My rating: 5 of 5 stars
"Love isn't a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts."
- Frank Bascombe's meditation upon visiting his ex-wife
We thought we'd heard the last of Frank Bascombe in The Lay of the Land, published in 2006 and the last in what was billed as the "Frank Bascombe trilogy." But it turns out that Frank wasn't finished with us, or, perhaps more accurately, Richard Ford wasn't finished with Frank. And so we get a fourth Frank Bascombe book. Lucky us.
Each of the three previous books were focused on a particular holiday and this one continues that tradition. This time we are in 2012. Hurricane Sandy has hit and devastated the East Coast, including Frank's New Jersey. We are now several weeks past that tragedy and coming up on Christmas. It's a Christmas that Frank had hoped to host as a "festive family fly-in to ole San Antone" where he looked forward to visiting the Alamo and the River Walk and later heading out to see the LBJ sites. But it was not to be. Now, he can only look forward to a solo Christmas trip to Kansas City to visit his son Paul - not a particularly appealing prospect.
As we meet Frank this time, he is 68 years old and retired from the real estate business. Both that career and his earlier one as a sportswriter are well into his past now. He is still married to his second wife, Sally. In addition to his son, he has his daughter who is a veterinarian in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the mother of his children, his first wife Ann, who is in what Frank refers to as a "high-end old folks home" nearby, where she is being treated for Parkinson's disease.
Let Me Be Frank with You is structured as Frank's meditation on his life as he nears the end of his seventh decade. It is entirely in his voice and Frank's voice is acute, sometimes cynical, and often (to me) laugh-out-loud funny. (I do appreciate Ford's humor. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we come from the same place.)
The book comprises four novellas or extra-long short stories. They all take place in the days leading up to Christmas in the weeks after Sandy and they all feature a character who wants something from Frank.
"I'm Here" features Arnie Urquhart, who, years before, had bought Frank's house on the Jersey shore. That house was upended and destroyed by the hurricane. Now, Arnie insists that Frank come and see it. He needs him to bear witness and to give him his advice.
"The New Normal" finds Frank visiting Ann in her "old folks' home" to deliver a special pillow that she wanted. Once again, this couple who shared so much, including the death of a son, contemplate the failure of their marriage.
In "Everything Could Be Worse," a well-dressed, middle-aged black woman comes to Frank's home in Haddam, New Jersey, and asks if she can see the house. She explains that she grew up there. He invites her in and eventually she tells him the sad and tragic story of her family that occurred in that house.
Finally, in "Deaths of Others," Frank gets a call - several calls, actually - from an old acquaintance, Eddie, who is dying of pancreatic cancer. Eddie asks Frank to visit him and, most reluctantly, he finally does. It turns out that Eddie needed to see him in order to make a shocking deathbed confession.
I enjoyed this book from the first page to the last. One of the things that I found most appealing and which made me empathize with Frank/Richard Ford was that much of his meditation on this stage of his life was in the form of a complaint about the sad decline of the language, something which I, too, find appalling. One of Frank's examples of this is the constant use of the word "awesome" to describe things that are barely mediocre. (Yes, it's one of my many pet peeves!)
Frank Bascombe is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary American literature. He is funny, profane, often politically incorrect, and an acute observer of American life. I wonder if we've now heard the last of him. Or perhaps in another ten years we'll meet him again as he enters his ninth decade. I, for one, look forward to that meeting.
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ADDENDUM: Here are links to my reviews of books in the Frank Bascombe trilogy in their order of publication:
The Lay of the Land