Ford returns with another round of Frank speaking
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