A new book from a writer as renowned as Richard Ford (PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction) is always welcome particularly when the main character is Frank Bascombe, sports-writer and later estate agent (“realtor” in the USA) – surely one of the most enduring characters in American fiction.
Richard Ford led Frank on to the scene in 1986 in his novel The Sportswriter in which we met Frank as he goes through an existential crisis following the death of his son. In 1995 we could read Independence Day in which we join Frank during a holiday weekend as he visits his ex-wife, his troubled son and his current lover. Frank returned to our attention in 2006 in The Lay of the Land, in the middle of what he calls the “Permanent Period”, that stage of life where most things that can go wrong have already gone wrong.
Then in 2014 Richard Ford published what is probably the final Bascombe novel, Let Me be Frank with You. This is really four episodes, almost little novellas in themselves, in which Frank shares incidents which happen in the run-up to Christmas 2012 and finds whatever meaning he can from them. It is fair to say that this is Richard Ford’s meditation on end-of-life issues and ultimately death itself. As someone approaching the same age to Frank Bascombe, this book spoke to me over and over again and apart from the quotations in the review below, I have included some others on a separate page here for anyone who may be interested. Do take a look at them if you have time – there are some gems there.
When Hurricane Sandy hit the North-East coast of America in 2012, it turned out to be the second most costly hurricane in American history. The book opens with Frank, now 68 years old and retired, receiving a call from Arnie Urquhart, who bought a beach-front house from Frank about ten years earlier. The house has been blown over onto its side and is now a total wreck. Arnie wants Frank to take a look at it and advise him whether to accept an offer from a re-developer. Reluctantly, Frank makes his way to the New Jersey shore and finds himself in a desolate landscape full of builders and building materials. Frank, ever the philosopher finds himself thinking about the stripping away of life as age and decay makes its unremitting progress. The wreckage on the shoreline becomes a metaphor for the general decline we all suffer and Frank sees that it’s better to simplify your life voluntarily before old-age does it for you. Frank, with his passion for unusual words suggests that even the words we use must be simplified –
When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway. Not that much is happening, except on the medical front. Better to strip things down. And where better to start stripping than the words we choose to express our increasingly rare, increasingly vagrant thoughts. It would be challenging, for instance, for a native Czech speaker to fully appreciate the words poop or friggin’, or the phrase “We’re pregnant,” or “What’s the takeaway?” Or, for that matter, awesome when it only means “tolerable.” Or preemie or mentee or legacy. Or no problem when you really mean “You’re welcome.” Likewise, soft landing, sibs, bond, hydrate (when it just means “drink”), make art, share, reach out, noise used as a verb, and . . . apropos of Magic One-Oh-Seven: F-Bomb. Fuck, to me, is still pretty serviceable as a noun, verb, or adjective, with clear and distinct colorations to it’s already rich history. Language imitates the public riot, the poet said. And what’s today’s life like, if not a riot?
Frank has a hard time with Arnie. Despite the random nature of a hurricane, Arnie has a deep-seated opinion that Frank, as the seller of the house, is somehow to blame for it’s loss. Frank dislikes being back in the territory of his old estate agency business, having left behind that stage of his life some years ago. But Arnie insists on involving Frank with walking around the ruined house, testing every possible solution, talking about building materials and the difficulty of finding anyone to do restoration work at this time. Frank tires of the whole thing, knowing that Arnie’s house has suffered a kind of death and tells him to sell the plot, let it be someone else’s problem. Time is too short at their stage of life for this kind of project. A kind of detachment comes over him and he remembers Emerson’s words, “an infinite remoteness underlies us all”, as he turns back to his car and leaves the bitter Arnie to his impossible decisions.
In the second novella, Frank arrives home one day to find an elegant black woman at his door. She seems uncertain what she is there for but as Frank talks to her, he finds out that she lived in his house many years ago and wants to ask him if she can look around it once again. Frank has had this happen to him before, and as an estate agent he is used to people looking around houses so he agrees to let her go in and wander around his house. All goes well, until just before she leaves, she tells him of a shocking story about what happened to her family while they lived in Frank’s beautiful home.
By now we realise that everything in this book is going to be about the ageing process, with metaphor after metaphor piling up – the hurricane and the wrecked homes, and now the pollution of a current home by other people’s memories. In this few days in late December there is evidently going to be no let-up in this chain of disappointments.
