Ford re­turns with another round of Frank speak­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Peter Pierce

Let Me Be Frank With You By Richard Ford Blooms­bury, 249pp, $29.99 RICHARD Ford’s great tril­ogy of nov­els of mod­ern Amer­i­can life, fea­tur­ing Frank Bas­combe, a wry, in­tel­li­gent, flawed hero, be­gan in 1986 with The Sports­writer. This was Frank’s vo­ca­tion after he gave up on fic­tion. Next was In­de­pen­dence Day (1995), which won a Pulitzer prize, then The Lay of the Land (2006), in which Frank — New Jersey real es­tate agent, Obama sup­porter and prostate can­cer sur­vivor — pro­claimed he had reached the Per­ma­nent Pe­riod in his life, a time of re­flec­tion.

Now Ford gives us a coda, Let Me Be Frank With You, four long, linked sto­ries that are at the same time as­ton­ish­ingly com­pressed, as dense in de­tail as the nov­els, yet that move with a leisurely, ru­mi­na­tive pace.

With his sec­ond wife Sally, Frank, now 68, has hung up his shin­gle and left the Jersey Shore for the sub­urb of Had­dam. The book be­gins two weeks after the dev­as­ta­tion of Hur­ri­cane Sandy (which had ‘‘only seemed to be a

Novem­ber 1-2, 2014 care­less ze­phyr off the coast of Sene­gal’’) and two weeks be­fore Christ­mas.

Now, as Sally works as a grief coun­sel­lor for sur­vivors of the hur­ri­cane, Frank is con­fronted, un­ex­pect­edly and not much to his lik­ing, by oth­ers who reckon them­selves to be dam­aged and who want to in­volve him in their predica­ments. He rue­fully ad­mits why he be­comes a tar­get: ‘‘Peo­ple tell me things. I also lis­ten.’’

First, in a story called I’m Here, he is called on by Arnie Urquhart, se­ri­ally mar­ried and now face-lifted, a for­mer navy SEAL cum bou­tique seafood provider who bought a sea­side house that Frank owned and puts him un­der the obli­ga­tion to ex­plain what to do with the ru­ins. Next, in Ev­ery­thing Could Be Worse, Frank finds a black woman stand­ing on the doorstep of the house where he now lives. He sus­pects she is col­lect­ing ‘‘guilt do­na­tions for the AME Sun­rise Taber­na­cle over in the still-hold­ing-on black trace of Had­dam’’. Most of the neigh­bour­hood has been ceded to Nicaraguans and Hon­durans, ‘‘who do the gar­den­ing, roof re­pair and much of the break­ing-and-en­ter­ing chores’’. In fact, for dark and sad rea­sons, she wants to visit the house where she spent her child­hood.

Both sto­ries are about real es­tate, as in some mea­sure is the third, The New Nor­mal, set in the nearby Beth Wes­sel Wing at the Com­mu­nity at Car­nage Hill, ‘‘a state-of-the-art staged-care fa­cil­ity’’ to which Ann Dykstra, Frank’s first wife and mother of their three chil­dren, has com­mit­ted her­self for Parkin­son’s to have its slow, in­ex­orable way with her.

Ford ex­plores the buy­ing and sell­ing of prop­erty as an in­di­ca­tor of Amer­i­can dreams and fash­ions, of rest­less­ness and cu­pid­ity. En­ter­ing the mar­ket, peo­ple ex­pose their fond hopes as well as their vul­gar­ity and greed. Frank was good at the business but not cor­rupted by it. Thus he re­marks with dis­taste how the Car­nage Hill cor­po­rate brochure, Muses, as­serts that ‘‘Age­ing is a multi-dis­ci­plinary ex­pe­ri­ence’’. Part of this is the cre­ation of pa­tients’ rooms where ev­ery­thing is in ‘‘its or­di­nal po­si­tion to pla­cate the gods by mak­ing the whole space as un­com­fort­able and un­lived-in as pos­si­ble’’.

Here Frank finds his ex-wife, who blames the hur­ri­cane for her dis­ease and him for most ev­ery­thing else, not least the death of their son Ralph as a teenager. It is in this story that Ford gives the fullest re­view of the Bas­combe fam­ily life.

Frank has two sur­viv­ing chil­dren, Clarissa, a les­bian vet­eri­nar­ian in Cal­i­for­nia, and Paul, a so­cially mal­adapted for­mer de­signer of Hall- mark greet­ing cards (the di­ag­no­sis of his con­di­tion is ‘‘un­usual ex­ec­u­tive func­tion’’), now based in Kansas City. He loves them both but wel­comes their dis­tance from him: ‘‘they are bless­edly in far-away ci­ties’’. Clarissa makes a brisk re­turn to set up her mother at Car­nage Hill, while — weather per­mit­ting — Frank plans to spend Christ­mas with Paul.

He is a rue­ful di­ag­nos­ti­cian of his chil­dren’s lives, as of oth­ers’, but is nei­ther judg­men­tal (ex­cept per­haps where his Tea Party neigh­bours are con­cerned) nor a sen­ti­men­tal be­liever that a great good time has now been lost. As he re­flects, ‘‘the world gets smaller and more fo­cused the longer we stay in it’’.

In the fourth story, Deaths of Oth­ers, which be­gins two days be­fore Christ­mas, Frank is lis­ten­ing to com­mu­nity ra­dio: to the ‘‘non-stop hur­ri­cane yak’’, news of the rare ap­pear­ance of the speck­led Siberian war­bler and ‘‘One woman with a sub-con­ti­nen­tal ac­cent [who] calls of­ten and sim­ply reads a dif­fer­ent, slightly omi­nous Tagore poem about the weather’’. Frank finds th­ese broad­casts of­fer, in a phrase that res­onates through­out the book, ‘‘a mea­sure of our na­tional mood and hu­mour — nei­ther of which is soar­ing’’.

He also hears ‘‘a reedy em­a­na­tion of thin­ness

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