‘Let Me Be Frank with You: A Frank Bascombe Book’, by Richard Ford
Frank Bascombe resumes his negotiations with the ageing process in Richard Ford’s fine new story collection
OCTOBER 31, 2014
Review by Peter Aspden
Men are a strange breed,” concludes Frank Bascombe, the laconic protagonist of Richard Ford’s new collection of short stories. And the older they get, he might have added, the stranger they become. Is there a shrewder analyst of the middle-aged male psyche than Ford, who has already devoted three novels to Frank’s complicated negotiations with the ageing process? The four stories of Let Me Be Frank With You, taking place in the Christmas aftermath of hurricane Sandy, form a delightful postscript to those justly acclaimed works. They are funny, touching and profound.
Frank is 68 now, living uneventfully in the New Jersey suburb of Haddam, lucky to have sold his beachfront house before the onset of the hurricane, lucky to have found contentment in his second marriage, to Sally, and luckiest of all to have warded off the prostate cancer with which he was struggling at the end of 2006’s The Lay of the Land. Blessed with good fortune, then; but also surrounded by the clownish discontent of others, casting a pall over his relative peace with the world.
There is Arnie Urquhart, who bought the beach house from Frank, only to see it destroyed by the hurricane. Why does he suddenly make contact? There is his ex-wife Ann Dykstra, newly moved to a nursing home uncomfortably close to Frank after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. More interlopers still: who is the red-coated black woman who turns up one day unannounced at the door? And why on earth is Frank’s dying old friend Eddie Medley demanding some potentially stressful face-to-face time?
Each of these encounters forms a vignette that is in equal parts comic and melancholy. “For months now,” says Frank, “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.” Dream on, Frank. It’s just not as simple as that. We are our relationships with other people; and they are capable of bringing us down at any moment.
In “Everything Could Be Worse”, the slightest and wittiest of the four stories, the awkward niceties of proper interracial discourse between strangers are rendered with a light wash of satire. The red-coated woman tells Frank that her father had taken a doctorate in engineering, and was “very smart”. Frank falls into the yawning trap: “‘Like Paul Robeson,’ I blurted – in spite of every living cell urging me not to say ‘Like Paul Robeson’.”
There is a Curb Your Enthusiasm feel to these exchanges, and in the twinges of misanthropy that afflict Frank’s desires to do the right thing. In “The New Normal”, Frank reluctantly meets his ailing ex-wife, determined, for the sake of harmony, to put forward his “Default Self”, a deliberately concocted, non-threatening version of his essence that is wearable, “like a hair shirt we could get cozy in”.
It works, and it doesn’t work. “In the end it’s hard to win against your ex-wife, which is not new news.” Ford captures perfectly, in the former couple’s exchanges, the tension between indifference, hostility and the hint of regret: “Only, when she says ‘OK’ I catch, as if in my nostrils, a faint, rich whiff of our old life long ago. A whole world in a moment’s fragrance. It isn’t unwelcome.”
The other two encounters are with figures from the past: Arnie, bristling with indignation that he has suffered the calamity of losing his house through freakishly inclement weather, in the opening story “I’m Here”; and Eddie, who wills that his dying breaths should contain the most unpleasant of surprises for Frank in “Deaths of Others”. This last story is as close as Ford gets to out-and-out bleakness, but concludes with an almost sugary redemptive shot of Christmas cheer.
Threading its way through all four tales is Frank’s (Ford’s) sometimes chilling, always wry take on mortality. The so-called golden years of retirement, membership of the “clean-desk demographic, freed to do unalloyed good in the world”, are in fact littered with ambushes: the symptoms of physical decay – fleeting erections, crumbling teeth, lurching dizzy spells – and a general sense of things shutting down.
Frank keeps his days busy by reading VS Naipaul to the blind, and helping to welcome returning troopers from the Middle East. He discovers, thanks to Sally’s Christmas stocking, the hopeful fanfares of Aaron Copland. He looks for signs – a vertical crease down the ear lobe – that he can keep heart disease at bay. Those are the small comforts that keep him from confronting his own demise. The ability of slight things to forestall reflection on the weightiest of issues is Ford’s rich theme here, and no one mines it more eloquently.
Let Me Be Frank with You: A Frank Bascombe Book, by Richard Ford, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/Ecco, RRP$27.99, 256 pages
Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer