the century in The Lay of the Land (2006), in which he peddled high-ticket Jersey shore property to dodgy clients, fretted over urban social problems, battled prostate cancer, and managed to find some happiness in a second marriage. In Let Me Be Frank With You, Bascome is back in Haddam, a 68-year-old retiree trying to make sense of post-Hurricane Sandy society and confronting issues such as the passing of old acquaintances, his ex-wife’s Parkinson’s Disease, and the gnawing suspicion that a lot of the stuff he thought mattered really doesn’t. Call it a prelude to the final reckoning.
Like all the Bascome books, this one is interior. Frank has always played his cards close to the vest—the kind of guy of whom others say, “You’re never sure what he’s thinking.” As readers, though, we do. In this book, Bascome struggles to maintain what he calls his “default position.” He no longer yearns to be a success—just a decent person with an outwardly upbeat carriage, though he often confuses stoicism with optimism. In fact, Frank is more enigmatic than ever and sometimes he says and does things that confound others. Again, we know why. At times there’s a voyeuristic feel to this novel. We hear Frank say one thing, but we are privy to his inner thoughts, desires, and struggles. We know when he’s being “decent” to someone he wants to tell to take a flying leap into the gaping mouth of hell, and we know him so well that we’re pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before he does.
Liking Ford’s latest requires an appreciation of subtly. It’s mostly a book of vignettes in which we witness Frank invest great emotional energy into situations in which nothing much actually happens. But lest you dismiss the book as dull or passive, revisit in your mind the utter devastation of those areas pummeled by Hurricane Sandy. Do you recall the stunned victims and their empty stares into the splintered piles of rubble? There are several such scenes in Let Me Be Frank With You and they put me in mind of what Tim O’Brien once said. O’Brien wrote that when you get to the end of a “true war story,” there’s often nothing to say except “oh.” Sandy was like that too. Maybe this manner of passivity is unsatisfying, but perhaps it’s also relentlessly honest and human.
The other rap on Ford is that his novels, I’m told, are “relentlessly male.” That’s usually said to me by those who’d rip my spleen out if I said that Emily Dickinson is “chick lit” because no man would ever expend that much energy musing over a frigging flower! Oddly, I see a lot in common between Dickinson and Ford beyond the obvious fact that both are amazing writers. They both understand that most human drama is of the quiet kind that outsiders can’t see, but they both invite us into private rooms.
You can number me among the big Richard Ford fans. I suppose if there’s another Frank Bascome novel Ford will have to kill him off like Updike did with Angstrom in Rabbit at Rest. I will be sorry to see him go.