Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Richard Ford, From the Sublime to the Quotidian, A Great American Novelist Does it Again

He said that he wouldn't, but he did. Richard Ford has written an addendum to his renowned Frank Bascombe trilogy which began with "The Sportswriter," continued with the Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Independence Day," and supposedly ended with "The Lay of the Land." I've thoroughly enjoyed all of Mr. Ford's books and even had the chance to get an autograph at a Book Expo signing the year that his  sublime "Canada" came out, (my review)( but it's the deceptive simplicity of the Bascombe novels that really knocks me out.

I had the opportunity to download an advanced copy of "Let Me Be Frank With You," which, at 150 pages, could almost be classified as a novella. What fascinates me is how a book about nothing really, the quotidian, is actually about everything. This is the genius of Richard Ford.

You know how someone will ask you what you're reading and, when you tell them, they prod, "what's it about?" If I told you that this book is about a retiree and his wife who live in New Jersey and go about their daily routine just trying to do the best they can until they die, would you ever want to pick it up? Of course not. And yet you must!

The title is apropos since the novel reads more like a diary in which Frank relays his thoughts on the state of his morning, the coffee, the neighbors, the news, his wife and kids, and his past, in case we haven't read the other novels. We learn about his divorce from Ann after the death of their son, his successful career in real estate, the rapprochement with his son and daughter, and his second wife, Sally, who spends her retirement days grief counseling for those who lost everything during Hurricane Sandy.

Frank is frankly unsentimental and practical. He is well-read and has an ongoing argument with himself about words, deciding that there are too many, that the world of letters should be simplified, that we should downsize our verbosity. Perhaps a reason why this sequel is so small? He thinks of old friends with fondness but has no need to surround himself with an entourage.

Frank is wryly funny, often laughably irreverent, and at least for me, a pleasure to spend time with. He listens to NPR and gets a kick out of annoying his right-wing neighbors with the battered OBAMA sticker on his hybrid Hyundai. He records books for the blind, and drives up to Newark's Liberty Airport once a week to hand out welcome home packets to war veterans.

Frank Bascombe's life is simultaneously an open book and a mystery. He accepts with equanimity that he is on the downhill slide. The prostate cancer didn't kill him but something else will and that's as it should be. "Let Me Be Frank with You," is the pitch-perfect postscript to the Bascombe trilogy, a recounting of the days of an imperfect everyman, satisfied, content and unafraid of what tomorrow will bring. Can any of us ask for more?

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