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Richard Ford and the Course of American Empire

ISSUE:  Fall 2014

Does the prospect of love lure a man forward into refuge or is it the inevitable hazard of a lived life? What’s the fair-market worth of the word possibility these days? How tightly is the pursuit of happiness indexed to the commonweal? And how’s that Manifest Destiny notion working out for you, America? 

To coax us to consider these questions further, Richard Ford’s new book, Let Me Be Frank With You, is a coda to the Frank Bascombe trilogy that includes The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006). Each book jump cuts forward by roughly a decade, capturing the “normal applauseless life” of a single American man in the run-up to key holidays: Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and now Christmas.

Is Frank really Everyman? More likely, he’s Everyman’s more contemplative neighbor. He’s what Everyman could be if you could get him to step away from his Star Trek reruns and take his boy outside to stare up at the stars. And maybe read a little Ralph Waldo Emerson, some V. S. Naipaul, and use words like tenebrous. But don’t let that scare you off. 

Whether you chain-read these books in one fell swoop (I recommend this method) or parse them out over the course of your lifetime (this, too, I recommend), listen for the resonances between them. Take them all in together, like you’d take in big Hudson River School paintings such as Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire, big sweeping landscapes that help you situate yourself in the proper human scale in the middle of The Big Picture. Ford’s got something big to show you about American prospect. Who would have thought that such hazards could manifest over the course of a lifetime and that they sometimes masquerade as refuge? This fourth new book holds some surprises. You may not have seen them coming back in the freewheeling 1980s when you perhaps first read The Sportswriter as a Vintage Contemporary, on the sly in your office cubicle, and it made you feel mysteriously buoyant—the pretty intern! Leaves of Grass! Well played, Frank!—as if the whole world had opened unto you. There’s been a lot of water under everybody’s bridges since then.

In our most recent Frank sighting in The Lay of the Land, he was feeling a vague national threat coming on, waiting for the 2000 election results to be “decided.” He was classifying his neighbors by whether they voted for George W. Bush. He had misgivings about the real-estate racket well before the crash of 2008, even though he had a Tibetan Buddhist real-estate protégé, Lobsang Dhargey, on the cusp of true American capitalist assimilation: He’s about to make a killing developing Taj Mahal-sized tract mansions to be hawked to “monied subcontinentals with luxury fever.” It was going to be epic: development of the very farmland where the young Bascombe family once purchased pumpkins and mums, in the arcadian time when their son Ralph was still living. During a meeting in which the terse dialogue resembles day traders in a Wall Street pit discussing pork-belly futures, Frank bears witness to new-wave colonization, in Lobsang’s own giddy swoon as he breathes the heady ethers of American prospect:

The thought that this out-of-date farmland, this comely but useless woods, this silted, dry creek could be transformed into a flat-as-a-griddle housing tract, on which behemoth-size dwellings in promiscuous architectural permutations might sprout like a glorious city of yore and that it could all be done to his bidding and profit is almost too much for him. 

If you recall, Frank was not entirely at ease with the idea of an America shaped by a world of derivatives and credit-default swaps, even before anyone much knew what they were. Somehow he felt “implicated” in the ominous real-estate bubble he sensed on the economic horizon. Plus, there was a 50/50 chance he would survive his prostate cancer, and he’d been shot while trying to intervene in his neighbor’s home invasion robbery. When we last saw Frank, he was hip-deep in the hazards of this American life.

In Let Me Be Frank With You, Ford once again recalibrates Bascombe’s prospects, adjusting them for his age and the course of American human events. Ford doesn’t give Frank those brash Whitmanesque panopticon moments of optimism he had as a younger man. If there are big-canvas sweeping vistas to be had in this new book, they depict the desolations of the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy, as survivors try to help one another. On its own, the book is a series of four concertos about what it means to be present and bear witness even when you can’t help. As a coda to the trilogy, it’s as if Ford repositions Frank even more athwart of a threat-level America that seems destined to flame out like the empires of yore. 

We enter the soul of Frank Bascombe in its fourth act in “I’m Here,” when he is sixty-eight years old and living once again in his old adopt-ed hometown of Haddam, New Jersey, having happily retired from real estate and sold his prequel beach house in Sea Clift. That redwood-and-glass dreamhouse is currently lying on its side in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The man he sold it to phones to ask Frank, in spite of his retirement, to help him navigate the offers from predatory “flip” companies who reap profits from a ravaged landscape. 

This section of Let Me Be Frank With You takes its title from a poignant breakfast scene in which his second wife, Sally, comes into the room with a book clasped to her breast, to share something she just read about the Dakota Uprising of 1862, when US Cavalry hanged thirty-eight Sioux warriors on a communal gallows. “But do you know what they said?” she asks. “They all shouted ‘I’m here!’ They started calling that out in their Sioux language, all around that awful contraption that was about to kill them.” She repeats the line, kissing him on the forehead, and he says, “So am I.” The line resonates deeply, if you know about the cancer and the gunshot wound, and that this same beloved sweet Sally once left Frank alone for an unseasonably long, long time in the Sea Clift house—leaving Frank to return to her first husband—and that he waited for her. He was there.

