Let Me Be Frank With You
By Richard Ford
Ecco. 256 pp. $27.99
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Reviewed by Bob Hoover
Publicizing his novel The Lay of the Land in 2006, Richard Ford announced that it would be "the last book I'm going to write about Frank Bascombe, so I want it to be as good as I can get it."
Novelists can change their minds, so eight years later, here's the next book about Frank Bascombe, proof that he is too endearing a character to give up. He first appeared in The Sportswriter (1986), reinvented himself in Independence Day (1995), and found himself at 55 dealing with health and marital crises in that "last book," which was very good.
When I opened the new novel to find the now 68-year-old Bascombe surveying the damage that Hurricane Sandy brought to the Jersey Shore, I had to dig up my copy of The Lay of the Land to recall the events of his life in 2000. He survived prostate cancer, the unexpected disappearance of second wife Sally, and gunshot wounds during a carjacking.
"To live, to live, to live it out," was Frank's philosophy then. Now retired from the real estate business, he hasn't changed much. He has moved from the Shore back to Haddam, where his New Jersey life began in The Sportswriter, coming full circle to the town where his hopes as a writer, father, and husband faded when his young son died.
The move has a plus side: He's far enough inland to have missed Sandy's major damage.
First wife Ann has also returned to Haddam to deal with Parkinson's disease in a managed-care facility ominously called Carnage Hill. She wants to be buried next to her firstborn.
Sally, though, is comfortably reunited with Frank while he fills his days reading to the blind on radio and greeting returning troops at Newark Airport, a well-meaning patriotic gesture that he realizes can't always heal soldiers' emotional wounds from the country's military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He writes a column as well - titled "What Makes That News?" - for the welcome-home newspaper, We Salute You, given to the vets.
On the surface, all seems settled, but as Ford has long reminded us, life happens while you're doing other things, and it's not always for the best. In the four short stories in the book, the even-tempered Frank is forced to deal with a series of unpleasant circumstances about death past and present.
Mortality now shadows Bascombe's days, bringing a depressing, at times listless, quality to his life. He has become more irascible, cynically observing the follies of modern life with a sharp, nasty wit.
For instance, he jabs at the sacred cow of the Chautauqua Institution where "washed-up writers squawk about 'what it's like to be them.' " (That's Ford, not Frank, talking, I fear.)
He's cranky about his right-wing neighbor who "wants the unborn to have a vote, hold driver's licenses, and own handguns so they can rise up and protect him from the revolution when it comes."
Other targets include sex-change operations, the current state of the English language ("soft landing, sibs, bond, hydrate (when it just means 'drink'), make art, share, reach out . . . and F-bomb") and just modern American life in general.
While Ford seems to tack on an optimistic end note, sounding inspired by the Robert Frost poem "Dust of Snow," he has written a gloomy, sour book leavened here and there with his trenchant humor and wisdom.
Read it at your risk, and don't take it to Chautauqua.
Be Frank With You"
7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St. Tickets: Adults, $15; students, $7. 215-567-4341 or freelibrary.org EndText