Thursday, February 09, 2017

[Books] Book Look: Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford

I am a big fan of the Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe series. Over the course of four novels he has traced the life of a man in full. A true everyman: an Upper Middle Class white liberal, yes, but a man who has been through confusion, grief, divorce, career change, remarriage, filial emotional churn, disasters, triumphs, and finally old age.

A quick summary of the journey that spanned four books.

The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe is a failed writer of fiction who has taken a job as a sportswriter. We discover he is divorced; an event that is hopelessly entangled with death of his young son. He has a girlfriend who really doesn't fit with him -- that also ends. We finish with Frank not remotely sorted, but at least feeling somewhat optimistic about the future.

Independence Day follows and Frank is trying to get his head around his new life as a realtor. He meanders through minor events with friends and clients and his ex, eventually escorting his somewhat troubled son on a guy's weekend for a some evidently needed bonding. An accident happens (not too serious) that causes him to find a certain understanding of the need to commit himself rather than live in self-sufficient detachment.

The Lay of the Land Frank is now well into middle age, fairly wealthy, and living on the Jersey shore. (Previous he lived inland in "Haddam", a fictional city that some think is meant to approximate Princeton.) This one went a little further out there. Frank's second wife has left him for her previous husband (who was declared dead?). He seems to feel more settled and permanent, but he still struggles with his wayward son and daughter. He also struggles with his prostate. He comes to some realizations about his life of the sort that you only come to when you're past fifty, not the least of which being that he is still mourning the son he lost decades ago. It ends bombastically and at the time was thought to be the last of the trilogy.

Then unexpectedly we get Let me be Frank with You. Now Frank is legitimately old. His kids are dispersed. His marriage is settled. His professional ambition has passed. He is living back in Haddam, where he has spent the bulk of his life. We follow Frank over the course of a weekend in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The encounters here seem to focus mostly on death, or at least mortality: A chance encounter with the former owner of his home where a horrifying tragedy took place; a meeting with his ex-wife who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's; and a fateful encounter with an old friend who springs a secret on him. Frank doesn't really want any of these encounters. He needs no more reminders of mortality, nor is he all that interested in rehashing the past, but he is given little choice. It is the nature of old age.

As with all the books, there isn't any sort of obvious arc to the narrative. It's an acutely observed sequence of mostly commonplace actions filtered through Frank's mind. The story moves seamlessly between direct observations and Frank's conscious judgments and evaluations as directed by his subconscious connections. The result is a story of the commonplace that holds your attention not as a grand illumination but through relatability. Frank is good-hearted, petty, sincere, cynical, detached, involved, intimate, remote, genuine, contrived -- he is a jumble of ambiguity and contradiction, just like all of us. You won't find too much out of the ordinary here, but you will likely see a bit of yourself, if not a good deal of yourself. The light is shined on you writ small and that can be very affecting.

Should you read Let Me Be Frank WIth You? If you have read the others, then yes, absolutely. Otherwise, if it sounds interesting you should start at the beginning rather than here at the end. Be advised, while these are very accessible books, if you are not of a mind to appreciate quiet and subtlety you'll almost certainly get bored by the lack of action. As for me, I found them wonderful exemplars and even in the face of my long time appreciation of John Updike, I would take this quadrilogy over the Rabbit any day.