Let Me Be Frank With You
- By Richard Ford
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Dorothy Reno
- November 18, 2014
Richard Ford’s much-loved Frank Bascombe is back for a fourth turn, and he’s as cranky, introspective, judgmental, unapologetically Democratic, and wise as ever.
It’s rare that literary fiction comes in a series, and even rarer to find a bonus fourth to a trilogy. Richard Ford is the author of 11 books, including his 2012 hit, Canada. Ford is best known for his popular trilogy of The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006), in which he gave us Frank Bascombe, a protagonist who hit a nerve in the American literary psyche. Each novel chronicles a significant period in Frank’s life as he copes with the death of his son, fails as a novelist, survives cancer, and, most notably, gets shot.
Now, at age 68, Frank is back in Ford’s latest book, Let Me Be Frank With You, which features four sequential novellas, all taking place in the twilight of Frank’s life.
When we meet Frank in the first story, “I’m Here,” he wastes no time telling readers who he is. “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.”
Most of the story consists of Frank’s internal monologue — his erudite and entertaining thoughts about aging: “Life’s a matter of gradual subtraction” and “I don’t remember some things all that well, owing to the fact that I don’t care all that much.”
His friend Arnie calls Frank to come see his destroyed home in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The rub: Arnie’s home used to be Frank’s house. Frank sold it to Arnie (at a handsome price) some years before. As Frank prepares to face the wreckage, he muses about Arnie’s motivation. Is his friend seeking revenge? Could he possibly hurt him? What follows is a touching, if somewhat anticlimactic, treatment of guilt, shared experience, and the need to be seen.
In the following story, “Everything Could Be Worse,” Frank is jarred by an unexpected visit from a stranger who says she grew up in Frank’s house. She politely asks for a tour, and Frank obliges.
Much is made (in Frank’s mind) of the visitor’s background — she is African American. What follows as she walks through the house is a highly detailed account of Frank’s thoughts and attitudes. For instance, he thinks of African Americans as “Negroes” and admits, “It’s no wonder they hate us. I’d hate us too.” The woman doesn’t appear threatening, but she is hiding something, a mystery that Ford flattens with pages of musing and backstory. There is a payoff, however, a big reveal followed by sublime, wisdom-driven dialogue.
Ford is bold to broach the topic of race from an older white man’s perspective, and Frank’s grappling (and fumbling) as a well-meaning progressive exposes and expresses the uncomfortable everyday strains in race relations. Like the above quote, some of the prose around race is necessarily awkward but honest, and steps up to the line of what is offensive without crossing it.
“White southerners all think we ‘know’ Negroes better than we do or could.” Frank may be liberal, but he certainly isn’t politically correct.
Perhaps for this reason, Ford overcompensates by inserting pro-Obama, anti-Republican diatribes into every story. As a nonpartisan, non-U.S. citizen, my feelings toward President Obama range from friendly to neutral. By the end of Let Me Be Frank With You, I felt as if I’d been kidnapped and taken to a political rally. Diehard Democrats might find this hilarious, while others could find it grating.
In the penultimate story, “The New Normal,” Frank sets out on a dreaded errand to bring his ex-wife a Christmas present. Ford establishes tension from the beginning and lets readers twist in anticipation as he builds the stakes through backstory, adding comical observations about marriage and divorce.
There’s a scene with a transgender woman, giving Frank yet another opportunity to counter generational bias with progressive beliefs. As with the preceding story, “The New Normal” rewards readers who trek through the exposition with a long-awaited scene with the ex-wife at the very end. It is as painful as it is funny, as wise as it is relatable.
In the final story, “Deaths of Others,” Frank says goodbye to Eddie, a longtime friend dying of cancer. Frank doesn’t want to visit his friend at first. Reductive in his thinking about friendships (he jettisons friends and obligations with age), he can’t stomach the fulsome positivity that comes with rallying at the bedside of a terminal patient, nor the stark honesty of acknowledging death.
Before and after seeing his friend one last time, Frank will encounter someone he hates (a Republican!) and two more African Americans. Themes will be replayed and played out. What happens between Frank and Eddie (the dialogue, a secret revealed, the restrained, powerful emotions) is well worth the weaker parts of the book.
Whatever mild complaints I level against Ford’s heavy reliance on backstory are more than balanced by the beauty and power of the exposition itself. Consider this playful take on a biblical verse: “All may not be vanity (though plenty is); but nothing’s here to stay.”
Frank says of his son, “From outer space, his life’s as normal as mine, and it is enough that we love each other. Though if I don’t hurry up and die, I fear he’ll end up sleeping in my living room.” And there’s my favorite, what is shaping up to be the best literary line of 2014: “You have to be available to what’s not evident.”
Let Me Be Frank With You might not be the Great American Novel, but Richard Ford is most certainly a great American writer. Whether readers enjoy this particular book will come down to demographics and taste. Folks who like strong, convoluted plots may pass. Pre-boomer and boomers with leftist intellectual orientations, other writers (of all ages) of literary fiction, wisdom lovers, and perennial students of high English will, without a doubt, swoon.
[Editor's note: Richard Ford will be reading at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC, on Nov. 19th at 7 p.m.]
Dorothy Reno is a DC-based writer who’s been published by Red Tuque Books and is working on a collection of stories called The One that Got Away.