So on to the third novella in which Frank visits one of his ex-wives, now suffering from Parkinson’s disease and living in a very up-market care-home. Frank tells us that “the goal at Carnage Hill is to re-brand ageing as a to-be-looked-forward-to phenomenon. Thus, no one working inside wears a uniform. Smart, solid-color, soft-to-the-touch casual-wear is supplied from Land’s End. No one’s called “staff” or treated like it. Instead, alert, friendly, well-dressed, well-groomed “strangers” just seem to happen by, acting interested and offering to help whoever needs it”.
Needless to say, the visit is difficult on every level. The care-home has over intrusive security guards (in plain clothes and utterly friendly until you start to annoy them), who make getting into the place an ordeal in itself. Anne has even acquired a “boyfriend”—a former Philadelphia cop named Buck. Buck is “a large, dull piece of cordwood in his seventies, given to loose-fitting permanently-belted trousers, matching beige sweatshirts of the kind sold at Kmart, big galunker, imitation-suede shoes, and the thinnest of thin pale hosiery – he’s officially on the record as ‘handsome’ “.
Despite Frank’s efforts to do good by helping old friends, ex-wives, and relatives, his life’s experience has taught him that none of the good he attempts to do actually amounts to anything that was worth the effort. It’s not that he’s cynical, more that he’s a good man who finds the world does not really want to have good done to it. He is now re-considering his approach to relationships and planning a thinning-down of his commitments.
Indeed, for months now—and this may seem strange at my late moment of life (sixty-eight)—I’ve been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness. Only (in my view) it’s a less-ness that’s as good as anything that happened before—plus it’s a lot easier.
The final novella is entitled, “The Deaths of Others” and in it, Frank realises that “for any of us a point comes when most of life’s been lived and there’s much less of it than there used to be, and yet what’s there is not to be missed or pissed away in a blur”. The meditation on mortality continues when he receives a voice mail on his phone from an old friend who is dying of cancer and wants to see him for the last time. By this stage I was reminded of T S Eliot’s poem Little Gidding:
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold friction of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and should begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been”.
This final chapter is perhaps the most difficult to read of all. Frank’s old friend Eddie is in a terrible condition in his final days and Richard Ford pulls no punches in describing it. And to crown it all, Eddie has a terrible revelation to impart to Frank which would rock a lesser man. A death-bed confession can ease the conscience of a dying man but leave the living with knowledge they would be better off not having. Frank however is an expert at living in the present moment and despite having some precious memories ruined by Eddie, as he leaves, he remembers that “in one day’s time, all will be white and Christmas-y, and I will be on a sentimental journey to the nation’s mid-section. My son and I will have some laughs, crack some corny jokes, see a great river and the Great Plains’ commencement, east some top Kansas City sirloin, possible visit Hallmark and talk long into the night about rent-to-own”.
In an interview in New Yorker magazine, Richard Ford confirms Frank’s goal of living in the present moment:
All these novels and stories are at least partly about Frank’s effort to live vitally in the present. They’re all told in present-tense verbs, as though to corroborate Wittgenstein’s assertion that “to live eternally is to live in the present.” It seems to me that to live in the present (and, of course, that’s a term of art, which merely stresses one’s effort to live vitally at all) … but to live vitally one has to escape the vitiating grasp of the past.
“Living with Frank Bascombe: An Interview with Richard Ford” by Deborah Triesman, The New Yorker, 5 November 2014
Frank isn’t dead yet and another day beckons. Alas for us, we will probably never see him again and for someone who has seen him as a fellow-spirit for the last thirty years or so, this is a sad thought. As with all great literature, the reader feels a sense of loss when a book comes to an end – even more when you are at the end of a series of novels as fine as these.
With a writer as good as Richard Ford you keep finding memorable quotations in his book. As I wrote above, I’ve included a few in this review but in case you want to read any more, I’ve added another page of quotations.
Catching up with Frank Bascombe
In 2009, Everyman published a very beautifully-produced combined volume of the first three Frank Bascombe books, with a fine portrait photograph of Richard Ford on the cover. This is an object of desire if ever there was one, unless like me you have them all on Kindle and find replicating them in print an unjustifiable luxury.
By the way, you will find that all the book links on this website now lead to the Wordery online bookshop. I have used this quite a few times and have found their prices and service to be very good. I used to be an affiliate with Book Depository but got fed up with their slow delivery times. Wordery seems to get the books to me much quicker. In the interests of transparency, I will soon be a Wordery affiliate and get a very small commission on any purchases you make through following the links which I will donate to a charity of my choice, Medicin Sans Frontieres.