Richard Ford has seen his everyman Frank Bascombe through various stages of life, beginning with his young writer’s aspiration (“The Sportswriter,” 1986) and carrying him through divorce, misadventure and deep into middle age as a suburban New Jersey realtor (“Independence Day,” 1995 and “The Lay of the Land,” 2006). But this is different. Frank is now 68 and fully embarked — “Life is a matter of subtractions…” — on twilight. Ford revives Frank immediately after Hurricane Sandy, using four interlinked stories to elicit a cheerfully cranky man taking melancholy stock of changing world (“…there are species-level changes afoot…”) he knows he won’t be talking about for too much longer.
Frank has long since left his Jersey coast home for inland Haddam, where he lives with his second wife Sally. But the retreat was providential. Sandy, a harbinger of mortality, has dealt a withering literal and metaphorical wound. Nothing stays solid, “the hurricane’s insult.” So it is that retired Frank muses — comically, and at times ferociously — on the macabre hues of change, recession included. He reads to the blind, his ex-wife has Parkinson’s and lives in a designer nursing home, he likes Barack Obama but has little affection for New Jersey’s “big candied yam of a governor” (Chris Christie). He busies himself welcoming home military veterans while also decommissioning “polluted words” (“Bonding heads the list of words I’ve ruled out…”) and ruing the days “…when people still made things and used machines, instead of the opposite.” Smartphones and Facebook are not on his docket.
Hope-spring-eternal meditations come hard on the cusp of 70. Then again, sentimental optimism was never Frank’s style. His strength, and Ford’s, has been consistency of character, and so it remains, even though “something bad is closing in,” and some of it has already touched down. Frank is impatient with double-talk slogans (“Aging is a multidisciplinary experience…”) and the glib hypocrisies that flank it. “At some point,” says Frank, sane to the core, “you just need to leave the theater so the next crowd can see the movie.”
These are final credit-style viewpoints, the blunt sum of careful tuning, and they confirm Frank Bascombe as one of America’s great literary creations, and his creator Ford as an author whose five decades of books will likely be passed down for centuries to come.