Let Me Be Frank With You
Bloomsbury, 256pp, £18.99
In Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford’s fourth Frank Bascombe book, the ageing hero of The Sportswriter and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day informs us that he has reached what he calls the “Default Period of life”. This is defined by Frank’s “Default Self”, the self “I’d like others to understand me to be, and at heart believe I am: a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice”.
We need not have read the first three Bascombe novels to approach this hope with some doubt; familiarity with any modern narrator will do. But by the end one concludes that Frank has reached at least an accommodation with his Default Self; and to a certain extent this collection of stories is, for a writer of Richard Ford’s calibre, something of a Default Book. Let Me Be Frank With You consists of four linked stories told over one dark winter in New Jersey, as Frank surveys the damage wreaked by Hurricane Sandy and the wreckage bequeathed by time.
The latest instalment of Frank’s narrative shows none of the signs of diminishing power that made Philip Roth’s last novels disappointing, nor even the gentle torpor of Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. But Frank is slowing down; the book offers many quiet pleasures and if it shows little of the ambition that distinguished Independence Day, it has more control and discipline than the somewhat problematic third Bascombe book, The Lay of the Land.
Let Me Be Frank With You is a volume that tempts the word “slight” but may deserve more. Like its narrator, it is easygoing, understated, articulate and occasionally surprising. These interconnected stories feel at times like a novel manqué, rather as if, like its hero, the book never quite mustered the energy to achieve its potential. There is no real narrative arc, no escalating sense of urgency. Instead, Frank has four encounters with catastrophe: first, a return to the beach house destroyed by the storm and an unsettling meeting with the ungracefully ageing client to whom Frank sold it; then an African-American woman shows up at his house, bringing memories of violence and the realities of racial unrest in a far from post-racial America with her. In perhaps the finest of the tales, Frank visits his ex-wife, Ann, now suffering from Parkinson’s and living in an expensive care home. And in a carefully judged denouement Frank finds himself reluctantly visiting an old friend dying of pancreatic cancer, who has a discomfiting confession to make.
Frank has mellowed since the last instalment and, outwardly at least, has accustomed himself to the intimacy he once rejected (although the wife with whom he has reconciled since The Lay of the Land remains mostly an offstage presence). His recalcitrant thoughts continue to urge him towards resistance, withdrawal and renunciation but his actions betray him, as he finds
himself connecting with others despite his best – or worst – intentions.
Each tale is restrained, judicious and discerning and the book offers a catalogue of wry observations, such as: “Patience, though, is a prelapsarian concept in a post-lapsarian world.” Or: “I don’t look in the mirror any more. It’s cheaper than surgery.” Some remarks move beyond quips and into deeper apprehensions. One exceptionally pithy intimation of learned hopelessness, the spiritual weariness that may come with age, reads: “I try not to hope for too much . . . It puts pressure on the future at my age.” Later Frank admits, “It’s little enough to do for other humans – help them get their narrative straight. It’s what we all long for, unless I’m mistaken.” And finally he has the courage to offer a functional definition of love: “Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.”
Ford is known for the cadence and clarity of his prose but, on occasion, his ear seems to fail him here. Take the misjudged title, or Frank’s description of vertigo, which is rather vertiginous lexically: “The world’s azimuth just suddenly goes catty-wampus.” Ann’s obscenely expensive facility has the absurd name “Carnage Hill”. Some might raise an eyebrow at the idea that Frank lives next door in suburban New Jersey to a couple named the D’Urbervilles but there is a beautifully keyed decision, near the book’s end, to have Frank see his mailman, “who happens to be named Scott Fitzgerald” – as presumably some people are.
Bascombe’s anxieties are familiar to anyone who has read the expanding literature of ageing. Baby boomers have defined America’s literary experiences for decades. We had coming-of-age novels, then coming-of-middle-age novels; now we have coming-of-old-age novels. Frank has long insisted on his comfort with the banal, even as life threatens him with texture, depth and menace.
He still quotes Emerson but now it is to describe remoteness: this is what life looks like when the possibilities for romantic individualism have dwindled to nothing. Frank’s remoteness has become dispiriting, no longer compensated for by the richness of the writing or the splendour of the perceptions, except perhaps at a climactic moment, as Frank stands in Ann’s care home apartment. He looks out into a dark December night and imagines “the figure of a Yeti striding through the snowy frame of the picture window, pausing to acknowledge us bestilled within, shaking his woolly head in wonder, then continuing into the forest where he’s happiest”.
Here is the rich darkness being kept at bay, American literature shaking its head at suburbia, diving back into the inky forest that first defined it.