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
Saturday 8 November 2014
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.”