Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank with You, Bloomsbury
Frank Bascombe is a classic modern literary character, an American everyman, like John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, the archetypal divorced and remarried baby boomer who is the product of economic boom-time and freer morals. He inhabits the suburbs, where the overwhelming majority of Westerners live, not Manhattan, not a remote icy island, or the corridors of power. Yet he is not an anti-hero like Jonathan Franzen’s Chip Lambert, out to expose the dark heart of suburbia. Ford’s three previous books featuring Bascombe gave us a detailed life, and detailed appraisals of it. Nothing extraordinary happens plot-wise, but plot is not Ford’s strong suit. “Remoteness joins us,” says Bascombe at one point, and his (and Ford’s) capacity for remote observation and analysis is compelling. Ford puts down on paper the often unrecognised questions and answers we constantly tell ourselves in order to negotiate life.
This new book features four linked stories (the end of one story plants the seed for the next) about a retired Bascombe, his pre-Christmas perambulations in New Jersey set against the background of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Here he is grumpier and cruder than previously, as far as I remember, and his thoughts are preoccupied by ageing and the changing landscape, particularly through natural disaster and his profession, real estate. He is struck by the impermanence of things – people and houses. The only downside to the book is the jokey title which doesn’t do it justice. Although Bascombe’s humour and grumpiness are often highlighted by reviewers, it is the measured introspection of Ford and his alter-ego that stands out. A most welcome return to the literary world.