Re­cov­er­ing from na­ture's fury

Frank Bas­combe, an ev­ery­man Middle Amer­i­can, of­fers as­tute ob­ser­va­tions af­ter Hur­ri­cane Sandy strikes the New Jersey shore.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - Re­view by MARTIN SPICE

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?

Photo: www. pen­faulkner. org

Let Me Be Frank With You

ic ar or ecco/ HarperCollins, fic­tion

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