I might have described Frank Bascombe as old friend. But he’s more than that.
With the publication of Richard Ford’s fourth Bascombe book, I’ve come to understand things about Frank I couldn’t imagine knowing about even the closest friend. No real life acquaintance would have allowed me access to the unspoken observations, apprehensions, depreciating self-appraisals and sometimes discordant thoughts that go bouncing around Frank’s head.
I’ve known Frank since the publication of The Sportswriter in 1986, when word went out that Mississippi had produced yet another brilliant novelist. Except that Ford — unlike William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Richard Wright, Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Willie Morris, Shelby Foote — had eschewed the Old South and placed his protagonist in New Jersey, of all places.
I’ve lived with Frank amid family tragedy and divorce and the mundane pursuits of a novelist-turned-real estate agent through Independence Day and The Lay of the Land, which I put down not quite satisfied, thinking that would be the last I heard of old Frank.
So glad to have been wrong. So glad Frank’s back. He’s 68 now, facing an age when life’s more glorious pursuits have been trumped by rather creakier preoccupations, which Ford captures with understated humor.
“What is it about falling?” Bascombe asked, in a running conversation with himself about the peculiar consequences of aging. “‘He died of a fall.’ ‘The poor thing never recovered after his fall.’ ‘He broke his hip in a fall and was never the same.’ ‘Death came relatively quickly after a fall in the back yard.’ How f------ far do these people fall? Off of buildings? Over spuming cataracts? Down manholes? Is it farther to the ground than it used to be?”
Being just behind Bascombe in years, I’m here to testify to the underlying truth of Ford’s book, that for men like us, notions about drugs, sex and rock ’n’ roll have been replaced by preoccupations with stuff like dodgy prostates.
The book’s four linked novellas are set in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, along the battered Jersey Shore. Frank, retired now, seems to have become a reluctant participant in the world outside his head. Life, he thinks, has become a “a matter of gradual subtraction,” and much of it of his own doing as he describes “trying to jettison as many friends as I can.”
Each of the key encounters described occurs only because Frank isn’t quick enough to slither out of them. So he meets an old friend who lost a house — sold to him by Frank — in the big storm. He pays a discomfiting visit to his ex-wife in a fancy senior citizens’ home. He allows a woman, a stranger who grew up in his home, to revisit the old place, and finds himself listening to a tragic story that he doesn’t want to hear. He visits a dying acquaintance only because he can think of no excuse to avoid the meeting.
Not much happens outside Frank’s head, but with Ford, that’s not a liability. His writing and pithy insights keep pages turning like this was some cheap thriller. The funny, and sometimes sad, truth of his stories verifies our own reality.
Take his friend Arnie, who has chosen to fend off old age with the kind of “work” so familiar to South Floridians:
“What’s since then happened to Arnie appearance-wise, however, is not much short of alarming. His big face, once scuffed and divoted by a boyhood on the briny, now looks lacquered, as though he’d gone to the islands and picked up some new facial features. There’s also something strange about his hair. Arnie ... was never a good looking brute. And even with whatever strange resurfacing and re-pointings he’s gone in for, he’s no more handsome than he was, nor any younger-looking — which must’ve been the goal. He has the same snarly mouth, the same pugnacious chin, the same brick-bat forehead and too-narrow eyes and meaty ears.”
One day, a middle-aged black woman named Charlotte Pines knocks on Frank’s door. She once lived in the house and would like to look around. And Ford captures the awkwardness of Frank, as he desperately attempts to seem oblivious to race, beginning with his “you’re probably not robbing me” smile. He overthinks the situation, searching his brain for “something any two citizens could talk about, any ole time, to mutual profit — our perplexing races notwithstanding.”
There’s something about Frank Bascombe’s perpetual state of neutrality that prompts people to tell him the stories he has no wish to hear. Charlotte Pines has a harrowing one to tell. But this is really about his awkwardness in matters of race. “Almost all conversations between myself and African Americans devolve into this phony, race-neutral natter about making the world a better place, which we assume we’re doing just by being alive.”
Ford’s writing is brilliant, and that ought to be enough for any reader, but I’m not sure if a 20- or 30- or 40-something would quite appreciate Let Me Be Frank as much as someone like me, one of the character’s creaky contemporaries. Or even a 50-something, though the unhappy reality of aging has surely begun to haunt that bunch, too.
Frank Bascombe bears witness to the inevitable passage we all face. And as Frank observed during his unhelpful meeting with Arnie at what’s left of his hurricane-wrecked home, that’s what we’re all seeking. “What I sense with my ex-realtor’s brain is that Arnie may simply want me to take the trouble to be there — to be his witness.
“It’s what the Christers all long for, dawn to dusk. It’s why there are such things as ‘best men,’ ‘pallbearer,’ ‘godfathers,’ ‘invitees to an execution.’ Everything’s more real if two can see it. A flying saucer. A Sasquatch. The face of the Redeemer in an oil smear at Jiffy Lube.
“And today I’m willing to say ‘I’m here’ to whoever can hear me, and for whatever good it might do for man or beast.”
Richard Ford appears at 11 a.m. Nov. 22 in the Auditorium at Miami Dade College for Miami Book Fair International; www.miamibookfair.com.