Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe is one of my favorite characters in modern literature. Bascombe embodies the hopes, dreams, restlessness, complexities, and insecurities of middle aged white males navigating a changing landscape in late 20th Century and early 21st Century America. Introduced to readers in “The Sportswriter” (1986), Bascombe’s journey continued in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Independence Day” (1995) and “The Lay of the Land” (2006).
Ford brings Frank back in a series of four linked stories entitled, “Let Me Be Frank With You.” Frank was rootless and recently divorced in “The Sportswriter,” transitioning to a career as a real estate agent in “Independence Day,” and finding his way in “The Lay of the Land.” In Ford’s latest work, Frank is retired and is facing the issue of his own mortality.
In 2006, Ford thought ‘Lay of the Land’ would be the last Frank Bascombe book. In a recent interview Ford said Hurricane Sandy was the event that compelled him to bring Frank back. Ford was so affected by the storm’s destructive power and the crushing of human lives and dreams that he had to revive Frank, as the New Jersey landscape provided the backdrop for all three Bascombe novels. The stories take place in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, right before Christmas.
Told in the present tense, the stories find Frank reflecting on the past, living in the present, and sober-eyed about the future. In the first story, “I’m Here,” Frank travels to Seaclift to see his former beachfront house, at the behest of the man to whom he sold the property. The destruction he witnesses is a metaphor for Frank’s realization that nothing is permanent and death looms large. As he drives to his former home, Frank observes that “civic life has sustained a fierce whacking–house roofs sheared off, exterior walls stripped away, revealing living room full of furniture, pictures on bed tables, closets stuffed with clothes, stoves and refrigerators standing out white for all to see. Other houses are gone altogether.”
At the twilight stage of his life, Frank is looking to jettison things, including friends. He makes lists of words he dislikes and bonding is one of them. “Emerson was right–as he was about everything: an infinite remoteness underlies us all. And what’s wrong with that? Remoteness joins us as much as it separates us, but in a way that’s truly mysterious, yet completely adequate for the life ongoing.”
When the homebuyer, Arnie Urquhart, hugs him as they depart, a gesture Frank seeks to avoid, he is unsteady on his feet and the embrace saves him from falling. And then Arnie says to Frank, “Everything could be worse, Frank”…”and he is surely right.”
Which brings the reader to the next story, “Everything Could Be Worse.” Frank returns from his weekly volunteer stint reading for the blind at a radio station to find a middle aged African American woman at his front door. It turns out the woman, Charlotte Pines, had lived in the house years ago, until a horrific tragedy that occurred during her teen-age years forced her to move. The former realtor in Frank reflects, “No one wants to stay any place. There are species-level changes afoot.”
When Charlotte tells Frank that her troubled father killed her mother, brother and then himself in this house when she was 16, Frank asks her if it is beneficial to come back to the scene of the grisly events. Charlotte said it is helping and later asks Frank if he found it hard to move back to Haddam. “It’s been the easiest thing in the world. Most everyone I knew from before is gone or dead. I don’t make much of an impression on things now–which is satisfying.”
The next story, “The New Normal,” is the most satisfying for me. It centers on Frank’s visit to see his ex-wife, Ann Dykstra, now afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease and living in a high-end “state-of-the-art, staged-care facility.” The ostensible reason for Frank’s visit is to deliver to Ann a special pillow (a “yoga-approved, form-fitting, densely foamed and molded orthopedic pillow…recommended by neurologists in Switzerland to homeophatically ‘treat’ Parkinson’s…”).
While ruminating on his marriage, Frank reveals that he is prone these days to inhabit his “Default Self,” which means the self he would like others to see in him. It is how he believes others understand him to be: “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.” Ann, on the other hand, is preoccupied with bedrock truth. She holds to the belief that the marriage failed because Frank didn’t love her. Frank will not concede that point. What Frank believes pushed their marriage over the cliff was the tragic death of their son, Ralph, to Reyes Disease at the age of nine, an event covered at length in “The Sportswriter” and “Independnce Day.”
Ann believes we all have ‘selves,’ characters we cannot change. Frank doesn’t buy it. “Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do.”
As they depart, Ford offers this tender description. “There is no urge to touch, to kiss, to embrace. But I do it just the same. It is our last charm. Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.”
In the final story, “Deaths of Others,” an old friend from the Divorced Men’s Club, Eddie Medley, is dying and invites Frank for a visit. Eddie makes a disturbing deathbed confession to Frank, revealing a shocking act of betrayal that would have sent Frank off the rails years ago, but he takes the news with surprising calm. When Eddie asks if the news changes anything, Frank say it doesn’t. “It’s just the truest thing I can say…A wound you don’t feel is not a wound. Time fixes things, mostly.”
And that may be the truest and most lasting legacy of Ford’s Frank Bascombe coda.