John Banville celebrates Richard Ford’s Bascombe books: the story of an American Everyman
We first met Frank Bascombe as a divorced father and frustrated novelist in The Sportswriter in 1986. Now – in the fourth of the hugely acclaimed series – he is approaching old age and has found something like peace
If it is true, as Shelley contended, that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then perhaps novelists are its unacknowledged historians. Certainly many of the mighty ones of the 19th century –George Eliot, Tolstoy, Balzac – wrote as if that was indeed what they considered themselves to be. At the dawn of the 20th century, however, modernism put an end to such grandiloquent notions, in Europe, anyway. However, even if Americans in exile – Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, Gertrude Stein – were some of the movement’s main makers, the great gale of modernism ran out of puff before it reached US shores. As a result, the 19th-century novel is alive and thriving over there on the far side of the Atlantic.
Which is not to say that American novelists are still writing to the European model. As long ago as 1837, in “The American Scholar”, his radical address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, Massachusetts, Emerson declared: “Our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close. The millions, that around us are rushing into life, cannot always be fed on the sere remains of foreign harvests.” That text was nothing less than a second Declaration of Independence, an affirmation that the United States was not an attempt at remaking Europe in the new world, but a new construct the old world could not have dreamed possible.
Emerson is one of Richard Ford’s touchstones – perhaps, indeed, the main one – and is frequently invoked in the pages of his novels. Indeed, Ford’s America is an Emersonian phenomenon. “The world, – this shadow of the soul, or other me, lies wide around,” Emerson writes, in a breathtaking assertion of the hegemony of the self. It would make a fitting epigraph for all of Ford’s work, and especially for the Frank Bascombe series, of which Let Me Be Frank with You is the fourth volume.
Frank is Ford’s Everyman, a disenchanted, rueful and humorous witness to his country’s faltering resolve at the close of the American century and the opening of a new and newly menacing millennium. Back there for a while, after the breaching of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of a variety of tyrannies, large and small, it seemed to the generation of America’s baby-boomers, whose entire lives had been lived in dread expectation of the ultimate nuclear boom, that they were in for a period of well-earned peace and quiet. However, humankind cannot bear much tranquillity, and now, a quarter of a century later, in a new Age of Catastrophe, the land of the brave finds itself “crouching,” in Philip Larkin’s shudder-inducing phrase, “under Extinction’s alp”, as multiple empires of evil square up against it.
As if America’s human foes were not enough, over the last few decades Mother Nature joined in the onslaught, with monster volcanic eruptions, skyscraper-high waves and storms of a kind that formerly were only seen in Ridley Scott movies. The latest of these “superstorms” was Hurricane Sandy, which, having battered various Caribbean islands, made landfall near Atlantic City in New Jersey in late October 2012 and with biblical fury laid waste all before it. Nearly 300 people died in seven countries the storm passed through, and in the US the cyclonic winds and giant seas caused an estimated $68bn in damage to property and business.
The action of Let Me Be Frank with You – not, perhaps, the wisest choice of title – takes places in New Jersey and environs in the weeks coming up to Christmas 2012, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, as the country staggers to its feet and woozily begins the task of making good what the storm left for bad. Given the times through which America is living, when all manner of destruction comes flying at it out of the air, Hurricane Sandy, though a nightmare for its victims, was a novelist’s dream. Ford is far too subtle an artist to push Sandy’s symbolic possibilities, yet an air of millennarian dread pervades the book, however jaunty the tone and however good the one-liners.
The book comprises four longish sections, which might be considered as separate but related stories, or as the chapters of a relaxedly organised novel. Late style, in Ford, is loose-limbed, allusive, jokey in a rueful way, and mutedly elegiac. If his country is in deep trouble, Frank Bascombe too has his woes, the most engrossing though hardly the worst of which is the fact that he is getting old – the fact, indeed, that he is old. Also, he is in emotional trouble, as usual. Not big emotional trouble. In the past he suffered through bereavement, divorce, erotic entanglements of varying difficulty, and even, in one instance, a bar-room brawl; now he has reached a plateau of something like peace, though the air up here is shot through with flashes of lightning and a cold rain falls.
We were first introduced to Frank in The Sportswriter (1986), when he was 38 and divorced from the woman whom throughout the book he referred to only as X. They had three children, though one of them died young. Frank had wanted to be a novelist, and in the far past managed to complete a book of short stories that was bought by the movies, allowing him to acquire a large house in Haddam, New Jersey, and a new young girlfriend – “I am pretty certain I’m in love with her (I haven’t mentioned anything about it for fear of making her wary).” Over one Easter, we followed him on various lugubrious adventures until at the close he reached, somehow or other, “this glistening one moment, this cool air, this new living”.
