Recovering from nature's fury
Frank Bascombe, an everyman Middle American, offers astute observations after Hurricane Sandy strikes the New Jersey shore.
IF YOU know Richard Ford’s work at all, it is likely that you will know him from the trilogy of previous books he has written around Frank Bascombe – The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize
winning Independence Day and The Lay Of The Land. With those three novels, Ford established a formidable literary reputation as a voice of “ordinary” middle America. Bascombe, their hero, is a failed sportswriter turned estate agent ( realtor).
He is not, in the normal hero sense of the word, exceptional. But he is a consciousness, a commentator, an observer and he has picked up legions of fans and favourable critical opinion on the way. At the end of The Lay Of The
Land, Ford appeared to be done with Bascombe. But here, almost 10 years later, is this slim volume of four overlapping novellas in which Bascombe is not only revived but ageing nicely, as acute and perceptive as ever about the limited sphere of existence that is the hallmark of his late sixties.
In an Afterword to the novellas, Ford explains his decision to resurrect Bascombe.
“And after three novels and three decades of Frank Bascombe, if I chose to write about him again, it’s of no concern to me if – at a moment of weakness or despair – I might’ve said I wouldn’t.
“Novelists don’t control very much in America. But we still control what we write.”
Note the humour, the wry commentary and the hint of pugnaciousness!
“Men are a strange breed,” muses Bascombe at one point in the first of the novellas, I’m Here.
Hurricane Sandy has wrecked the Jersey Shore and Bascombe has gone down there to look at what little remains of a house he once owned and then sold to Arnie Urquhart.
It is an odd encounter, neither man quite knowing why they are there.
“It’s just us. Two men alone, not gay, on an indeterminate mission of consoling and being consoled, which has suddenly revealed itself to be pointless.”
It is the sharp poignancy of those last few words that makes Ford stand out.
Bascombe has gone down to the Shore to console Urquhart but when he gets there discovers that despite the enormity of what has happened, they have only mundane things to talk about – their cars.
There is nothing much he can say about the wrecked house and no consolation that he can offer. The encounter takes place but it is pointless.
Hanging over it is the question, so why go? In the second of the novellas,
Everything Could be Worse, an American African woman turns up on Bascombe’s doorstep intent on revisiting the scene of her childhood.
As she goes around the house, now Bascombe’s house, she tells him of the awful events that took place there, somewhat giving the lie to the title of the story and in the process violating one of the belief- tenets on which Bascombe has staked much of his life: “Better not to know many things. Full disclosure is the myth of the fretting classes.
“Those who ignore history are no more likely to repeat it than anyone else but are more likely to feel better about many things. Though, so determined was I to engage in an inter- racial substance- exchange, I clean forgot.”
The two remaining stories deal with Bascombe’s visit to his ex- wife who has Parkinson’s and lives in an upmarket care home. His purpose is to deliver “a special, yoga- approved, form- fitted, densely foamed and moulded orthopaedic pillow”. His divorce had taken place over 30 years earlier; it was destined to be an odd experience.
And in the final story, he is prevailed upon to visit a dying but lapsed friend who has a disturbing confession to make.
For me, Death Of Others is the strongest of these stories, its evocation of the deathbed scene being disturbing, grim and haunting.
I will come clean and say that I floundered with the early pages of this book.
The voice of an everyman Middle American was alien to me and I could not really see the point of the stories despite some fine touches and observations.
I think I confused a lack of obvious drama with a lack of significance.
The last story in particular changed that and I found myself admiring a considerable tour de force.
It also made me, to some extent, re- evaluate the earlier stories. I cannot now go back and say that I was enthralled by them, because I wasn’t, although I did recognise Ford’s brilliant turn of phrase and wry perceptions.
Perhaps, by the fourth novella, I was better attuned to a quieter and older voice.
“I don’t make much of an impression on things now – which is satisfying. We just have so much chance to make an impression. It seems fair ...” and again, “In my view we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today and what we might still do.
“Plus, whatever we think about all of that”.
It may not be a particularly dramatic world- view, but it’s hard to argue with, isn’t it?
Let Me Be Frank With You
ic ar or ecco/ HarperCollins, fiction