The Old Normal

Where should readers draw the line between Richard Ford and his famous protagonist Frank Bascombe?

Illustration by Cece Bell

Illustration by Cece Bell

We need to talk about the title of this book. Richard Ford first introduced Frank Bascombe as the narrator of his 1986 novel The Sportswriter, a strangely gripping account of a few days in which not that much happens to a fairly ordinary guy in the middle of his life. The Sportswriter is occasionally funny, but it is not primarily comic; the sequel, Independence Day, is, if anything, more overtly serious, which is probably one of the reasons it won bigger awards than The Sportswriter did. (It’s also longer and deals more flagrantly with Big American Themes.) The third Bascombe book, The Lay of the Land, tends a tad more toward whimsical riffing, perhaps, but even so, nothing much prepared fans and critics for the groan-inducing pun Ford has bequeathed upon the fourth Bascombe book. Let Me Be Frank With You? Really?

There’s the question of tone, and then there’s another, I think more significant, matter: The most evident meaning of this heavy-handed play on words is “Let me, Richard Ford, be Frank Bascombe with you, the reader.” And that meaning puts front and center a question that has become more pressing as Bascombe has pushed on across the decades: What is the difference, finally, between Ford and Frank? There are some plain biographical distinctions—as well as many biographical similarities—but how much discernible distance is there between author and character? How much more does Ford see than Frank does, and how differently does he see things? In his review of The Lay of the Land for the New York Times, A.O. Scott said that “it can feel, writing about these books, that you are not evaluating a literary artifact so much as passing judgment on a person,” adding that “Frank is, more or less officially, a nice guy, but I’m not always sure I like him.” I agree with the first part of that: Writing about the Bascombe books does feel a bit like judging a person rather than a thing—and that’s very much to the books’ credit. But as nice as Frank might mostly be, he is not merely occasionally “annoying,” as Scott suggests a sentence later, or just intermittently unlikable. Whatever this might mean for the literary value of the Bascombe books, Frank is kind of an asshole.

Not an egregious one, I don’t think—not much more of one than me, perhaps. (But a little bit more of one, I hope.) And, crucially, Bascombe is capable of not being an asshole at any given moment. “I think of characters,” Ford told the Paris Review in 1996, “as being rather unfixed. I think of them as changeable, provisional, unpredictable, decidedly unwhole.” Ford not only thinks of them that way; with Bascombe, he’s managed to write a character who feels that way—and who therefore feels far more real, more like a flesh-and-blood person, than most fictional characters do. This is the thing that grabbed me about The Sportswriter when I first read it a little over a decade ago. (That and Ford’s sentences, which bounce between high and low diction in pleasurable, unpredictable ways.) Ford captures the slipperiness of thought in a manner that seems unusually true to the way minds actually work. Frank is not exactly reliable, but he’s not exactly unreliable, either. He may fit certain categories—he definitely fits certain categories, about which more in a moment—but he is not a type.

Frank was once a writer of fiction—he published a book of stories, “there were some good notices”—but by the time we meet him in The Sportswriter, he’s given up that gig, accepting a job “with a glossy New York sports magazine you’ve all heard of.” When Independence Day opens, we learn that he’s dropped writing altogether and become a real-estate agent. Frank thus has the way with words and the tendency toward introspection you might expect from someone who once wrote short stories for a living, but he lacks the artistic ambitions that might give his life a more straightforward purpose—making him, I’d say, more like other people. He lives, as a much-quoted Sportswriter line has it, “the normal applauseless life of us all.”

But he is not like everyone: He is, very specifically, a straight, white, middle-class American man who was born in Mississippi in 1945, went to college in Michigan, and settled in New Jersey. Ford has rightly dismissed the Everyman label that some people apply to his protagonist—the whole idea of an “Everyman” is, in any case, outdated and dubious and almost only ever applied to straight, white, Anglo-American males, whom we learn in this country to think of as “normal.” Ford is interested in particularity, in detail, in precise, day-to-day moments as they’re experienced by someone with a personal history and individual ways of dealing with the world. And part of Frank Bascombe’s history is that he’s a white guy, from Mississippi, who was born in the middle of the 1940s, and is maybe a little bit racist.

This is where we get to the asshole part, and to that question of distance between author and character. Let Me Be Frank With You is made up of four linked novellas, all set shortly after Hurricane Sandy has ravaged Bascombe’s adopted home state of New Jersey. He is 68 now and retired and has maybe too much time on his hands. In the second story, “Everything Could Be Worse,” a middle-aged black woman whom Frank doesn’t know shows up on his front stoop. Her name is Charlotte Pines, and she used to live in the house; now she wants to take a look around. This is a fairly common impulse, as Frank knows from his time as a realtor, but Charlotte’s particular wish, he eventually learns, is rooted in a terrible family tragedy. The gradual unfolding of that sad story in front of a stranger feels like familiar fodder for a short story. But it also feels almost incidental to “Everything Could Be Worse,” which is really about Frank’s difficulty talking to a black person.

