Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
Let Me Be Frank With You is Richard Ford's fourth book with Frank Bascombe as its main character. "The Bascombe Trilogy" begins with The Sportswriter (1986), when Frank is 38 years old. He is adjusting to having lost his son, his marriage, and a career as a novelist. Introspection--the trait needed to be a fiction writer-- is one Frank currently avoids. Now a sportswriter, he uses his fine skills of observation without analyzing his own grief. In that first book, we come to see Frank as a man who is not to be defeated--someone who firmly believes that optimism is an essential part of existence.
Independence Day (1995), book two of the trilogy and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, continues the saga as Frank makes his way from his home in Haddam, New Jersey to his son Paul's home in Connecticut. Frank's destination is the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which he hopes will be therapeutic for his teenage son. Frank is no longer a sportswriter. Instead, he lives in the home he shared with his former wife and sells real estate. He seems particularly suited to this job, enjoying the tangential companionship of the client/realtor relationship.
In The Lay of the Land (2006), the third book of the trilogy, Frank is 55 and still working as a realtor. The year is 2000. Frank has moved to a very expensive house overlooking the ocean. Sally, his second wife, has left him and he is recovering from treatment for prostate cancer. Once again, "life" has hit him squarely in the face.
Thus, when we meet Frank again in Let Me Be Frank With You, he is in his late 60s and clearly dealing with issues of late middle age. In the first story, "I Am Here," Sally and he have sold their home by the ocean. They have returned to Haddam in what turns out to be a propitious move. Frank is retired and filling his time with some volunteer work. Hurricane Sandy has struck and Sally is busy doing grief counseling in the worst hit areas. He is downsizing his life--getting rid of non-essential words, belongings, and so-called "friends."
Juxtaposed with his own physical decline (poor guy is suffering from neck and back pain) is the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Sandy. As Frank observes:
Sea-Clift, when I drive south on Central, gives to the world the sad look of having taken a near fatal punch in the nose...Roofs, windows, front stoops, exterior walling, garages, boats--all look as if a giant has strode out of the gray sea and kicked the shit out of everything. (Loc. 309, Kindle edition)
But this is a humorous book. Frank's complete irreverence and dark wit endear him to the reader. He also exhibits much compassion, albeit reluctantly.Whether visiting a dying friend or agreeing to meet a former real estate client at his now-destroyed house, Frank's essential humanity shines through.
Similarly, in the short story, "The New Normal," Frank drives out to see his ex-wife in a nearby "state-of the art, staged-care facility," (Loc 1229) aptly named, "Carnage Hill." His mission is to give her an orthopedic pillow for Christmas--one that will "homeopathically 'treat' Parkinson's..." (loc 1235)
The description of the facility and its residents is replete with black humor-- including that of Ann, his feng shui obsessed ex-wife. The walls of her beautiful apartment display pictures that border on the pornographic and are embedded with sensors measuring her vital signs. As Frank looks dispassionately at Ann's new surroundings, he assesses his own recent move to "downsize." He reflects:
Our move to Haddam, a return to streets, housing stocks and turbid memories I thought I'd forever parted with, was like many decisions people my age make: conservative, reflexive, unadventurous, and comfort-hungry--all posing as their opposite: novel, spirited, enlightened, a stride into the mystery of life, a bold move only a reckless few would ever chance. As if I'd decided to move to Nairobi and open a Gino's. Sadly, we only know well what we've already done. (Loc 1315)
If you enjoyed reading the earlier books by Richard Ford featuring Frank Bascombe, you will not want to miss this book of interlocking short stories. But you need not have read the trilogy. Let Me Be Frank With You can stand on its own merits. It is a wry, and sadly, realistic portrait of aging in America.
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