Unless another offshoot of the literary world has materialized without my hearing about it, they don’t lay odds in Vegas for the success or failure of books. Yet, if it were possible to bet on Richard Ford when publishing novellas featuring Frank Bascombe, I’d stake my Ford that Ford delivers—even though Bascombe is retired these days and preoccupied with the cheery topics of old age and death.
Ford established himself as a master of short works with the late 80s publication of Rock Springs, adagios in prose that build to epiphany. Meanwhile, Bascombe as a narrator can be counted on to stitch precise powers of observation and deadeye wit into luxurious sentences, laboring as he does in vain to avoid undesirable American personnel. It’s the placing of the virtuoso Bascombe in Ford’s prime form of short works that makes Let Me Be Frank With You a savvy venture.
In these novellas, Frank and his wife Sally live in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy as well as the Obama/Romney kerfuffle. If it’s between Frank and Sally to be out there actively pitching in to assist victims of the storm, I am augmenting my initial Vegas wager by putting money down on Sally. In fact, she is generally offstage in Let Me Be Frank as the retired Bascombe finds himself in the unfortunate position of not having a valid excuse for ducking out on obligations such as visiting old friends and lovers in their times of bad luck and pending death. At the very least, Frank would like to proceed through these agonies without running the risk of being hugged.
Does anything happen in these novellas? In three of the four, Frank narrates as he travels to see someone: First, an old real estate client who’s house got blitzed in the disaster; second, his first wife Ann, who suffers from Parkinson’s; and third, an old acquaintance in the final stages of cancer. These realities reinforce Frank’s hunch that his increasingly sensitive physique points to a similarly bleak demise, even if he has some time to reflect. The milieu would be a buzz kill if not for his glorious evocation of it all.
Let Me Be Frank particularly shines in the realm of the character sketch. My favorite, in a work that provides these paragraphs front to back, is Bascombe’s commentary in Deaths of Others about Fike Birdsong, a “minister-minus-portfolio; an eager-beaver balls-of-his-feet Alabama Princetonian and Theological Institute grad, who’s always popping up when you don’t want him to, and who nobody in his right mind would trust with a congregation of goats.”
One more point about Bascombe: he’d tell you not to bet on it.
Todd Robins recently founded Vautrin: