One Of Us
Richard Ford’s Artful Survivalist Guide: The Return of Frank Bascombe
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has followed Frank Bascombe through four novels. In the latest, Frank is pushing 70 but he remains a fascinating emblem of his times.
Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe is a survivor. After Ford’s third novel about him, the author said there would be no more. But Frank is back. If you don’t know Frank, one of the most subtly comic and unlikely likeable characters in contemporary fiction, I suppose you could reverse time’s arrow, start with Let Me Be Frank With You, and work backward through The Lay of the Land and Independence Day to The Sportswriter. But I want to believe readers of American literary fiction have some knowledge of Ford’s Frank who should be as familiar as Updike’s Rabbit, who didn’t survive a heart attack in his fourth novel, Rabbit At Rest. Independence Day won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, and The Lay of the Land was an even better, fuller novel, an apogee of classic realism blending the sociological with Frank’s realty and the psychological with his death-haunted, family-plagued, and all-musing sensibility.
At the end of The Lay of the Land, on Thanksgiving Day 2000, Frank went to help an obnoxious neighbor and was shot twice in the chest for his trouble. He survived that and recovered from his prostate cancer. Four years later he retired from being a realtor and moved from the Jersey shore back to his old hometown of Haddam—and was thus not living in his former beach house when it was destroyed by Sandy in 2012, an event that ramifies throughout Let Me Be Frank With You.
In retirement, Frank is consciously trying to pare down and rein in. He decides there are some stupid words he will no longer use. He jettisons friends. He rarely thinks of or talks with his prickly daughter Priscilla or his “nut-brain” son Paul, both now living several time zones away. Frank no longer has his convenient foil from The Lay of the Land, his Tibetan associate Mike Mahoney. But “essentially,” a word the “variabilist” Frank doesn’t like, he hasn’t changed much since The Lay of the Land. He looks “at life in terms of failures survived,” tries not to hope for much, believes it’s “better not to know many things,” and wants to serve others in small ways now that he no longer sells them houses. He reads to the blind, welcomes returning soldiers at Newark airport, and does other good deeds. As before, his altruism gets him into trouble.
And yet Let Me Be Frank With You is quite different from The Lay of the Land. From the multiple meanings of its title through the ambivalences of a protagonist who has much to resent and much to be thankful for, that novel has—is—the “thick discourse” that the anthropologist Clifford Geertz some years ago recommended for cultural representation. By comparison, Let Me Be Frank With You—as one meaning of the title suggests—is direct and thinner. I hasten to add this thin discourse is an appropriately rueful “late style” for a man who tells a new acquaintance, “`I’m retired. I’m just waiting to die, or for my wife to come back from Mantoloking—whichever’s first.’”
Let Me Be Frank With You is also structurally different from earlier Bascombe novels. The new book is composed of four one-scene stories of about 50 pages each that are set in the two weeks before Christmas. The stories are novellas or chapters or parts. They have multiple links—Frank narrates all in the present tense, fellow-feeling motivates each, a phrase in one becomes the title of the next—but complications come one after another instead of simultaneously as in previous novels. The parts feel separate, linear, as if Frank is plodding from one experience to another, not learning much, making the same humorous or serious mistakes. In the earlier novels, Frank constantly associates. The stories in Let Me Be Frank With You are slightly dissociated, as if Frank at 68 isn’t quite capable of pulling his experiences together—or doesn’t want to for fear of what they would do to his equanimity. Ford at 70, of course, constructs and knows the whole, but nowhere does one sense that he is grinning behind his narrator’s back. The book thus has an attractive double “empathy,” a word that appears in all four parts. There is Frank’s empathy for his fellow survivors, Ford’s for his bounce-back protagonist. If Let Me Be Frank With You lacks the width and depth and heft of its Bascombe precursors, it seems to me just about perfect given the constraints its protagonist now dictates on style and form.
In “I’m Here,” Frank agrees to meet at the shore the man to whom he sold the now destroyed beach house and, perhaps, console or advise him. With the realtor’s expertise in construction, Frank describes in affecting detail the hurricane’s destruction. Although the current owner resents Frank’s luck in getting out before the storm, their conflict is muted, and the two agree that “`Everything could be worse,’” a frank assessment that provides the title of the next part and names the principle by which the book progresses.
In the second part, an African-American woman who lived in Frank’s Haddam house long before he moved to town shows up on his doorstep, hoping to look around her old residence. Frank seems lonely (his wife Sally is mostly absent in these stories, away counseling Sandy survivors), so he generously inquires about his visitor’s history—perhaps because she lost her home in the hurricane, maybe because he feels rather awkward with African-Americans—and discovers information about his home’s history he did “not not not” want to know.
