A character in search of a story in Richard Ford’s ‘Let me be Frank with you’

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Any place can look like a suburban wasteland with the right Instagram filter.

Let me be Frank with you, the latest Frank Bascombe book from Richard Ford deals with the aging character of Bascombe, now rounding third base towards 70, in post-Hurricane Sandy New Jersey. In the four overlapping stories that shape the book, you’ll find themes of aging, mortality, family, suburban life, and even the American Dream. What you won’t find is plot.

Is that okay?

It is now that I confess I’ve never read Richard Ford before so perhaps it was unwise to start with the fourth in a series of four books about one character. I’m missing a lot of back-story about the character and context about Ford as a writer. Let me be Frank with you was not at all what I expected but that’s my fault, not Ford’s. Perhaps it’s his ultra-American male name or perhaps it’s his success as a writer but I expected Ford’s work to be more commercial and there is almost nothing commercial about a character driven book that is driven by theme and not plot.

But that’s okay.

Let me be Frank with you is warm and wonderful and surprising. Taking plot out of the equation removed all predictability and things just happen to Frank Bascombe with about as much sense as things happen to people in real life (ie. none). As Ford ages alongside his best known character, he seems to be meditating on the meaning of being old in this latest book. Are you to spend your twilight years waiting to die? Making amends for past wrongs? Grasping at what remains of youth? There are characters in the book that try all of these routes but Frank himself just seems to be stuck in one place. Not quite waiting to die but content with the idea that he’s completed his last quest and that his life is in denouement.

We haven’t used the Hemingway scale in a while but I think it’s appropriate here. I give Let me be Frank with you 4.5 out of 5 Hemingways. My man Ernest would fucking love this male character and his connection with place, even if that place is New Jersey. There is also a passage at the beginning of the book in which Ford talks about returning to a simpler form of language, of not speaking in euphemisms and only using words that mean what they mean in the simplest way possible. Hemingway would eat that shit up. Ford loses half of a Hemingway on the Hemingway scale because of the shocking absence of drinking and screwing that would certainly be seen as an affront to males everywhere.

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