Apart from the seemingly silly title, Richard Ford’s new collection of four long stories about Frank Bascombe is pure pleasure. In fact, even that punning phrase “Let Me Be Frank With You” can be grudgingly justified since each story soon evolves into an intense two-person conversation: after a period of hesitation, a series of people end up being—more or less—frank with Frank. Somewhat more faintly, the title also implies Bascombe’s insistence on being accepted for who he is. The failed novelist, former sportswriter, and now retired sixty-eight-year-old realtor has settled into a certain melancholy ease with himself.
Such titular tricksiness might seem far-fetched except that Richard Ford never writes an unconsidered word. Without being froufrou in the least, he’s extraordinarily attentive to diction and tone. In fact, what makes Ford’s new book particularly remarkable must be how little happens in it—and how little we miss the usual Sturm und Drang of plot or fast-paced action. Because Frank Bascombe’s voice on the page is so utterly ingratiating, so Sinatra-like smooth and easygoing, we are happy just to listen to him ruminate (and occasionally moralize). Like V.S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival—a book the ex-realtor is reading to the blind—Frank is absorbed in the small quotidian pleasures and consolations of his “end-of-days’ time, known otherwise as retirement.” To those of his age, he concludes, “life’s a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence.” While that sounds like cold comfort, a “nearly-perfect essence” is nonetheless what Ford, aged seventy himself, has achieved in this lean and lovely book.
Years ago in an interview, Ford remarked that the Pulitzer Prize–winning Independence Day (1995)—the second of his three Frank Bascombe novels, the others being The Sportswriter (1986) and The Lay of the Land (2006)—was about “the eventual sterility of cutting yourself off…from attachments, affinities, affiliations with other people.” Not surprisingly, then, Ford’s best fiction regularly explores the consequent search for connection, for those silent intimacies that bridge human loneliness. Though wary and cautious, Frank Bascombe has always been a tough-minded optimist. He has survived the death of a young son, a traumatic divorce, prostate cancer, and myriad other sorrows. He has come through. His “life-long dream,” he tellingly notes here, “is to visit the Alamo—proud monument to epic defeat and epic resilience.”
These days Frank appears almost saintly, though he would blanch at that word. Besides reading aloud to the blind, he travels each week from his home in Haddam, New Jersey, to Newark Liberty Airport to welcome back servicemen and women from “wherever our country’s waging secret wars and committing global wrongs in freedom’s name.” He also contributes a column called “What Makes That News?” to the vets’ magazine, We Salute You. Not least, each month he faithfully visits his ex-wife Ann, now suffering from the early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and residing…
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