the laconic and introspective Frank Bascombe have
anything more to say? Is there any juice left in the
character who has served as the alter ego for author
Richard Ford in three novels — or are creator (age 70)
and creation (age 68) spent?
had suggested in news articles that he was finished with
Frank after the real estate agent from New Jersey took a
couple of lead slugs to the chest in "The Lay of
the Land." Yet Ford is out hawking "Let Me Be
Frank with You," his fourth Bascombe book.
I was younger — in my 40s and 50s — I thought that
when you got to be Frank’s age, it was over and you
weren’t worth much," said Ford. "It’s been
very nice to be able to write in his persona at this age
and find that not to be true."
has found worth for Frank that does not depend on work
and ambition and the pursuit of the American dream.
"Worth" means something different now.
means that there is something to say, there is something
to feel," Ford said. "That there is something
to revel in, something to do — that you can bear
witness to others."
loads that last phrase with meaning — invoking in his
soft Southern voice the emphasis of a preacher. If you
take away one thing from the conversation, he seems to
be saying, this is it.
had a friend die last week, and several times in the
last year, I would fly down to Mississippi and sit at
his bedside for an hour," Ford said by phone from
his Harlem penthouse. "I acknowledged his life, and
I wanted him to know that he was still there and, by my
presence, bearing witness that I loved him."
experience informs one of the four loosely interrelated
stories that make up Ford’s new book. They are all
about being that witness who will testify: Yes, this
person is alive.
places Frank in the wake of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy.
Retired from the real estate game, he and his wife,
Sally, fill their days volunteering — reading to the
blind, counseling storm survivors in New Jersey and
greeting troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. The
stories that make up "Let Me Be Frank" all
recognize the specter of the storm.
the first, Frank drives down to the Jersey shore to see
the man who had bought his beach house and now wonders
what he’ll do after the storm has leveled the place.
In the second, he listens as a woman who lived in his
house as a child unburdens herself of a tragic story. He
follows that with a trip to bring an orthopedic pillow
to his ex-wife, who is in the early stages of Parkinson’s
disease. Lastly, Frank visits a dying friend whom he had
jettisoned from his life long ago.
should not fear that Frank has gone all touchy-feely.
His prickly toughness, his bottled-up reticence and
physical aloofness do not allow for cheap sentiment.
Ford makes plain in his writing that Frank’s edgy
kindness is as much obligation as it is friendly
think that is typical of human nature — that we have
to entertain doing things we feel we want to do and
should do, and at the same time there is a profound
sense that I don’t want to be doing this," he
STORY CAN END HERE)
SPORTSWRITER TO ‘THE SPORTSWRITER’
who grew up in the shadow of great Southern writers,
left Mississippi in 1962 and went north to Michigan
State University, then got a fellowship at the
University of Michigan. (Frank Bascombe, conveniently,
is an Ann Arbor grad.)
stoked his fondness for literature through several
starts and stops in his adult life and wrote two novels
that sold poorly. Needing a job, Ford sought the comfort
of journalism as a writer for Inside Sports, a slick
magazine that took on Sports Illustrated in the 1970s
grumbles now when asked about sports. The successes of
Mississippi State and Ole Miss this college football
season haven’t raised his pulse rate ("if it
weren’t for my friends gasping and gloating," he
couldn’t care less) and he would be "perfectly
happy" if the NFL went out of existence. Soccer is
the only game that claims his attention, and he would
rather be in a hunting field than in a spectator’s
arena. His home on 5 acres in East Boothbay puts him
close to the eternal Maine forest, and he stalks prey
from Montana to western Ireland.
Sports suspended publication in 1982 and Ford was out of
a job. Four years later he’d created Frank Bascombe in
"The Sportswriter" and the future brightened.
has returned about once a decade since:
"Independence Day" arrived in 1995 and
"The Lay of the Land" in 2006. Ford grabbed
the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with "Independence
Day" and became popular for short stories and as an
editor. His penthouse in Harlem is a 20-minute walk from
Columbia University, where he teaches literature.
the conclusion of "The Lay of the Land," Frank
had taken two bullets to his chest and Ford indicated in
public statements that he was finished with his alter
Frank kept hanging around Ford’s mind, and after a day
visiting hurricane wreckage on the Jersey shore, Ford
heard sentences in his head that he recognized as
"Frank sentences." This invites the question:
What’s the difference between a Frank sentence and a
Ford sentence? The author jokes ("I don’t have
any sentences"), pauses ("it’s a hard
question") and then takes a stab at an answer:
not a single criterion," he starts. "The lines
that show up in my brain that are funny, I attribute to
Frank. Lines that show up that are pithily responsive to
something modern and contemporary — Frank’s response
to language around himself, wanting to decommission
certain words — I think that’s a line for
Frank have a face? Can the author see him in his mind’s
no," Ford said. "People have asked me who
would play Frank. I always say Kevin Spacey."
HAS THE FIGHT
reputation and history, his fondness to talk and his
quotability have made the arrival of a new Frank
Bascombe novel a true event in the literary world. Early
in an interview, Ford says he doesn’t read his
reviews, and has no reaction to a couple of fairly
prominent ones that mention the role of race and Frank’s
language surrounding race.
then admits that he does not maintain a complete cone of
silence around critical response — including digs
about the punnish title, which the New York Times
reviewer called "perfectly awful." This riles
him into a spirited defense.
a great title," he jumps in. "Kristina, my
wife, sometimes reads reviews, and she said some people
have called it kind of a throwaway title. … It’s
funny, it’s apt, it’s memorable, it’s nothing but
a great title!"
racial aspersions really get him on his hind legs. A
Southerner who left home as a teenager because of the
attitudes of his white neighbors, Ford will leave his
entire estate to the United Negro College Fund.
do people complain about race?" he interrupts at
one point. Well, there is Frank’s use of the word
"Negro" to describe African-Americans.
grow up," he barks in frustration. "Black
people use ‘Negro’ all the time. Is that their
exclusive purview? Do I mean to denigrate, to diminish?
Frank is a character who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s
[like Ford], when that word was absolutely common
parlance. You will always find someone who will find
something offensive, but they can just go. … "
finished the sentence with something about flying and a
word that starts with F.
— unlike his colleague Philip Roth — won’t tip his
hand on retirement. He’d be happy to write more if he
had a good book to write. He has an idea but "can’t
winkle out the funny bits." Getting old and dying,
he explained, are funny, and he has an obligation to
write things at this age that are funny. Really? Frank
creaks when he walks, feels pelvic pain from his
prostate, worries about straining his neck. Shouldn’t
he be a voice of pessimism and limitation?
me to write about Frank, at the age that he is, is an
act of optimism," he said. "The nature of
first-person narration is fundamentally optimistic
because it is a gesture outward to the world."
doesn’t sound like a Frank Bascombe line. It sounds
like Richard Ford, letting the world know that he is
bearing witness that he is still here.