Richard Ford is one of my favourite writers. I loved the three previous Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1986 ), Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006). It was generally felt that Ford had done with this character, but he has now brought him back from retirement in another terrific novel. It isn’t quite up to the standard of the best – the middle one of the trilogy – or the other two, but it’s still damn good.
In four loosely connected novellas Frank, now 68 and that paltry thing, an aged man — not quite Yeats’s ‘tattered coat upon a stick’, but still fearful of falling and breaking his hip as a consequence of the giddy spells he suffers. These are caused by a problem in his neck bones, as he frequently tells us with the clinical relish of a chronic sufferer. He worries about his declining physical state a lot: Alzheimer’s, heart disease; he notes the deterioration in his contemporaries – ex-wife Ann has moved to an expensive NJ care facility, suffering from Parkinson’s, near enough for him to feel obliged to visit regularly (one such visit is the subject of section 3). Frank is full of intimations of mortality now. He calls himself a ‘prostate “survivor’. Things are falling apart. He’s fond of quoting from a range of writers – Yeats, Richard Hugo, Roethke, and especially Emerson: ‘an infinite remoteness underlies us all’.
There are plenty of reviews out there which will provide more plot detail, so I’ll concentrate here on the distinctive Ford style, thereby I hope indicating what it is that makes this worth reading (it took me just three sittings: the font is quite large and the lines are wide-spaced).
The opening story begins with an evocative description of the devastating aftermath of hurricane Sandy on the Jersey Shore, where Frank used to live:
Strange fragrances ride the fragrant, twitchy wintry air at the Shore this morning…Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.
It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean’s sulphurous weft and Barnegat Bay’s landward stink.
Much of this reads like prose poetry: there are beautiful sound patterns, symmetries (the alliteration and near-rhymes like ‘strange fragrances’); the deftly chosen adjectives (‘twitchy wintry air’) surprise and delight (it had to be ‘wintry’, not ‘winter’; not sure why). He’s good on weather effects: he talks elsewhere of NJ’s ‘discordant skies’. There’s a pleasing mix of registers, from the lyrical, literary ‘Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea’ to the American-demotic/informal list of DIY materials in the second paragraph.
The loping first-person present-tense narrative voice takes us right into Frank’s head as he contemplates impermanence, transgressions and loss, ‘the bruise of defeat’. It usually has that mesmerising blend of relaxed vernacular and pungent philosophising. And the style has become sparer, more stripped-down, compared with the earlier trilogy; Frank has begun an ‘inventory’ of ‘polluted words’ that should ‘no longer be usable – in speech or any form’. Among his pet hates are the clichés ‘no worries’ and a well-wisher being ‘here for me’.
Often accompanying the American cultural references is Frank’s love of (multiple) compound expressions: ‘the plump-pastie Ishpeming girl’. In the Sandy-devastated shopping area of the Shore is a Home Depot ‘Kremlin-like, but enigmatically-still-your-friend-in-spite-of-all’… These add to the novel’s distinctive vernacular, colloquial style, counterpointed by the high register abstractions and polysyllabic obscurities (alongside ‘copacetic’ he’ll have ‘She knows what it’s all about – not as great as it’s cracked up to be’ – he’s talking about masculinity, having met a transgender person.)
Set just before another holiday period, like the other three Bascombe novels, this time Christmas, each section deals with an emotionally bruising meeting with someone who causes Frank to reflect ruefully on his life, and life in general: ‘life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.’ These produce the novel’s main feature: Frank’s ongoing internal monologue. Mostly he ponders life with that sort of resigned, cagy stoicism. They are intercalated between the colloquial stream of Frank’s thoughts and observations, creating that curious hybrid style I’ve mentioned. Here are some typical examples:
…life’s a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence, after which all mentation goes and we head off to our own virtual Chillicothes…When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway.
This English reader often finds these American references obscure: I’d welcome an explanation of that Chilicothe allusion; all I know is it’s a town in Ohio?
He sees himself, after the various stages of existence he’d identified in the previous trilogy, as having moved on, at 68, to ‘the Next Level of life’ – ie retirement –
conceivably the last: a member of the clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world, should I choose to…
The world gets smaller and more focused the longer we stay on it.
Sally, his second wife (they’ve remarried)
views life as one thing leading naturally, intriguingly on to another, whereas I look at life in terms of failures survived, leaving the horizon gratifyingly – but briefly – clear of obstructions.
Frank’s reached a stage where he’s started trying to ‘jettison’ as many friends as he can as a means of achieving ‘well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity’, before ‘the-curtain-sways-shut-and-all-becomes-darkness’. He tries to present to the world what he calls his ‘Default Self’, which represents ‘bedrock truth’ at last. Mostly he succeeds, but being Frank, he’s self-deprecating about it – and is often very funny; at one point he’s not sure if he’s thinking or actually talking, when he says the Default Self allows questions, ‘but only ones for which you want an answer – the opposite of lawyers.’ He tries to eschew cynicism, and suspects he might, after all, have a ‘mass and a character peeping reluctantly out from behind the arras like Cupid – which is not a bad outcome at all.’ And then there’s love:
Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.
Despite this slightly weary, ruminating, introspective narrative voice, Frank is always palpably engaged in the lives of others, and the prose often soars to heights of beauty, as I hope some of my quotations demonstrate. The material world, shattered by the destructive forces of nature, mirrors his own existential state, but he comes through, more-or-less cheerfully. But the startling revelation he experiences at the end gives him pause: ‘A wound you don’t feel is not a wound.’
I sincerely hope this is not the last we hear from this battered but indomitable New Jersey survivor.
Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank With You: A Frank Bascombe Book.
Bloomsbury, 2014. 238 pp.