Frank has always believed staunchly in a kind of vernacular American architecture of choice, if you remember one of his early panoramic insights as a sportswriter: 

Very early you come to the realization that nothing will ever take you away from yourself. But in these literal and anonymous cities of the nation, your Milwaukees, your St. Louises, your Seattles, your Detroits, even your New Jerseys, something hopeful and unexpected can take place… choices are what we all need.

He had to adjust that optimism somewhat in Independence Day, when he and his surviving son, by then matured into a bitter teenager, drove through the epic upstate scenery on the way to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Frank took in the grand overlook at Cobleskill while the boy sat in the car. Frank was an “as-needed” father savvy enough to want to teach his son that the Fourth of July “isn’t just a moth-bit old relic-joke with men dressed up like Uncle Sam and harem guards on hogs doing circles within circles in shopping mall lots; but in fact it’s an observance of human possibility.” But in the way the boy mocks Emerson’s Self-Reliance (and Frank) in this scene, Ford nailed an important tectonic shift in the way Americans view the malleability of the future: We see the rise of the millennials, kids who prefer to take their refuge not in the commonweal but in comedy, parody, and irony as it plays out on their little screens.

Frank’s eroding sense of wide-open American prospect is even more guarded in this new book. He’s still a stealthy proponent of choice architecture for the young, still believing you can heal a soul somewhat by binding it to the greater good. He’s a volunteer content-provider for We Salute You, a newsletter for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, a “compendium” of useful information and contacts to help them survive their first six hours back in the homeland, back in what’s left after Manifest Destiny runs its machine-like track in the Middle East. There’s a scene in this story that mirrors the “literal and anonymous cities” scene in The Sportswriter, and you can see what’s happened to Frank’s sense of golden possibility: 

We Salute You is printed for each U.S. port of troop entry—L.A., New York-Newark, Boston, Houston, Seattle, even Detroit. It’s twenty gray newsprint pages (an online edition’s in the works) full of important phone numbers, email and postal addresses for whatever geographical area the trooper or Marine or airman first puts a foot down on home soil. Panic attack, suicide, drug and alcohol abuse helpline numbers are included… every church you can think of… even a number for Socrates Death-With-Dignity support league, where psychologists with degrees from Oberlin and Macalester try to talk a soldier back from the brink while seeming to understand that death might seem like the only option.

Frank, along with other veteran volunteers, takes copies of this publication to the airport to make sure each returnee gets a copy. He’s researching mostly information to bend veterans away from the idea of suicide: “Statistics, however, show that great cravings of almost any nature, including a wish to assassinate, can be overcome just by brief interludes of postponement—the very thing no one ever believes will work, but does.”

 As Frank tools around the devastated Jersey landscape in his Hyundai, Ford recalibrates Frank’s sense of what is possible for us all. His belief in the efficacy of choosing wide-open prospects is now a diminished thing, distilled down to the chords coming through his car speakers, a beloved CD his wife once tucked into his Christmas stocking, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man

“Towns keep secrets,” Frank muses in “Everything Could Be Worse,” another riff on the hazards of being a responsible American. This is the story of a different hurricane victim, Charlotte Pines, a black high-school history teacher with a cast on her arm who shows up on Frank’s porch one day. She is newly homeless, living with friends, her condo swept away by Sandy. She tells him she grew up in the house he now occupies in Haddam. He intuits she needs to reckon with something and invites her in and gives her the run of the house. She hasn’t been in the house since 1969, and she tells Frank how her father had worked for Bell Laboratories as an audio specialist who was determined to live in a white neighborhood, and how her mother had felt trapped and unfulfilled, those other amenities of the suburban life. To Frank, “it didn’t sound like anything white people of every block in Haddam didn’t have a patent on,” but in short order he has to absorb some sobering secrets about the house he inhabits. Equal access can give you housing parity in a hopeful Cheever and Updike kind of way, Frank learns, but it can also give you entrée into realms of the American suburban experience you’d just as soon forgo. This story resonates more if you remember that Frank is a kind of Cass Sunstein Democrat, in Independence Day, renting houses to “Negroes” (a respectful term in his quaint mid-century parlances) at “affordable” rates, to provide a helpful leg up toward home ownership.

