“A few good words,” observes Frank Bascombe at the end of the final novella of Richard Ford’s, Let Me Be Frank With You, and “the day we have briefly shared is saved.” It summarizes Frank Bascombe’s near elegiac take on grief, death and the fear of death, and what makes life worth living. And it perfectly captures my take on Richard Ford’s latest.
For those who have followed Frank Bascombe from The Sportswriter, through Independence Day and on to The Lay of the Land, there was always one more holiday looming. The earlier novels took place, over the course of Frank’s life, at Easter, July 4th, and Thanksgiving. So it will come as no surprise that the four linked novellas, or long short stories, here mark the the last few weeks leading up to Christmas. Frank is now 68, retired, living once again in Haddam with his second wife, Sally. It is the aftermath of hurricane Sandy and the destruction that followed in its wake has peeled back the skin of The Shore. Vast amounts of real estate are destroyed, including Frank and Sally’s old house (they sold up and moved inland 8 years previous). The survivors, one way or another, are receiving grief counselling. And maybe all of us, including Frank though he denies it, are in such need. Endings are in evidence. Indeed, as Frank notes, “that things end is often the most interesting thing about them.” Frank’s end is still being postponed, though death surrounds him, suffusing even the house in which he and Sally live (due to a horrific scene that occurred there 30 years earlier), placing its determinate finger on Frank’s first wife, Ann, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and rattling its last rasp in the form of Eddie “Ole Olive” Medley, a former friend of Frank’s from the years shortly after his divorce. Only the reassuring presence of Ezekiel Lewis and those few good words of Christmas cheer and fellowship can stem the tide. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is enough.
Ford’s Bascombe has moved on from his Permanent Period to the Next Level, which is characterized as much by letting go (of friends, real estate, cares and concerns) as by Frank’s identification with his Default Self. But of course Frank can never really hold to his stated intentions. Perhaps his true essence just keeps seeping through, as Ann might say, or maybe it is just hard for someone without an essence, as Frank would claim, to hold on to things, especially things as insubstantial themselves as intentions.
It might sound odd to describe Ford’s return to Frank Bascombe as a breath of fresh air. But fresh is exactly how this feels. A few good words, indeed. Highly recommended.