Does 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?
Ford 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 comes to St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater on Dec. 1, hawking “Let Me Be Frank With You,” his fourth Bascombe book, as part of the Talking Volumes series.
“When 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.”
Ford 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.
“It 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.”
Ford 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.
“I 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.”
That 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.
Ford 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.
In 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.
Fans 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 instinct.
“I 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 said.
From sportswriter to ‘The Sportswriter’
Ford, 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.)
He 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 and ’80s.
He 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.
Inside 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.
Frank 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.
At 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 ego.
But 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:
“There’s 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.”
Does Frank have a face? Can the author see him in his mind’s eye?
“Alas, no,” Ford said. “People have asked me who would play Frank. I always say Kevin Spacey.”
Still has the fight
Ford’s 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.
He 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.
“It’s 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!”
The 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.
“What do people complain about race?” he interrupts at one point. Well, there is Frank’s use of the word “Negro” to describe African-Americans.
“Oh, 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? No!
“Plus, 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. … ”
He finished the sentence with something about flying and a word that starts with F.
Ford — 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?
“For me to write about Frank, at the age that he is, is an act of optimism,” Ford said. “The nature of first-person narration is fundamentally optimistic because it is a gesture outward to the world.”
That 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.