Nine years later, in 1995, came Independence Day, in which we found Frank entered on a confused and difficult mid-life stage, with a change of career and a new job as a real estate agent. The book ended with a superb account, at once funny and desolating, of a holiday outing by Frank and his difficult son Paul that began and went on disastrously yet ended, again, with a sort of affirmation, at that most banal and endearing of occasions, a Fourth of July march – “The trumpets go again. My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others.”
The Lay of the Land appeared in 2006, though it was set at Thanksgiving in 2000, when the country was in turmoil after the controversial presidential election of that year, which many considered was hijacked by George W Bush and his supporters, with the connivance of the US Supreme Court. Frank was now 55 and had a real-estate business in Sea-Clift, New Jersey, and was, this time, in bad trouble. His second wife Sally had walked out on him, and he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Once more, though, old Frank pulled through, and at the end we left him in not such bad shape: “Here is necessity. Here is the extra beat – to live, to live, to live it out.”
Now, in the new book, Frank has retired from the property business and is living still in Sea-Clift with Sally, who has come back to him. Though somewhat content with his lot, he has no illusions about his lifetime’s achievement and his place in the great scheme of things, “since flogging suburban houses on cul-de-sacs that once were cornfields in West Windsor rarely gets you noticed by the folks at the Stanford linear accelerator”. He has also arrived at some clear-eyed conclusions about what it is to be alive and an actor in the world’s ongoing, humdrum performance.
Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else – nothing hard or kernel-like. I’ve never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I’ve seen the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.
This passage of negative dialectics is central not only to this book, but is a crystallisation of Ford’s artistic mode throughout the Frank Bascombe series – throughout, indeed, all his work, from the superb story collection Rock Springs to his previous, non-Bascombe novel, the masterly Canada. His authorial voice from the start has been that of a relaxed existentialist. He recognises the essentially contingent and slippery nature of our being here, and the necessity to manoeuvre our way through the world as best we can. Emerson again, from his great essay “Experience”: “We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them.” Ford’s is, of course, an essentially male view of things, and it is no coincidence that he is one of the few novelists nowadays whose work is read by men. You’ve got to be tough to survive, is Frank’s conviction, but the odd joke doesn’t hurt.
In the book’s first section, titled “I’m Here”, Frank is contemplating the awful aftermath of the great storm. The opening pages vividly communicate the exuberant tactility of contemporary American life, as folk go busily about the repair of their homes and their lives. Customers are filing out of the local DIY store burdened like ants, one of them with “an entire front stoop teetering on a giant shopping cart”. Once home, Frank is called up by Arnie Urquhart, a wealthy fishmonger to whom in the boom time he sold his Sea-Clift house for “two-point-eight”, the same house that has now been destroyed. Arnie has been offered half a million dollars for the wreckage and the site, and wants Frank’s advice. Or is it that he wants to blame Frank for what happened, as if Frank might have known Sandy was on the way, all those years before she struck? The episode ends in a wince-makingly comic scene, with Frank locked unwillingly in Arnie’s emotional embrace and with no alternative but to hug him back. Old Ralph Waldo was right, Frank gloomily concludes: “an infinite remoteness underlies us all”.
As so often with Ford, the book consists of a series of encounters, with the hapless and menacing Arnie; with a black woman, “Ms Pines”, middle-aged and erotically interesting, who calls at Frank’s house and tells him an appalling story from the past; with Ann Dykstra, his first wife, formerly known as “X”, who is in the early stages of “the Big P” – Parkinson’s disease – and, finally, in an archetypical Ford tour-de-force, with an old acquaintance from the 1970s, one Eddie Medley, at that time an MIT whizz kid who went into business and made “a shitload of dough”. Frank hears Eddie doing a call-in to a radio show, recognises his voice, and gets in contact, which ultimately proves not to have been such a good idea, since the dying Eddie has something to tell him that he would rather not hear.
The scene at Eddie’s death bed – “So many things can go wrong, it’s strange any go right” – is both hideous and hilarious, and Frank escapes from it with relief into a magically mild December morning and the last encounter of the book. This is with Ezekiel, a fuel delivery man, “a strapping, smiling, shaved-head, spiritual dynamo” who greets Frank cheerfully and, against all the odds, manages to cheer him up just by being what he is, a man, like Frank himself, making his hard way in a tough world and refusing to be defeated.
Few writers could get away with a scene such as this, at once mundane and luminous; Ford does it with consummate skill, tact and grace. In a truly inspired little coup de la page, he has Ezekiel ask after Frank’s surviving son, Paul, but by mistake call him Ralph, which was the name of the son who died tragically young, and whose death probably led to his parents’ divorce. The delicacy with which Frank passes over the sad awkwardness of the moment shows just what a marvellous writer Ford is. “Then he goes. And I go. The day we have briefly shared is saved.”
