Few characters in American literature have proven as durable or as interesting as Richard Ford’s long-running hero, Frank Bascombe. When we first met Frank in “The Sportswriter,” published in 1986, he was enjoying that occupation that Ford took to be one of the happiest jobs a man could have. In Ford’s 1995 Pulitzer Prize winner, “Independence Day,” and “The Lay of the Land,” published in 2005, Frank moved on to real estate, thereby providing his creator with a rich context for commenting on the American dream, employing both the grand overview and the gimlet-eyed, up-close and personal scrutiny.
In Ford’s new collection of four novellas, “Let Me Be Frank With You,” Bascombe is 68, retired now, back in Haddam, New Jersey, richly comic territory for a meditation on aging and change and post-Hurricane Sandy rebuilding.
“It’s such a peculiar thing for a guy like me, with so few ambitions as I have had in my life, that I’ve written four books about one person,“ Ford said, speaking from his office at Columbia University, where he teaches creative writing, commuting from his home in Booth Bay, Maine. “It seems like the life of someone else. … But I’m always writing in my notebook, as you know, and I’m always writing lines for Frank, even when I don’t have any places for those lines to go.”
“This is a book about bearing witness,” Ford said. “In all four stories, Frank goes off someplace where someone needs him and, by his presence, affirms or confirms that the other person is there. And there is some kindness when you’re willing to substantiate another person’s existence.”
Those moments are real and surprising. In “I’m Here,” Frank’s wife, Sally, tells him how moved she was after reading that the Sioux warriors about to be massacred after the 1862 Dakota uprising had shouted out “I’m here,” in the face of certain death. “I’m here,” she tells Frank, as if embarrassed. “So am I,” he says, knowing that’s what she wants to hear. Then Ford creates a comic look at the human need to see and be seen, the awkward moments of connection post-disaster, as he stands beside Arnie Urquhart, the man who owns the ruins of Frank’s former home, ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.
In “Everything Could Be Worse,” Frank welcomes a surprise guest to his home, a former resident who saw unbearable tragedy there. In “The New Normal,” he visits his ex-wife Ann Dykstra, newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s, ensconced in her new assisted living facility. (He brings Ann a pillow, as if to soften the blow.) Last, but not least, in “Deaths of Others,” he ventures to the deathbed of a long-ago friend with the unfortunate nickname of Olive Medley.
Like many readers who have aged along with him, Frank is paring down, doing less. He still reads for radio for the blind and goes to the airport to greet returning veterans. But he is decommissioning words in his vocabulary, has fewer friends, still falls back on Emersonian self-reliance, not seeking out the company of others, but not resisting it either. His insights are as trenchant as ever, but he seems funnier, looser, kinder somehow.
“I crack myself up,” Ford said, confessing that he originally wanted to call the book “Hilarity.” “It’s a horrible thing to admit to about one’s own vocation when one should be furrowing one’s brow and pulling one’s chin. I always think when you get to the end of a book you should cry, but there should be some laughs in the middle, and I got lucky with this book.”
These interconnected novellas all take place in 2012, during that great period of restoration after Hurricane Sandy. “Kristina and I drove down to the Jersey shore, scene of many Frank Bascombe events, just to kind of look and see what had happened to this place that we had cared so much about,” Ford said. “And on the way home I started writing lines … and I realized I had a lot of details and emotions about Hurricane Katrina stored up as well.”
Was it hard to revisit that sort of landscape, scarred by disaster, for a second time?
“No, it wasn’t hard,” Ford said. “Nothing’s hard about writing. In a way, it was a good deal less than hard because I had a use for these details. There’s a wonderful line of Penelope Fitzgerald’s — which is in Hermione Lee’s biography of Fitzgerald — ‘Experiences aren’t given to us to be gotten over.’ What that means to me, as a guy who’s a writer, is that they’re given to us to be made use of.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM and is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.