Let me be frank with you by Richard Ford, book review: Soldiering on through old wounds

These four interlinked novellas take place in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, where whole communities were decimated

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Frank Bascombe, the funny, amiable, but edgy narrator of Ford’s The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of The Land is back.

He’s still the same laconic observer of his inner thoughts and the wondrous turmoil of everyday life but, at 68, he’s a little more cranky, a little less sociable and physically frailer (he’s constantly afraid of falling on his “ass”, aware of his “gramps shuffle”). Frank’s life has been a testing one – he suffered the death of a child, the grievous dissolution of his first marriage and has had to bid adieu to his literary ambitions; he’s soldiered on (he was a Marine) but here we see the accumulation of all that wear and tear – the humour is still here, but so is a more pronounced melancholy, as if the onset of age has ushered in a more pensive sadness.

These four interlinked novellas take place in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, where whole communities were decimated. The book opens with Frank contemplating the ruin of the beach house he used to own, and ends with his visit to his old friend Eddie Medley, who’s “busy getting dead. If you want to catch me alive, you better get over here”. In the middle two stories Frank has an uncomfortable meeting with his ex-wife Ann, and learns something of the tragic history of the house he lives in with his second wife Sally, who’s offering counselling to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Nothing much happens; Frank recounts how he greets returning troops once a week with a veterans group, reads Naipaul to the blind and potters round his inland house in the New Jersey suburb of Haddam, but there’s an undercurrent of threat, damage and  disaster, which is oddly gripping.

In “I’m Here, Frank”, the retired realtor bears witness to all the wreckage; the smell of fresh cut timber and sweet tar paper aren’t hopeful signs, instead they “are the air of full-on disaster. To my nose – once practiced in these things – nothing smells of ruin as fragrantly as the first attempts at rescue”. It’s not just property that has been ruined, but the USA’s notion of itself as a nation, the shine is off the American dream. In the second tale, “Everything Could Be Worse”, Bascombe awkwardly listens as a black woman wearing “a bright red yuletide coat” tells her sorrowful story, in which racial tension and family incompatibility lead to tragedy, and remarks, “Black people bear a heavy burden trying to be normal. It’s no wonder they hate us. I’d hate us too”.  By the third story he’s embroiled in a conversation with his ex-wife, where old wounds and fresh perspectives are contemplated with a spare elegance that holds huge histories of grief and loss and resignation in a few words.

The collection closes with “Death of Others”, an encounter that promises either affection or violence – a see-saw of emotions that teeters throughout this whole collection – and is brutally honest about the ways that terminal illness undermines the body. It’s hard going, but even here there’s a grace note, a moment of sweet refusal as Frank, despite the provocation of a shocking deathbed revelation, declares: “But I’m not mad – at anyone. A wound you don’t feel is not a wound. Time fixes things, mostly.” It’s a fitting epitaph to this touching and admirably frank collection.