Ford clues us in right away to Frank’s awkwardness: When he first sees the woman, he gives her a “welcoming ‘you’re probably not robbing me’ smile.” “Black people don’t visit in our neighborhood that often,” he thinks, “except to read the meter or fix something.” After she’s in his home, and he’s struggling to make conversation, he jogs his brain for a good topic, “something any two citizens could talk about, any ole time, to mutual profit—our perplexing races notwithstanding.” He doesn’t have much luck—and he seems almost to take pride in accepting the apparently unbridgeable divide between them: He and his wife, Sally, “don’t show up grinning at their church on Sunday”—meaning the church that black people in his town attend—“pretending ‘we belong, since we’re all really the same under the skin.’ Probably we’re not.” So his inability to talk to her is not terribly surprising. “Almost all conversations between myself and African Americans devolve into this phony, race-neutral natter about making the world a better place,” he says (to us, not her), “which we assume we’re doing just by being alive. But it’s idiotic to think the world would be a better place if people barged uninvited into strangers’ homes.”

This odd story recalls an even odder essay that Ford wrote in 1999 for the New York Times Magazine. He and Stanley Crouch were asked to float a bit down the Mississippi together as Huck and Jim once fictionally did and talk about race in America. Then they would separately write about it. Ford’s piece is fairly bewildering, occasionally tortured, admirably candid, and 7,000 words long. He acknowledges that because being white is regarded as “normal” in this country, white people are allowed to “suppose race has less to do with us.” He concedes that he doesn’t “really know how to have a genuine conversation about race” and even starts “to sense that a younger white writer could’ve done this better.” He mostly fails to say anything notable to Crouch at all. And he confesses that one of the things he failed to bring up was that as late as the early 1980s he wrote letters to fellow writers in which he used racial slurs. In some old correspondence he had recently rediscovered, “in response to a negative review of my friend’s book written by a famous critic I’d been told was black, I wrote to my friend, ‘Who’d have thought he was just a nigger?’ ”

Author Richard Ford.

Courtesy of Greta Rybus

Ford was not happy to discover this letter, obviously, and he wrestles, in print for everyone to see, with what it means. But as readers of Ford I think we probably need to wrestle with it some more. That’s what Ford himself seems to be doing in “Everything Could Be Worse”—attempting to plumb the gulf between his quasi-alter ego and a black individual. And what’s frustrating about the story, and perhaps about Frank Bascombe generally at this point, is that Ford seems too forgiving of him, too accepting of his basic decency despite some very particular failings. At the end of “Everything Could Be Worse,” after all of Frank’s fumbling, Charlotte Pines tells him, “I like the way you say things, Mr. Bascombe.” He asks her to call him Frank, and she does. Given Ford’s own closeness to Bascombe as a character, that feels almost self-congratulatory, and not particularly merited by the previous 50 pages.

The exchange that wraps up the entire collection bothered me more, and in a similar way. In “Deaths of Others,” the fourth story, Frank has gone, reluctantly, to see an old acquaintance named Eddie, who is dying. The conversation becomes unpleasant, and Frank is distracted by the noise of an oil truck outside, driven by fellow Haddam, New Jersey, resident Ezekiel Lewis, “a strapping, smiling, shaved-head, spiritual dynamo,” whose black great-great-grandfather “came up from Dixie accompanying a stalwart young white seminarian as his valet” and whose father Frank himself once employed. Ford is surely aware that this genealogical setup evokes the long, tortured history of black-white relations in the U.S. from slavery to now. But Frank, it seems, does not feel tortured by it. He is optimistic about how things would go if he had “one black friend in town,” which he does not. “There’d be plenty of laughing involved,” he says.

Maybe Frank is kidding himself, and maybe Ford knows it. “White southerners all think we ‘know’ Negroes better than we do or could,” Frank admits, adding: “They may think they know us, too—with better reason.” And yes, Frank uses Negro throughout the Bascombe books. Ford has used it in interviews. It’s an oddly stubborn word choice, given that—as the Oxford English Dictionary confirms and as I think basically everyone knows—Negro is “regarded as out of date or even offensive in both British and American English.” Ford’s old boat mate Stanley Crouch made a case for the word in 2010, and it was once, of course, used with pride—the United Negro College Fund didn’t get around to “rebranding” until just a few years ago. So perhaps Ford and Frank both consider it, as Frank might say, hunky-dory.

But back to Ezekiel Lewis. His back and forth with Frank is brief and anodyne, though it’s made sweetly emotional by Ezekiel’s accidental mention of Frank’s long-dead son. Somehow this exchange makes Frank feel that his day, until now going rather badly, has been “saved.” That’s the last word of the book, and it’s hard not to think that Ford intends this salvific epiphany sincerely. It’s also hard not to think that Frank hasn’t quite earned this particular moment of salvation, that his condescending attitude toward Ezekiel Lewis hasn’t really come in for enough implied authorial criticism. This is why the distance between the author and the character matters—because there are moments when the author steps out quietly from behind the character in an effort to make us feel something, even if it’s just a sense of closure, or a small bit of hope. And while I think that Ford intended me to feel both closure and hope when this book ended, they are not what I felt. I felt frustrated that he hadn’t more fully imagined Ezekiel Lewis, and that he had used the character a little too easily to redeem his protagonist from a difficult moment. I felt that if Ford really was being Frank with us, he maybe should have stayed in that difficult moment a little longer.

Let Me Be Frank With You, by Richard Ford. Ecco.

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