Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford, book review: After the hurricane comes heartbreak

Frank Bascombe returns in a slender volume that leaves the reader craving more
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The Independent Culture

The advance reading copy of Richard Ford's Let Me Be Frank With You has "Bascombe is Back…" emblazoned on its spine. It's a sentence construction usually reserved for the return of an action hero – Bond! Bourne! Reacher! – not for an ex-sportswriter turned real-estate agent who's spent most of his life hiding out in suburban New Jersey. But over the course of three novels – The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land – Frank Bascombe has become a character of striking singularity; along with Willy Loman and Rabbit Angstrom, one of white-middle America's most iconic creations.

The previous Bascombe instalments were set over short periods of time – a winter city-break, a Fourth of July weekend, Thanksgiving – and are novels of supple beauty, of swooning sentences suddenly stopped by heart-breaking pathos. Take for example this from The Sportswriter, as Frank and his girlfriend approach their hotel bed: "And then the cold room folds around us, and we become lost in a simple night-time love gloom, boats rafted together through a blear passage of small perils. A fair tender Texas girl in a dark séance. Nothing could be better, more cordial than that. Nothing. Take it from a man who knows."

It's this last sentence that cuts to the heart of the ongoing struggle at the heart of Bascombe. On one hand he is a man who "knows"; on the other someone in quiet bewilderment at what goes on around him. Ford uses direct, but aphoristic and rhythmic prose – sentences often long and sinuous – to describe the world around Bascombe and his interior emotional state. In Independence Day, Bascombe notes, "A successful practice of my middle life, a time I think of as the Existence Period, has been to ignore most of what I don't like or that seems worrisome and embroiling, and then usually see it go away." Declamatory and certain though it sounds, the events of both that book and the others in the sequence rather quash this notion. The things that seem "worrisome and embroiling" never really leave Frank; what the reader sees instead is a growing sense of a character oscillating between thinking he has his life under control, and life having other ideas.

Let Me Be Frank With You follows a similar theme but differs in its comparable slenderness. Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, this collection of four stories picks up Bascombe as a sixty-eight-year old retiree. It's a true delight to hear Bascombe's voice again, his acute, if sometimes unpalatable, observations; his oddly homespun vocabulary (the "fierce whacking" of the coast, the "whomping" of his heart); his wonderfully acerbic asides nestled inside Ford's parentheses.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his age and the violence of the storm, the imminence and inescapability of death is at the forefront of Frank's preoccupations. He meets a financial victim of the hurricane, a woman whose parents were murdered years before in his house, is contacted by an old dying friend, and – in the standout story – visits his ex-wife, diagnosed with Parkinson's and riding out her last days in a care home disguised as a country club.

These are exquisitely written, surprising and heart-breaking stories, but even so, it's hard not to be a touch disappointed. The preceding Bascombe books were wrought from such incidents, and their structures suggest how Let Me Be Frank With You could have been a longer, more expansive exploration of Bascombe. This is work of understated power, intelligence and not a little mischief, but one that leaves one wanting – craving – more.