Richard Ford has long been our chief literary appraiser of bad men’s wear. Philip Roth also had an eye for this sort of thing. In “American Pastoral,” a loud shirt worn by a country-club type is “WASP motley.” But Ford is in a league of his own.
In his Frank Bascombe books — his new one, “Be Mine,” is the fifth and last — we’ve met fellows in “green jackass pants” and “tu-tone suede leisure sneakers” and “smushed-pecker shorts.” A few of the better descriptions aren’t printable here. We know these men. They are, in Ford’s argot, the change jinglers, with strip-mall haircuts and hamburger laughs. Don’t stare. You might look right into the “hairy spelunkle of a left nostril.”
Frank, on the other hand, is invariably turned out in aw-shucks Ivy League holiday-weekend array circa 1996 (though he went to Michigan and was briefly in the Marines): chinos, Weejuns, faded Brooks Brothers madras shirts. He’s thin, tall-ish, handsome enough; he shares his creator’s pale eyes. “A casual look,” he has said, “can sometimes keep you remote from events.”
The men he gawks at aren’t ogres, not entirely. As Frank slid from sportswriting into real estate — in “Be Mine” he is 74 and mostly retired — he has taken an increasingly long view of the human condition. His America is a big tent. The clods and old farts, well, they have their saving graces, and so does everyone else. In the American way, each wandering soul is a potential customer.
In “The Sportswriter,” the first novel in this series, Frank started out as a sensitive young literary man who had published a book of stories. Ford was wise to yank him, root and nerve, out of the word business. As John Updike asked, praising a Roth character who is a dentist (and not Roth’s alter-ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman), “Who cares what it’s like to be a writer?” Updike’s own Rabbit Angstrom ran a Toyota dealership.
Real estate put dirt on the spade of Ford’s thinking. He is a crucial and electric writer about houses and the potential for cracks in any foundation — the radon in life’s basement. Buying a house is an existential moment. The stress can make strong people throw up. Ford has made the most of these scenes. They are comic and harrowing.
Though the Bascombe novels are set mostly in New Jersey’s wealthier suburbs, they are, oddly, road novels. Frank is happiest and most himself behind the wheel, his windshield an IMAX screen though which he soaks up news about the state of his neighbors and of the American experiment writ large.
In this way, he resembles another explicator of New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen — about whom Ford has written perceptively. They share another quality. Their late-period titles are flimsy, bordering on embarrassing. Springsteen went from “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to “Letter to You.” Holy moly. Ford went from “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land” to “Let Me Be Frank With You” and “Be Mine.” Good Lord. Are these the most feebly titled books from any Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction?
The Bascombe novels are road novels, as well, because they are set during holidays, when families are in flux. “The Sportswriter” (1986) takes place over Easter; the title of “Independence Day” (1995) is self-explanatory; “The Lay of the Land” (2006) leads up to Thanksgiving; “Let Me Be Frank With You” (2014), a collection of stories, is set at Christmas; the candy heart-titled “Be Mine” is a Valentine’s Day reverie.
This one features a road trip of a darker sort. Frank’s grown son, Paul, has A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and he is not long for this world. They drive in a derelict R.V. from Rochester, Minn., where Paul is in an experimental protocol at Mayo Clinic, to Mount Rushmore.
They’re an odd couple. Paul is 47, fat, warty, balding and often in a wheelchair. Frank thinks he resembles Larry Flynt, the pornographer. They display their love through puns and insults. “You’re a simpleton, Frank,” is a typical crack. It’s every father’s dream, surely, to have his son resemble an insult-comic version of Larry Flynt.
Paul refers to A.L.S. as “Al’s,” as if it were a bar. Frank has also had health issues, including prostate cancer. His own Mayo doctor told him that major stress is “like eating a Baconator every meal.” His goal? “To be happy — before the gray curtain comes down.”
Ford is among the elite American writers of the past half-century, and this book displays his gifts — the crunchy verbs, the crisp vision, the clocking of absurdities, the swift reasoning, his sense of the (mostly unintentional) damage humans inflict on one another and how most of our internal wounds utterly fail to clot.
This book is set just before Covid appeared. Here’s a typical snippet of Ford’s prose, as Frank glimpses a television screen:
President Trump’s swollen, eyes-bulging face filled the TV screen behind the honor bar, doing his pooch-lipped, arms-folded Mussolini. I couldn’t take my eyes off him — tuberous limbs, prognathous jaw, looking in all directions at once, seeking approval but not finding enough.
“Be Mine” is not unlike a welcome late-evening phone call, two scotches in, from an old friend. Ford’s readers have been through a lot with this man.
And yet. Valentine’s Day is a shoddy holiday and Mount Rushmore is a shoddy attraction. (In “Independence Day,” father and son drove to the baseball and basketball halls of fame.) Frank and Paul know these things. They hit the road anyway, hoping to squeeze out some of the happiness they might have left.
“Be Mine” isn’t shoddy, exactly, but it’s the thinnest and least persuasive of the Bascombe novels. The seams in these books have begun to show.
Too many strangers break into unprompted, and sometimes hokey, soliloquies. Ford’s penchant for summing up every other paragraph with a cracker-barrel bromide has begun to grate. A book derived from “Be Mine” called “The Wit and Wisdom of Frank Bascombe” would include throw-pillow slogans like “Fatherhood is a battle in any language” and “It is the thought that counts.”
There’s a long, odd, uncomfortable interlude in “Be Mine” during which Frank falls half in love with a much younger Vietnamese woman, Betty Duong Tran, who works in a massage parlor. Ford works to humanize Betty, but he only gets so far.
It’s to Ford’s credit, I suppose, that he isn’t running a P.R. campaign for Frank. He catches his desperation. The massage scenes reminded me of “The Sportswriter,” when Frank consults a palmist, “the stranger who takes your life seriously.” Frank’s one of those men who are extra-aware of the small neon “open” signs that, on the outskirts of most American towns, burn all night in at least one window.
The Bascombe novels have never felt especially up-to-date, culturally. Not everyone cares about pop culture, and Frank has a right to be among those who don’t. But what culture Ford does tuck into “Be Mine” feels random and unlikely.
Frank’s son, for example, is an apparently non-ironic superfan of the music of Anthony Newley, the cockney singer, long dead, who could taxidermy a song like few others; his material felt dated the instant he recorded it. Can we blame Frank for his son’s young fogeydom? He once took Paul on a “boys-only junket to see Mel Tormé at TropWorld” in Atlantic City.
From the start, the Bascombe books have leaned on Frank’s sense of his own mortality. He was still in his 30s when he was uttering things like “The older I get the more things scare me” and looking forward to a soft retirement.
There aren’t many major holidays — Groundhog Day? Hanukkah? — left for Frank to endure on our behalf. I hope “Be Mine” isn’t really the end for him. God forbid he loses his sense of humor, but to paraphrase late-career Leonard Cohen, I want it darker.
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