DECEMBER 13, 2014
IN THE SECOND PARAGRAPH of Richard Ford’s 1986 novel The Sportswriter, right after Ford introduces us to Frank Bascombe, the character who has gone on to occupy the author’s attentions for the better part of four decades, we’re given what appears to be an innocuous few sentences:
For the past fourteen years I have lived here at 19 Hoving Road, Haddam, New Jersey, in a large Tudor house bought when a book of short stories I wrote sold to a movie producer for a lot of money, and seemed to set my wife and me and our three children — two of whom were not even born yet — up for a good life.
For many years, I have thought about the word “seemed” in this paragraph, about how it opens in its wake the possibility for a million different tragedies, each one with the ability to cripple an ordinary life, never mind prevent what we might consider a good life. The obvious subtext of the opening is that the good life was never achieved, that the things that portend happiness usually have very little relationship to the actual emotion. Indeed, what Ford set up in those first words of The Sportswriter was that we were going to see what a mess can be made of life, that something as illusory as a good life is almost entirely unachievable. We either survive through tragedy or we don’t. Decisions about the value of surviving are impossible, I suppose, until we get to the very end.
It’s hard to imagine that Ford could have known when he typed the word “seemed” all of what Bascombe’s life would entail. From The Sportswriter through its two sequels, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, Bascombe has seen his son Ralph die from Reye’s syndrome, he’s gone through a divorce, his relationships with his two surviving children have frayed dramatically, his new wife’s ex-husband has come back from the dead only to die again, he’s been shot, and cancer has attacked his prostate. At the conclusion of The Lay of the Land, it appeared cancer would be the thing that finally ended Frank, the novel’s final chapter serving as a coda to all whom we’d met in the previous works, with Frank ruminating at great length on the purpose of existing at all:
On the day I got home from the hospital, the weather turned ice-cream nice, and the low noon sun made the Atlantic purple and flat, then suddenly glow as the tide withdrew. And once again I was lured out, my pants legs rolled and in an old green sweatshirt, barefoot, to where the soaked and glistening sand seized my soft feet bottoms and the frothing water raced to close around my ankles like a grasp. And I thought to myself, standing there: Here is necessity. Here is the extra beat — to live, to live, to live it out.
Profundity is hard in the face of the one certainty we all share — that it ends, that it all ends — but in Frank’s hands, this epiphany felt true enough: maybe a good life is just living long enough to figure out some essential truth. In the absence of faith, blind or otherwise, what other hope do we have? It’s the existential question that has troubled minds since the start, and so, when Frank himself returns to life in the four long stories which comprise Let Me Be Frank With You, it’s hardly a surprise to find him doing just what he figured: living it out.
“It’s not true that as you get older things slide away like molasses off a table top,” Frank says in the first of the new book’s four stories, “I’m Here,” which finds him called to the Shore, recently destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, to survey the damage done to his old home, which he sold for great profit in 2004, back before things such as homes stopped having value, to the unctuous Arnie Urquhart. “What is true is I don’t remember some things that well,” Frank says, “owing to the fact that I don’t care all that much.”
It’s a surprising turn for Frank and one that, of course, isn’t entirely true. Having spent three previous novels attempting not to care, attempting to keep the sorrow of his dead child at arm’s length, trying to deal with a world that has changed around him while he too has changed — from fiction writer to sportswriter to real estate agent to retired to, as we find him here, penning witty little newsletter items for a veteran’s mailer called We Salute You — what’s clear is that Frank cares a great deal, has an opinion on just about everything. Where The Lay of the Land often felt like the weak link in the Bascombe trilogy was primarily because of just this issue — by having a protracted take on almost every bit of stimuli placed in front of him throughout that novel, Bascombe started to become the most obsessive version of himself, which, while likely true to how a man in the midst of what might charitably be called a breakdown experiences life, nevertheless left little to the imagination of the reader. If everything is wildly important to Frank, then nothing becomes all that important to the reader.
It’s a nice change to see that while Frank is still seeing the world in bright colors, his brush with death (well, his two brushes with death) has given his point of view slightly less density. He still examines the world — it still matters — but he’s choosing what to be engaged by a bit more judiciously.