“Our ex-wives always harbor secrets about us that make them irresistible,” Frank remarked long ago in The Lay of the Land. “Until, of course we remember who we are and what we did and why we’re not married anymore.” In “The New Normal” Frank is still resolute about keeping a safe distance from his ex-wife Ann Dykstra, with a hard-won resolution to be decent to her, even though they’ve been divorced for decades. He delivers a helpful orthopedic pillow to Ann, now a wealthy widow in an assisted-living home. She is in the early stages of Parkinson’s yet dressed in full-battle Harry Winston jewelry, ready to go down dignified with bought- en friendship at her side. We first met her in a cemetery in The Sportswriter as “X,” when she halted Frank’s attempt to read a Theodore Roethke poem at their son’s graveside, where they met each year on the anniversary of his death, divorce or not. She once ripped apart her marital hope chest with a crowbar and burned its remains after finding some letters from a woman to him. Ann is still an excellent and formidable woman. She’s still got it, her mysterious power to offload all blame for the implosion of their family onto Frank. The difference now is that he’s hip to her game, and armored in what he calls his Default Self (speak softly, don’t dwell on the past, be nice). Frank is fascinated by a little secret recently learned: She lied about her age when she married him. Little does he know, he’s about to be let in on a bigger secret she has withheld. There’s an odd political undertow to this story; Ann comes from a family that hung out with the Michigan Romneys back in the day. Consequently, Frank sees her as kind of a sellout capable of marrying into a group he perceives as the enemies of the common good: Republicans. 

The closing story, “The Deaths of Others,” takes place two days before Christmas, and we realize with a start that Frank has spent most of his time in this book alone, as his wife goes most days to provide grief counseling to hurricane victims. We worry about him a little. He listens too much to call-in radio shows, which he says offer “a fairly satisfying substitute to what was once plausible, fully lived life.” One day he recognizes the voice of one caller, somebody he knew in his Divorced Men’s Club, now dying, announcing on the air that he is ready to go, that “we have to clear our desks and get out of the way.” Frank is clearing his own desk in his own way, jettisoning friends to keep life manageable. No more choices aplenty in this book; life is an ongoing series of subtractions. Nevertheless, he calls up the acquaintance he heard on the radio and goes over to visit, his Default Self firmly in place. This proves to be a mistake. The auld acquaintance uses the visit to offload a terrible emotional burden onto Frank. 

One of the finest moments in the book occurs after the acquaintance’s mawkish, startlingly selfish announcement. You realize that Frank is wholly entitled to whatever late-life pessimism he feels. He’s earned it. Through the dying man’s window, Frank spies Ezekiel Lewis, the “Negro” son of one of his own former real-estate employees, outside delivering gas, and fiercely longs to be friends with him. “There’d be plenty of laughing involved,” he thinks. “Not this kind of tired, tiresome, unhappy, deathbed shit I’m putting up with at the moment. White people’s shit. No wonder we’re disappearing. We’re over-bred. Our genie’s out of its bottle.” Frank in that fierce moment cedes considerable acreage of the commonweal to middle-class blacks like Ezekiel, whose good works and church membership inoculate them from “White people’s shit” as it goes down in the American ’burbs. “He is bedrock,” Frank thinks of the black man. “The best we have to offer.”

If you were around in the 1980s and 1990s chain-reading, like me, Vintage Contemporaries—dark jewels like Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, Thomas McGuane’s Bushwhacked Piano, or Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree—you may have been mysteriously puzzled by the different kind of buoyance you felt in the closing scenes of The Sportswriter as it rumbled to its symphonic close and then stopped on a dime. Frank says, “I read somewhere it is psychologically beneficial to stand near things greater and more powerful than you yourself, so as to dwarf yourself.” It felt like Ford had raised the ceiling of your expectations and installed a skylight in your mind. You can see this coming in an earlier novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, in how it has the feel of a too-small, rented room that Ford was ready to break out of. I like to think it was our ultimate good luck that Ford stubbornly held on to something worthy and old and American even through the minimalist editorial cutting floors of the 1980s. What he seems to have salvaged in the interval between his second and third books resembles an old Hudson River School technique: Mitigate the effects of hazard by leading the eye to a higher vantage point from which to behold possibility. This is the force that through the green fuse drives a lot of American literary power.

It’s a dicey and dubious errand, to “review” the work of an American artist such as Ford, whose work has as much affinity with the great landscape painters as with the great novelists. The way we accord each other the scrivenly power to judge performances we could never accomplish on our own can induce in one the desire to shoot a hole through sundry issues of otherwise venerable American publications going back two centuries. (“Hey, Mr. Melville, does Ahab have to be so… . focused? The dolphins would like to see more equitable representation of themselves in your next book. We adore your sea-faring stories but must you use so much … water? Have a nice day!) That said, Mr. Ford, you’re making us a little nervous with this pessimistic Frank Bascombe. So we would like to hear more from you, from him. In many ways he, too, is the best we as an American tribe have to offer.

Tell him, we’re here.



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