Frank Bascombe’s Seafaring Foil
I am a Frankophile—not a lover of all things French but a lover of all things Bascombe, as in Frank Bascombe, the fallible and loquacious protagonist of three novels by Richard Ford: “The Sportswriter, “Independence Day,” and “The Lay of the Land.” I am addicted to Bascombe in the besotted way that is more common among fans of Sherlock Holmes, the Vampire Lestat, and other recurring characters in genre fiction. But, unlike those favorites, who tend to emerge regularly in new narrative clothing, sometimes even after their creators have died, Frank shows up only once a decade or so. To compensate for the long wait, each time a new Bascombe book is announced I go back and reread its predecessors, steeping myself in Frank lore: the loss of his young son Ralph; the breakup of his first marriage; his fling with a Dartmouth co-ed; his decision to quit sportswriting and become a real-estate agent; his often fractious relationships with his two surviving children; his move to the Jersey Shore; his second marriage to the lovely but unpredictable Sally; his musings about “the normal, applauseless life of us all”; and his perambulations around the Garden State, rendering the quotidian into gold dust.
Like many other readers, I thought we might have seen the last of Frank with the conclusion of “The Lay of the Land,” in 2006. Shot by thugs who had come to rob his lottery-winning neighbors, Frank lay in a hospital bed, contemplating the end: “I determined to be buried in powdered form somewhere at sea off Point Pleasant . . . compiled my list of pallbearers, jotted down some basic obituary thought that included how I wanted my assignables assigned, to whom and with what provisos.” Though he ultimately cast these morbid plans aside and announced his desire “to live it out,” there didn’t seem much reason to believe Frank would be back.
So when I learned, earlier this year, that Frank would return in “Let Me Be Frank with You,” a new book made up of four novellas, I set aside time to reread the existing trilogy. But this time I added a fourth title to my list: Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World,” originally published in 1900. My impetus was Ford’s mention of the book in a Paris Review interview, which was conducted in 1996. In it, Ford said:
When I wrote The Sportswriter, I was writing with a loose understructure that only I knew about and that probably isn’t detectable by the reader. It was Joshua Slocum’s famous book Sailing Alone Around the World. To my brain, there are in my book certain focal points that are closely similar to events in his. Indeed, the whole time I was writing the book, I called Frank, Frank Slocum and not Frank Bascombe.
On first glance, “The Sportswriter” and “Sailing Alone Around the World” have almost nothing in common. Slocum’s book is a nonfiction account of the author’s solo circumnavigation of the world in a thirty-six-foot sloop named the Spray—the first time this feat was achieved. His book is an adventure story, made up of descriptions of foreign ports, stormy weather, and attacks by pirates, but it is also an enduring celebration of American fortitude and self-reliance, very much in the tradition of Thoreau’s “Walden” and “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” Ford’s novel, on the other hand—a work of lyrical realism about a pivotal weekend in the life of a divorced New Jersey sportswriter who takes his girlfriend on a trip to Detroit followed by a calamitous Easter dinner at her parents’ house—shares a lineage with books like Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer,” Saul Bellow’s “Herzog,” and Frederick Exley’s “A Fan’s Notes.”
But, as Ford said in his interview, it’s not the surface qualities but the “understructure” of his story that is connected to Slocum’s. The two books share themes of loneliness, survival, and renewal. Certain key moments in “The Sportswriter” seem related to events in Slocum’s book. (I linked Bascombe’s disappointing trip to Detroit with Slocum’s treacherous journey through the Straits of Magellan.) The correspondences are nowhere near as choreographed or as revealing as the relationship between the chapters of “Ulysses” and the books of “The Odyssey,” but reading “Sailing Alone Around the World” enriches a rereading of “The Sportswriter” in unexpected ways.
Slocum led a life worthy of the hero of a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson or Joseph Conrad, and he had a seaman’s contempt for the comforts of life ashore—“the land of napkins and cut glass,” as he called it. Born in Nova Scotia in 1844, he ran off to the sea after the death of his mother, when he was sixteen. He sailed all over the world, was naturalized as an American citizen, worked as a shipbuilder, and rose to ship’s captain, taking his first command at the young age of twenty-four. His maturity coincided with the ascendancy of steam, but he remained devoted to sail. (“I was born in the breezes,” he said.) At the pinnacle of his career, he became the commander and part owner of the Northern Light, which he called “the finest American sailing vessel afloat.” His life was afflicted with tragedies. His first wife and three of their seven children died. His crews mutinied. After defending his ship from pirates, he was tried and acquitted of murder. He had a close call with the eruption of Krakatoa. In 1887, his ship Aquidneck wrecked on a sandbank off the coast of Brazil. Using materials salvaged from the ship, he constructed a sailing canoe, the Liberdade, and returned to the United States in it. The tale of that journey became his first book.