And as a real estate man, a person who has obsessed over the very meaning of place, the landfall of Hurricane Sandy has had a rather profound effect. As he waits for Arnie to show up for their odd little reunion (a particular specialty of Ford’s — from his earliest stories in Rock Springs, he revels in the horror of people who don’t want to be in the same room with each other) over the bones of a place they both lived in, he has the first of several significant epiphanies:
I, though, am struck by something I’ve never thought before — even in my role as residential specialist, seeking shelter for those in need. And it is … what little difference a house makes once it’s gone. How effortlessly, almost sweetly, the world re-asserts its claim and becomes itself again. People wring their hands and cry bloody murder when a garish new structure rises and casts its ugly shadow; or when a parking lot behind the Pathway paves over the sacred midden of the lost Lenape or a wetland where herons nested and ducks stopped to rest. As if these evils last forever. They don’t. All may not be vanity (though plenty is); but nothing’s here to stay. There’s something to be said for a good no-nonsense hurricane, to bully life back into perspective.
Frank’s perspective now is that of a man of 68, a man who has survived long enough to fear the simple things that tend to kill men of his age — like falling. But Frank also has a healthy fear of things more difficult to parse, particularly in December of 2012, when the stories take place, which includes the fervency of post-election anti-Obama Republican sentiment, an issue that Frank seems oddly placed in the middle of: an old white liberal among older white Republicans, yet still the kind of guy who uses the word Negro.
It’s an issue that has come up in the past with Ford’s Bascombe books, the sort of vernacular anachronism that exists in Frank’s lexicon, and which the author himself has been called out for over the years. It does make one wonder if the author had this issue in mind when he wrote “Everything Could Be Worse,” in which Bascombe comes home to find a middle-aged African-American woman on his front porch, who tells him, “I grew up in your house, Mr. Bascombe.”
It’s an uncomfortable story — all of the stories here are, really — as the woman, Ms. Pines, tours the landmarks of her childhood while Frank sits contemplatively in his kitchen, trying to figure out what to say and how to act with this woman, who is clearly in the midst of some larger spiritual expedition of her own, while simultaneously pondering the intersection of race. Here he is, a man who takes pains to tell us that he’s voted for Obama twice, who nevertheless still doesn’t quite know how to act around a black person.
Another silence invoked itself. I could’ve told her I’d gone to Michigan, have two children, an ex-wife and a current one, that I’d sold real estate here and at The Shore for twenty years, once wrote a book, served in an undistinguished fashion in the marines, and was born in Mississippi — bangety, bangety, bangety, boop. Or I could let silence do its sovereign work, and see if something of more material import opened up. It would be a loss if some hopeful topic couldn’t now be broached, given all. Nothing intimate, sensitive, or soul-baring. Nothing about the world becoming a better place. But something any two citizens could talk about, any ole time, to mutual profit — our perplexing races notwithstanding.
It’s a startling admission, in a way, that Frank is coming to grips with in the small space of his home. He has all the liberal beliefs, but there’s still this puzzlement: Frank’s post-racial world is one of uncomfortable silences. That Frank learns profound tragedy has happened to Ms. Pines in his house isn’t a surprise, as of course profound tragedy happened in Frank’s old house at 19 Hoving Road, and even though Frank halfway expects to hear it, it doesn’t make the hearing of it any less awkward:
I could lead her to the front door and down to the snowy street, busted wrist and all; let her go back to where she’d come from — Gulick Road. Lavallette. If in fact she wasn’t a figment — my personal-private phantasm for wrongs I’d committed, never atoned for, and now had to pay off. Am I the only human who occasionally thinks that he’s dreaming? I think it more and more.
If indeed it is a dream Frank is in during this point of his life — which he’s come to call “The Default Period” — it is one where he is continually visited from the ghosts of choices, good and bad. Here is Ms. Pines, a vestigial part of the town called Haddam, where an African-American family lived in the very house Frank calls home (“My father insisted on living in a white neighborhood,” Ms. Pines says at one point. “Though it didn’t work out very well.”), the neighborhood now increasingly white, wealthy, and Republican … not least of all from the job Frank did selling the place in his old life.
