The Sportswriter was one of the few books I’ve read twice. I dug Independence Day and Lay of the Land, too. I can’t imagine reading Let Me Be Frank With You without having devoured all that’s come before for Frank Bascombe—but I suppose it’s possible to do so.
Richard Ford or John Updike? Make mine both. You could certainly make a case for Updike’s sheer range, his ability to use so many locations and set so many characters in motion. By pure volume, it’s not even a close contest. Updike was prolific; Ford seems to pick his moments.
But Rabbit Angstrom meeting up with Frank Banscombe? Let a thousand college essays commence.
As I said, make mine both.
Richard Ford’s prose is so clear and fresh and effortless you are sucked into his unassuming vacuum of story-telling, Updike never let you forget you were reading. Well, rarely. Updike liked to do a few gymnastic handsprings down the page with flourishes of vocabulary and involved sentences (I’m a big fan) while Ford keeps it simple.
Ford lets Frank narrate his stories in first-person; Updike tells the Rabbit yarns in third. As Richard Ford pointed out in this recent New Yorker interview, this creates a “very different moral positioning.” And, I would argue, feel.
Let Me Be Frank With You is four connected novellas. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy and its devastation along the New Jersey shore, Frank goes in the first section (“I’m Here”) to the site of his former house, which has been demolished.
“The poured gray foundation is what’s left intact—a surprisingly small rectangular pit with a partial set of wooden steps going nowhere. The big Trane heat pump’s in place in the dank water that’s collected. But everything else in the “basement”—bicycles, hope chests, old uniforms, generations of shoes, wine racks, busted suitcases someone’s father owned, boxes and boxes and boxes of stuff you should’ve gotten rid of decades ago—all that’s been sucked up and blown away to some farmer’s field in Lakehurt, to be found, possibly returned, or else put in a museum to commemorate the awesomeness of mother nature when she gets it in her head to fuck with you.”
Okay, Ford can write a long sentence, too—but what a beauty.
In the second section, “Everything Could be Worse,” he is visited by a former occupant of his current house who has a tragic story to reveal. Frank finds himself in the uncomfortable role of grief counselor. While he’s endured his share of grief (see previous novels) he’s never been asked to perform in this regard. The moment is awkward, heart-felt, and sad. New neighbors are in the offing as a real estate agent is plunking down a sign—“For Sale—New Price”—into the grass, “the equivalent of a buzzard landing in your yard.” Amid the devastation, life continues to churn.
In “The New Normal,” he goes to visit his ex-wife, Ann, who suffers from Parkinson’s and lives in an extended care facility. Again, Frank squirms. “I’m still gazing around the over-cogitated room, wishing something would take place: a smoke alarm going off. The phone to ring. The figure a Yeti striding through the snowy frame of the picture window, pausing to acknowledge us bestilled within, shaking his woolly head in wonder, then continuing into the forest where he’s happiest.” Frank’s wry humor, especially regarding the functions and changes of the male psyche and the body’s various functions, are hilarious.
In “Deaths of Others,” Ford visits a dying friend who chooses to confess a past betrayal—involving Ann. If you saw it coming, I sure didn’t. “Maybe Eddie would like me to give him a punch in the nose on his deathbed … But I’m not mad—at anyone. A wound you don’t feel is not a wound. Time fixes things, mostly.”
This is a quick read. It’s thoughtful, funny, wry, and poignant (in a smart way). Hurricane Sandy has taken its toll on New Jersey, which never saw it coming. Life has taken its toll on Frank Bascombe, who has watched various attacks coming and who has charted their impact on his body and his own weary, wise soul. Frank is living in the “accumulations of life.” Around him, everything is in ruins.
Yet Frank, like Ford, is after only one thing: more clear explanations of it all.