An unexpected pleasure this year was the news that Richard Ford has written a fourth “Frank Bascombe” novel. It was after meeting Ford last year at the Royal Society of Literature at a launch of his novel Canada that I learned about his earlier trio of novels in which his narrator, Frank Bascombe, recounts the events of very short periods of time, like the days leading up to the Fourth of July. However, his discursive, mildly self-critical, but appropriately frank, narrative voice allows the account of one weekend to occupy the whole novel. They also allow the reader to meet up with Frank at different stages of his life. The three earlier books are The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006). The passage of real time between each publication suggests that Ford, whose personality, prejudices and politics might possibly colour the narration, has used Bascombe as some sort of doppelganger. Now, another eight years have elapsed and we re-encounter Frank, now 68 and living in retirement in fictional Haddam, New Jersey in December 2012. In the previous novel, he had sold his house on the Jersey Shore and moved back there; a fortunate move since, early on October 29, Hurricane Sandy curved north-northwest and then moved ashore near Brigantine, New Jersey, just to the northeast of Atlantic City, as a post-tropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds. His former home in Sea-Clift is destroyed.
Let me be frank with you recounts four episodes in the run up to Christmas 2012. In the first, Bascombe gets a call from Arnie to whom he sold his Sea-Clift house. He has no legal, nor even any moral obligation to Arnie but he does drive down to the wrecked shore at Arnie’s invitation. For me, the quality of Ford’s writing shines through the narration from the very opening passage.
Strange fragrances ride the twitchy, wintry air at The Shore this morning, two weeks before Christmas. Flowery wreaths on an ominous sea stir expectancy in the unwary.
It is, of course, the bouquet of large-scale home repair and re-hab. Fresh-cut lumber, clean, white PVC, the lye-sniff of Sakrete, stinging sealants, sweet tar paper, and denatured spirits. The starchy zest of Tyvek mingled with the ocean’s sulphurous weft and Barnegat Bay’s landward stink. It is the air of full-on disaster. To my nose – once practiced in these things – nothing smells of ruin as fragrantly as the first attempts at rescue.
I notice it first at the red light at Hooper Ave., and then again when I fill up my Sonata at the Hess, before heading to the bridge, Toms River to Sea-Clift. Here in the rich gas-station scents, a wintry breeze flitters my hair while my dollars spool along like a slot machine in the gathering December clouds. Breeze has set the silvery whirly-gigs to spinning at the Grandly Re-Opened Bed Bath & Beyond at the Ocean County Mall (“Only new bedding can keep us down”). Across its acres of parking, a tenth full at ten A.M., The Home Depot – Kremlin-like, but enigmatically-still-your-friend-in-spite-of-all – has thrown its doors open wide and early. Customers trail out, balancing boxes of new toilet works, new motherboards, new wiring harnesses, shrink-wrapped hinge assemblies, hollow-core doors, an entire front stoop teetering on a giant shopping cart. All is on its way to some still-standing domicile blotto’d by the hurricane – six weeks past, but not lost from memory. Everyone’s still stunned here – quarrelsome, funked, put-upon-but-resolute. All are committed to “coming back.”
In earlier reviews of the Bascombe books, and of Canada, I have suggested that Ford’s command of language; his ability to conjure up sights, sounds, smells – the whole synaesthesia – put his writing on a par with Marcel Proust. Nothing in this latest book would change my mind about that. Me being me, I am especially taken with ‘Frank’s’ comments on current American (and British) uses and usages of language when he identifies words and phrases that we could all manage without and suggesting that, as we get older we should discard unnecessary baggage of all sorts. However, in the passage cited below, he gives me a new word, “mentation”, which I have still to find in the dictionary!
In recent weeks I’ve begun compiling a personal inventory of words that, in my view, should no longer be usable – in speech or any form. This, in the belief that life’s a matter of gradual subtraction, aimed at a solider, more-nearly-perfect essence, after which all mentation goes […] A reserve of fewer, better words could help, I think, by setting an example for clearer thinking. […] When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway. Not that much is happening, except on the medical front. Better to strip things down. And where better to start stripping than the words we use to express our increasingly rare, increasingly vagrant thoughts. It would be challenging, for instance, for a native Czech speaker to fully appreciate the words poop or friggin’, of the phrase “We’re pregnant,” or “What’s the take-away?” Or, for that matter awesome when it only means “tolerable.” Or preemie or mentee or legacy. Or no problem when you really mean “You’re welcome.” Likewise, soft landing, sibs, bond, hydrate (when it just means “drink”), make art, share, reach out, noise used as a verb and […] fuck, to me, is still pretty serviceable as a noun, verb, or adjective, with clear and distinct colorations to its already rich history. Language imitates the riot, the poet said. And what’s today’s life like if not a riot?
The ‘poet’ was Ben Jonson who wrote, “Wheresoever manners and fashions are corrupted, language is. It imitates the public riot.” And as regards the use of the F word, which the song says is used by writers who once used better words, it is true that Proust would have used a less ‘shocking’ illustration but my central case for Ford is that he is not only a master of his craft of writing, of language, but also is a compelling and engaging storyteller. I commend not only Let me be frank with you but Ford’s complete works, to date, and what, one sincerely hopes, is still to come.
(All blog references to Ford can be found by clicking on the Richard Ford tag below.)