Frank is living it out all right, but it seems to be that the reason now is not just to beat back death, but to come face to face with a warehouse of consequences. This might make it sound as if Let Me Be Frank With You is dreary with sadness — it isn’t. In fact, it’s often quite amusing. Ford’s social satire has often been an overlooked aspect of his Bascombe novels, perhaps owing in large part to the undercurrent of the past — one typically doesn’t associate a lot of laughs in a series of novels that hinge initially on the death of a child — and yet Ford sneaks it in along the edges. For instance, in the book’s third story, “The New Normal,” Bascombe goes to visit his ex-wife Ann, herself now warehoused in an assisted living facility called Carnage Hill, Parkinson’s slowly killing her.
The chief selling point of Carnage Hill and all such high-end entrepots isn’t that sick, old, confused, lonely and fed up don’t exist and aren’t major pains; but, given that they are, it’s better here. In fact, it’s not only better than anywhere you could be under those circumstances, it’s better than anywhere you’ve ever been, so that circumstances quit mattering. In this way, being sick to death is like a passage on a cruise ship where you’re up on the captain’s deck, eating with him and possibly Engelbert Humperdinck, and no one’s getting Legionnaires’ or being cross about anything. And you never set sail or arrive anywhere, so there’s no bad surprises or disappointments about the ports of call being shabby and alienating. There aren’t any ports of call. This is it.
Engelbert Humperdinck jokes may not get anyone under 40 giggling — maybe under 50, possibly 60 — but what’s refreshing about Ford here is that he’s not aiming to impress a 15-year-old with his ability to talk about One Direction or some such thing, which allows him to avoid the trap of a novel like Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, for instance, where an old master attempts to connect with a generation 50 years removed from his expertise. That Frank finds himself later in “The New Normal” with a surprising erection while looking at a painting of fruit is more patently comedic, though I can’t imagine it’s more absurd (or horrific) than at any moment being told about erectile dysfunction while watching television if one happens to have kids in the house.
Still, seeing Frank and Ann together again is yet another reminder that what sits at the heart of these stories, what has compelled Frank beyond the ennui of The Sportswriter, the reckoning of Independence Day, and the spiral of The Lay of the Land has always been the story of love turned sour, about people who fell out, about the gulf that exists between two parents when they are unable to comfort each other through the loss of a child. Ralph, their dead son, would be 43 now, five years older than Frank was in The Sportswriter. “I hardly remember him,” Frank thinks while Ann begins to tell him about the cemetery plot she’s purchased for herself near Ralph. “Though I can hear his voice.”
Frank may not remember Ralph, but he haunts this book, his early death from Reye’s — back when “people still did that” — a constant reminder that time may move on, but you can’t undo the worst. Yet, even with her son’s suffering death in the background of her life, Ann admits she’d never have the nerve to kill herself, even now with Parkinson’s pressing down on her. Death swirls between these two old lovers in “The New Normal,” and while they are hardly kind to each other because of it, there is something like respect for what was once love, for the loss of someone they both adored, and for the surprising fact that they’re both still above ground themselves. If that’s not caring, I’m not sure what is.
By the concluding story, “Death of Others,” when Frank is called for a deathbed confessional by his old quasi-friend Eddie Medley, a former member of Frank’s Divorced Men’s Club from back in the 1980s, there’s the sense that we may not be done reading about Frank Bascombe anytime soon. As Eddie lies dying, he asks Frank how he knew when to end a novel:
Endings always seemed pretty arbitrary to me, Eddie. I wasn’t very good at them. I’m not the only person who said so.
Let Me Be Frank With You doesn’t seem like an ending, nor does it feel like the beginning of the good life Frank hoped to have, and knew was lost, on the first page of The Sportswriter. And maybe it doesn’t have to be either of those things. Maybe it can simply be part of some new middle passage for Frank Bascombe, the bridge to whatever comes next. Tragedy has lived beside Frank for so long that one hopes that there’s happiness ahead, but of course we can already see Ann’s death, can imagine that Frank’s two living children will face more adversity, that Frank’s wife Sally is soon to come undone — she’s working as a grief counselor in this book and is already beginning to show wear — and that cancer tends to return. Here’s hoping Richard Ford lets us see this all — and more — through Frank’s eyes, even if what he shows is as difficult as all that has come before.