Ford’s third Frank Bascombe book (“The Sportswriter,” “Independence Day”) is a superior examination of middle age, mortality’s harbinger. It’s an “autumnal tableau” in more ways you can shake a stick at (and real estate agent Bascombe, now 55, swears by such harrumphs).
Set in the New Jersey suburbs (the trilogy’s terra firma) with Thanksgiving and the snarled 2000 American election as a backdrop, Frank — who voted Gore — officially enters his “Permanent Period,” shorthand for the land of no return, which precedes the more ominous “Next Level.” He has prostate cancer (“kind of modern American condition,” with radioactive BBs cooking inside), has lost second wife Sally to ex-husband Wally who’s returned, almost literally, from the Vietnam dead, doesn’t own a cell-phone or computer, and drives a beat-up Chevy.
Connoisseurs of Bascombe can watch him edge toward cranky alienation knowing it won’t last: Frank’s too fundamentally decent. He’s an American good guy at a stage of life (of “indeterminacy and doubt”) where looking ahead too often delivers what’s behind you. What most distinguishes this is Bascombe installment is irony and black humor: Frank’s litigious neighbor has a wife named Drilla and a dog called Bimbo.
Frank’s assistant Mike is a half-assimilated Tibetan. His weird son Paul (a ventriloquist who writes Hallmark cards) brings home a blonde who lost a hand to a mine explosion. Caterers get names like “Eat No Evil.” Thanksgiving gives Ford the opening he needs to reckon with Frank’s still-unsettled family ties. Menace, a new ingredient, competes with the painful and the painfully funny. Ford’s most ordinary sentences contain extraordinary surprises (Frank has “sleeping panther cancer.”)
There’s no emotional ambiguity Ford shies from in his vernacular x-ray of the aging American male. Of himself, “realtor and pilgrim,” Frank says, “I have the hope of a man who never hopes.” Not so. Hope is the sum of his, and Ford’s, story, which is a “middle season” masterwork that keeps its head down and its hair combed.