By the time he embarked on his voyage around the word, Slocum was broke and washed up. (As he was fond of repeating, he set sail with a Franklin-esque $1.50 in his pocket.) The forty-six-thousand-mile trip made him famous, and his account of it became a best-seller and gave him financial security for a time. He shook hands with Presidents, but couldn’t make a life for himself on land, failing as a farmer and getting into legal difficulties. Slocum plotted another voyage, to South America. But, in November of 1909, he and the Spray disappeared en route to the Caribbean.
The more I read about Slocum, the more I came to see him as a foil for Bascombe. Time and again, Slocum gets himself out of trouble unassisted. Needing money in Australia, he catches a huge shark and charges people to view it. Hounded by “savages” in Tierra Del Fuego, he rigs up a pantomime to trick his pursuers into believing that there are other men aboard the Spray. Frank, by contrast, is feckless. He’s often cold, having chosen the wrong shoes or a jacket that’s too light for the weather; he is forever needing to take a leak; he’s frequently hungry and looking to squeeze in a snack or a meal. He is beset by small injuries. He grasps for structure in his life, inventing phases such as the Existence Period the Permanent Period and the Authentic Self. An uncharitable reader will find him easy to lampoon. You know he wouldn’t last long on the Spray before getting seasick.
This contrast between Frank and Slocum may be unintentional, but it speaks to a running dichotomy in Ford’s work: between the urbane and the rural, the civilized and the wild. On the one hand, there are the Bascombe books and the short stories gathered in “Men Without Women” and “A Multitude of Sins.” On the other hand, there are the rustic, hardscrabble novels “Wildlife,” “Canada,” and the Montana stories of “Rock Springs.” Ford, after all, is the author of an essay on the metaphysics of punching someone in the face, which includes these lines:
Where I grew up, in Mississippi and Arkansas, in the fifties, to be willing to hit another person in the face with your fist meant something. It meant you were—well brave. It meant you were experienced, too…. Hitting in the face was a move toward adulthood, the place we were all headed—a step in the right direction.
Slocum, who rarely backed down from a fight, would likely agree. Bascombe would not. As Ford noted in a recent interview with The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, “Frank is a nicer man than I am. Demonstrably.” Bascombe almost always comes off badly in violent confrontations. In the transit from self-reliant, adventurous Slocum to dreamy, suburban-dwelling Bascombe, it’s easy to see the decline of American masculine ideals. (Salon recently published a piece, by Lydia Kiesling, comparing Bascombe to Tony Soprano.) But the truth is that most of us live in Frank’s world. We don’t need to know how to catch a shark or build a boat. Transplanted to twenty-first-century New Jersey, Slocum might well come across as a survivalist nut job.
Perhaps more than any other writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson is the common ancestor of both Slocum and Ford. Frank cites him and quotes him frequently, and he has a copy of “Self-Reliance” in the backseat of his car during his road trip with his surly son, Paul, in “Independence Day.” Arriving at the Basketball Hall of Fame, Frank thinks that he ought to haul it out and use it to give his son a pep talk. But he lets the moment pass. Later, Paul picks up the book and asks, “What is this supposed to be about? . . . Is this a novel?” He reads passages aloud and then mocks them: “Blah, blah, blah, blah. Glub, glub, glub.” The derision leads to an argument, in which Paul rips a page out of “Self-Reliance” and taunts Frank: “I just took a page from your book.”
One of my favorite things to do while reading “Sailing Alone Around the World” was to use the Maps app on my iPhone to locate the tiny islands Slocum visited: Juan Fernandez, Saint Helena, Keeling Cocos. I would zoom in as close as I could and then try to thumb my way west or north toward the next destination on the Spray‘s itinerary. It was both an attempt to grasp the vastness of the empty waters Slocum sailed—swipe after swipe of blue, blue, blue on my screen—and also to appreciate the difficulty of navigation between these distant points. Slocum used an antiquated method known as dead reckoning to navigate his way with astounding accuracy around the globe. In our age of G.P.S. technology, when we can’t get to Home Depot without satellite-assisted guidance, his feat, performed with an old tin clock, paper charts, and the stars above his head, seems like a kind of wizardry.
Those vast spaces between islands also called to mind Ford’s oft-quoted remark that words have the potential “to narrow that space Emerson calls ‘the infinite remoteness’ that separates people.” What is literal in Slocum’s book—thousands of miles between ports—becomes figurative in Bascombe’s—the inability of people to understand each other. The mariner actually rides the waves in the Spray while Frank is metaphorically “at sea” in his own life. Reading these two books side-by-side is a reminder of the extent to which modern life has become a virtual, figurative experience. On the final page of “Sailing Alone Around the World,” Slocum writes, “To succeed, however, in anything at all, one should go understandingly about his work and be prepared for every emergency.” Words to live by, whether you’re guiding your sloop across the Pacific or driving your Hyundai Sonata home from Piscataway.