Who Wants To Read about a 68 year-old White Guy?

Frank Picture

Well I do, and did, because ….I’m a 68 year old white guy. The subject in question is Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford’s Let Me be Frank with You. I enjoyed this latest update on one of America’s more interesting literary figures, a man who first appeared in The Sportswriter (1986) and subsequently in Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006). Ford follows the arc of Bascombe’s life through his various careers as sportswriter, aspiring novelist, and real estate broker and in his relationship with two women, the ex-wife and mother of his children from whom he has been divorced for 30 years and his second wife Sally.

Place Bascombe favorably alongside John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who appeared in four novels published across four decades, the first in 1959 and the last in 1990, and you get a very good sense of American manhood in the last part of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st. Ford in a sense picks up where Updike leaves off. Frank may be Rabbit’s better-educated nephew who represents a new generation but is faced with the same problems: dealing with physical decline and the prospect of death, the legacy of their divorces and the complicated relationships with their children, and their delight in and confusion by the popular and political culture of their times. Interestingly, both settle into a prosperous middle age groove as salesmen for American aspirational goods: Harry inherits his father-in-law’s Toyota agency at a time when Japanese cars are the rage and Frank sells real-estate before the housing bubble burst. Both novelists reveal the rich inner lives of their characters, the ways that they respond to the external stimuli of human presence, “top-40” radio hits, newspaper headlines often about political failure and scandal, and changes in the physical appearance of the suburbanized environments in which they live. Real-estate man Bascombe, long experienced in sizing up property and teasing out information about the occupants from the homes they have created, is especially good in conveying a sense of domestic space, especially that crafted by his Feng Shui-influenced ex-wife.

Let Me Be Frank with You is a bit of a departure from the three previous books in the series because it is actually four novellas, each of which could stand on its own, but all of which are joined by the presence of Frank’s satriric voice and by the fact that they occur in same geographical area, the fictionalized town of Haddam, eight miles inland from the Jersey shore, and in the same month, approaching Christmas in 2012, less than 2 months after Hurricane Sandy. Indeed, the mega-storm spurs the already meditative Frank into deeper introspection and reappraisal.

The stories are alike in this respect too: all present brief encounters with one other peson: a man whose home on the shore, once owned by Frank, has been destroyed; a fortyish African-American woman who seeks permission to enter Frank’s home, the home in which her family lived for most of the 70s; Frank’s ex-wife Ann who has moved into an independent living facility because of the death of her 3rd husband and the diagnosis on Parkinson’s disease; a distant neighborhood friend who has summoned Bascombe to his bedside where he is dying of pancreatic cancer.

As one might surmise from this list of encounters, these stories are about subtraction, about the question that Robert Frost asked: “What to make of a diminished thing?” The poetically-minded Bascombe, who alludes frequently to Shelly and Yeats, is, I’m sure, familiar with the Frost poem.

Bascombe’s answers to these questions does not result in a cheery “how to make the most of retirement” book; he’s much too cynical to be bright-sided. He’s rejected his wife’s invitation to write a memoir about the trajectory of his varied life. And he’s made a decision to “decommissioning polluted words out of his vocabulary” (think “awesome”) and to speak much less than he did. But this is not a gloomy book about failure survived, for Bascombe humorous sense of self and of the human folly lifts it up.

A prostate cancer “survivor” he understands the role of genetics and luck in biological breakdown and laughs at those who try to pin all misfortunes on Sandy or the re-election of Barack Obama. (The liberally-minded Bascombe has voted for Obama and rails against the stupidity of Tea-Party Republicans, but hardly considers himself a doctrinaire Democrat.) He also finds amusement in studying the face-lift of the distraught owner of his former coastal home or other silly efforts to slow down or deny aging and death. Even the awkwardness of the Mississippi born Bascombe around African-Americans is a source of self-deprecation.

I think that Bascombe would admit that he can be disagreeable, intentionally so at times, but his disagreeableness is more often charming than offensive. And his charitable worker, though pale by comparison to that of his wife who counsels grieving older residents who have been left homeless by Sandy, is commendable. He reads for the blind once a week and on another day drives to Newark to greet and assist returning Gulf Area soldiers.

Across these stories and his various experiences, Frank is trying to formulate a code that will last him during his final decade and beyond. He’s formulated his “Default Self,” what he wants others to believe he is and that he too believes is so:

“A man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.” He heroically tries to eliminate deviations from this “Default Self” and largely succeeds.

He welcomes any emotional uplift, most of which are serendipitous, and rare. An impulsive but awkward peck on the cheek of his wife as he departs her new apartment will do. As will an exchange of Christmas greetings with an African-American heating oil delivery man who was a classmate of his son. His plans for a Christmas Day celebration in San Antonio with his two children who are “blessedly far away” collapses because his daughter doesn’t want to help finance her brother’s scatterbrained business scheme. So he will fly to be with his divorced son in Kansas City, if the storm doesn’t shut down the Newark airport. Unpredictable weather and our unpredictable bodies always remind us of what’s important.

I’ve given the novel to three high school friends with whom I get together every Christmas and two or three other times during the year. I wanted to open up our circle to make room for Bascombe. Even though he’s trying to deliberately shrink his list of friends, I hope he would consider joining us and giving us a mirror for seeing ourselves..


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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