All the stories bring Frank into contact with persons who have lived in or been intimate in Frank’s homes, so Let Me Be Frank With You resembles a haunted house story with characters as ghosts from the past like his dead son Ralph with whom Frank sometimes has imaginary conversations. In “The New Normal” Frank takes a special orthopedic pillow to his long-divorced first wife Ann who has survived two other husbands but now has Parkinson’s and lives in an upscale assisted care facility that Frank (and Ford) gleefully satirize. Extending the disaster theme, she believes that Sandy has somehow brought on her Parkinson’s, making her another wounded survivor. The visit lets Ford contrast Frank’s notion of character (a lie of “the dramatic arts”) with Ann’s belief in a bedrock, “essentialist” self. Frank believes a person is what he does today, did yesterday, and might still do, but the favor he does for Ann four nights before Christmas causes him comic embarrassment and gets him a “Whip-crack-POW! insult. Ford has apparently been married to the same woman for many decades, but he sure knows how even long-divorced people can assault each other.
Frank discovers that Ann’s pillow request is a pretext for discussing burial arrangements, but things “could be worse” and are in “Deaths of Others” when Frank is asked to visit an old acquaintance—Eddie Medley, a former realtor, not even a good friend—who has only a few weeks or days to live. In The Lay of the Land, Frank met with a failing octogenarian friend and visited a funeral home—and regretted both. But after resisting Eddie, Frank makes his visit, and the dying man confesses a disturbing secret from decades ago. But the worst is that Frank sees Eddie, not as a ghost from the past, but as a double from Frank’s future: “Eddie and I might as well be one person.” How Frank survives this terminal horror and maintains his gallows humor the day before Christmas is a secret I won’t divulge.
Frank silently, generously suffers a raft of personal indignities, but he summons his old passion to rant against the craven stupidity of Republicans and religionists. A two-time Obama voter, Frank lives in a section of Haddam where blacks once resided and wishes he had one black friend. He enjoys talking with the woman who visits her old home, and he likes the black hospice nurse attending Eddie Medley, so African-American characters, not much present in the earlier books, assume more importance in this one. Like Ford, Frank is from Mississippi and may think of African-Americans as caregivers like Dilsey in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Clytie in Absalom, Absalom!, women who can ease a white man out of this world. Because Ford has had an uneasy relationship with African-American critics, most notably Colson Whitehead, it will be interesting to see how Frank’s new curiosity about and respect for black characters is received.
The Lay of the Land was published in 2004 but set in 2000. Although Let Me Be Frank With You is about responses to the natural disaster of Sandy, several references to 9/11 suggest that Ford would like the book to indirectly reflect on the attacks of 2001. Frank is very conscious of planes flying low overhead. Ann is only one of many “hurricane conspirators” who believe the storm has changed everything. She thinks of it as starting in Africa and coming across the Atlantic to attack America. Against this paranoia of recent history, Frank takes the long view that all disasters and destruction are natural. Religious wars have always been with us. The sea level rises, falls, rises, falls, just like civilizations. Perhaps Frank cultivates the long view to make it easier for him to get “off the human stage as painlessly and expeditiously as possible.” Or maybe Ford suggests Frank is onto an old, now unpopular wisdom: nobody and nothing survives for long. To underline this, Ford has Frank quote Shelley’s “Ozymandias”: “Nothing beside remains.”
But our senior writers keep pressing on. Nine prominent American novelists 75 and over—Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Peter Matthiessen, William Gass, Joyce Carol Oates, Jerome Charyn, Robert Stone, Joseph McElroy, and E. L. Doctorow—published books in 2013 and 2014 (the last three reviewed by me in these pages). Only Gass’s Middle C, though, is about a protagonist near the age of the author. As if to prove their continuing vitality, the other elders choose to write about younger or even much younger characters. I admire Ford for bringing back Frank Bascombe as an old man and for creating a form and compressing a style to represent one late sexagenarian’s circumstances and consciousness without succumbing to geezer sentimentality or contrived serenity.
Let Me Be Frank With You is likely the finale of Frank Bascombe. In the last lines, Ford circles back to the book’s beginning, the title of the first story, “I’m Here.” Leaving the moribund Eddie, Frank crosses paths with a black deliveryman, and they talk about hurricane survivors. The man plans to take them food on Christmas day. He says, “`I’m here. So I cain’t do nothin’.’” Frank agrees and says, “Then he goes. And I go. The day we have briefly shared is saved.” Saved in Frank’s memory until the next small affirmation or major frustration, saved in the reader’s memory as, probably, Frank Bascombe’s last words. The next day, Christmas, is the birthday of the savior, but Frank is not a believer. No savior, one survivor. Here for now.