Human beings are a bickering species. But as much as we like to mix it up with one another, the majority of our arguments are entirely internal. We spend most of our lives interrogating and castigating ourselves, trying to find with certainty the answer to the question: who am I?
Richard Ford’s iconic character Frank Bascombe has an answer or two for you, and Ford spells them out delightfully in Ford’s latest book, ‘Let Me Be Frank With You.’ It’s a collection of four novellas that reads very much like an episodic novel. It is Ford at the top of his game. ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’ is hilariously funny, cuttingly insightful, chock-a-block with stunning psychological wisdom, all while being entirely engaging and entertaining.
The first story, “I’m Here,” finds Frank retired and spending his time puttering around, reading to veterans and writing for their newsletter. His wife, Sally, is throwing most of her time into helping the victims of Hurricane Sandy, which has devastated the New Jersey coastline. Frank’s managed to keep a bit of a distance, until a phone call brings back his past to haunt him. In “Everything Could Be Worse,” Frank gets a visit from the former occupant of the house he now lives in. In “The New Normal,” he goes to visit his first wife, who has just checked herself into a very expensive, upscale nursing home, having been recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And in “The Deaths of Others,” another phone call takes Frank to visit a friend he’d have preferred to have forgotten.
This is a short book, but it is pristine in execution. Every sentence feels both natural and richly evocative of character or place. Ford’s poetic prose rolls out lyrical descriptions of the American suburb laid to waste by the unstoppable power of nature. There is humor, high and low, the crisp clip of an everyday life turned into low-key and rip-snorting laughter. Ford’s an easygoing master of great writing.
Frank Bascombe himself is on a roll, having reached a new “period” in his life, that of the Default Self. In between acerbic observations that are deeply funny, expect to find insight into divining the self that has the ring of truth. Relationships between men and women, friends and ex-lovers feel familiar and warm but never fuzzy.
And even though the book consists of four stories, Ford provides poetic prose, plot and thematic hooks leading from one to the other, so that the effect of reading the book is unified and richly satisfying. Each novella could work as a standalone piece, but together they offer a whole that is truly greater than the sum of the considerable parts.
‘Let Me Be Frank with You’ sneaks up on you. It’s a fun, easy-to-read book that is incredibly substantial. Ford’s vision of America is true to life, and Frank Bascombe’s insights into life, the arguments he has with himself throughout the book, are quarrels that are ultimately won by and for the reader. And as much as we may be a bickering species, here’s one point we can agree on; ‘Let Me Be Frank With You’ is perfectly clear vision of a very flawed race.