The Return of Frank Bascombe
When Richard Ford, a Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author, returns with a new novel or rather four novellas set against the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy featuring his famously irascible character, Frank Bascombe, ominously titled Let Me Be Frank With You, it begs the question of whether the said author has retained his form or is merely flogging a dead cash cow. Ford, mercifully, sets such fears to rest soon enough as becomes a writer of his calibre.
Frank is retired, living in New Jersey, with his second wife and dealing with the attendant worries of a man on the wrong side of his 60s such as grappling with a problematic prostate, a certain condition called “being fartational”, the crisis of impending death and so on. In these linked novellas, Frank, who thanks to happy happenstance was able to sit out Hurricane Sandy has to oblige an old client and visit the ruins of his former beach house, suffer through encounters with his ex-wife (diagnosed with Parkinson’s and living far too close for his comfort) and an old acquaintance who has a bombshell to deliver on his deathbed. In what is the most poignant of the novellas, Frank is visited by an African-American lady who had spent her childhood at the same house, and has returned to confront her horrifying past that has long remained buried in the basement.
Plot takes a backseat in the rambling narrative of this ageing gent who is in no particular hurry to get anyplace but it is hardly a complaint given the richness of the writing, the fizz and pop of dark humour and precious shards of crystal-clear wisdom scattered across the book.
Like all truly memorable characters, Frank is far from perfect. There is a definitive touch of the unrepentant racist in him which is painfully apparent when he uses the ‘N’ word, refers to Obama’s “little black booty” even though he has voted for him or compares his Pakistani doctor’s laugh to a chimp’s. There are moments when his indifference brought on by a certain world weariness that followed the death of his son, borders on cruel. He also panders to the dirty old man stereotype when noting the sliced fruit featured in his ex-wife’s paintings were reminiscent of female genitalia “cracked open and ready for business”.
However it is hardly possible to get too mad at him when his unerring observation reveals an acuity that is often edifying. After his bittersweet meeting with his ex-wife, the final line says it all, “Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of endless acts.” Whether he is reassuring his wife of his love for her from beneath a sink or insisting “what I mostly want to do is nothing I don’t want to do”, it is hard to remain impervious to his brusque charm.