Inside Frank Bascombe’s Head, Again

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Half a century ago, at the 1974 Adelaide Festival of Arts, in South Australia, John Updike delivered a muscular manifesto: “We must write where we stand,” he said. “An imitation of the life we know, however narrow, is our only ground.” His call for accurate and specific witness, for a realism dedicated to the here and now, was surely in part an apology for the repeat appearances of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the former high-school-basketball star Updike called his “ticket to the America all around me.” Already the hero of Rabbit, Run (1960) and Rabbit Redux (1971), Harry was destined to star in two more alliterative Rabbit novels, Rabbit Is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), as well as the postmortem novella Rabbit Remembered (2000). Restless and hungry, open to experience and eager to learn, as fallible as the rest of us, and a staunch, often dismayed patriot, Harry is Updike’s everyman.

Following in Rabbit’s zigzag footsteps, Richard Ford’s recurring character, the endearing, occasionally exasperating Frank Bascombe, steers what he calls his “uncompassed course” through the sequence of novels beginning with The Sportswriter (1986) and stretching to Be Mine, the fifth and probably final book of Frank. While graciously acknowledging Updike’s influence (“Anything I might’ve learned from him I gladly concede”), Ford has taken care to distinguish Frank from his precursor. Too ruminative, too intellectual to be an everyman (“Never my intention,” Ford once declared), Frank is nonetheless an accurate and specific witness to the American ground on which Ford stoutly stands.

Frank is different from Harry physically (in high school, Frank was hopeless at basketball), morally (you won’t catch Frank in flagrante with his daughter-in-law), and socially. Until he got rich as a middle-aged Toyota dealer, Harry was unequivocally blue collar. College-educated Frank is white collar all the way: a short-story writer, a sportswriter, a college professor (very briefly), then a real-estate agent. Frank has always had an expansive range of highbrow references. In Be Mine, “the old Nazi Heidegger,” “that scrofulous old faker Faulkner,” and the novels of J. M. Coetzee all pop up—not names Harry would ever drop.

But the key difference between a Rabbit book and a Bascombe book is the texture of the prose. Both authors write in the present tense, but whereas Updike uses a finely calibrated close-third-person perspective, hovering over Harry and cloaking him in luscious Updikean phrases, Ford hides himself away and lets the inescapably, unstoppably logocentric Frank tell his tale in his own distinctive, discursive voice, a roving “I” addicted to description and speculation. Every Bascombe book is full-on Frank.

One more thing Frank has in common with Harry (and Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman): He belongs to the most overexposed cohort in history, the heterosexual white male strutting through postwar America. If the mere mention of those three characters brings on a wave of old-white-guy fatigue, better to give the latest Frankathon a miss. But if you’re up for a dazzling, acutely painful 342-page monologue from a 74-year-old whose favorite shoe is a Weejun, who likes to rhapsodize about suburbia, and who is right now preoccupied with an unspooling tragedy on a road trip through a tranche of Trump country, Be Mine is just the ticket.

Each Bascombe book is loosely centered on a public celebration: Easter for The Sportswriter , Fourth of July for Independence Day (1995), Thanksgiving for The Lay of the Land (2006), Christmas for the four novellas collected in Let Me Be Frank With You (2014), Valentine’s Day for Be Mine. None of these books is plotted; they stumble from incident to incident—never artlessly, but seemingly by accident. Ford has said of the first three that they were “largely born out of fortuity.” The latest is somewhat more focused and linear, though the usual digressions and flashbacks give it the haphazard feel cherished by Frank’s fans.

Now, in the dying days of the Trump administration, Frank is caring for his 47-year-old son, Paul, recently diagnosed with ALS, the fatal neurodegenerative disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Paul is participating in an experimental-drug trial at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. When the trial finishes, they drive west to Mount Rushmore in a rented Dodge Ram with a vintage camper bolted onto the bed—an all-American journey, like the trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Independence Day—father-and-son excursions that play into Frank’s faintly ironic idea of himself as an “arch-ordinary American.”

[From the December 2006 issue: Richard Ford, out of character]

All but retired, rooted in Haddam, New Jersey, a town “as straightforward and plumb-literal as a fire hydrant,” Frank has a part-time job answering phones in the office of a “boutique realty entity” with the inspired name of House Whisperers. In the earlier books, he endured the death of his oldest son, age 9; two divorces; prostate cancer; and being shot in the chest—as an innocent bystander—by a punk with an AR-15. All of that, even his beloved Haddam, even the recent death from Parkinson’s of his first wife (Paul’s mother), is shoved to the side by his surviving son’s illness. In Rochester and on the road, Frank and Paul are “alone together, joined unwillingly at the heart.”

Readers of The Sportswriter will remember Paul as an appealing little boy who kept pigeons in a coop behind the house in Haddam and sent them off with forlorn messages to his dead older brother—who Paul thought lived on Cape May. In the next novel, Paul was a teenager, troubled, abrasive, yet still intermittently appealing. Then he was briefly married and worked for Hallmark writing “dopey” greeting cards. Familiarity with these previous incarnations is in no way necessary, though it does add to the illusion of depth, an accretion of sedimentary layers. The astonishing core of Be Mine is the barbed, tender, despairing bond between father and son, a bond both battered and strengthened by the cruel “progress” of Paul’s disease.

By the time they embark on their road trip—knowing, as they’ve always known, that no miracle cure will present itself—every step Paul takes, every gesture, is a struggle. Even when he sits, his right hand trembles, “clenching and curling”; knees shudder; feet fidget. His life “pares down to arch necessities—ambulation, swallowing, talking, breathing.” Devastating as this is for Paul, it also takes a heavy toll on an already death-haunted Frank, who early in the novel scattered the ashes of his first wife. “If three house moves are the psychic equivalent of a death, a son’s diagnosis of ALS is equal to crashing your car into a wall day after day, with the outcome always the same.”

As he did so often in the earlier novels—especially The Sportswriter, when his sexual magnetism (age 38) was irresistible and his conquests legion—Frank seeks the comfort of a woman’s love. He visits a massage parlor called Vietnam-Minnesota Hospitality, improbably located in an isolated farmhouse 18 miles north of Rochester. His “massage attendant,” Betty Duong Tran, is a diminutive 34-year-old “with bobbed hair … darkly alert eyes … pert, friendly gestures.” Frank takes Betty on dinner dates; afterward, “inside my still-frozen car … we’ve kissed and embraced sweetly a time or two.” The smarmy soft focus is unusual for Ford, but less disappointing than the safe, generic description that accompanies those occasions when Betty—“for reasons I never anticipate”—decides to strip naked for the massage session: “Undressed, she is as tiny as she seems clothed, but unexpectedly curvy and fleshy where you wouldn’t expect.”

Frank’s “love” for Betty Tran (“Much of life should have quotes around it,” he observes) is surely meant to relieve the gloom of degenerative disease. Frank knows that he’s “reached the point in life at which no woman I’m ever going to be attracted to is ever going to be attracted to me.” He quite reasonably asks, “How do you stand it, these dismal facts of life, without some durable fantasy or deception or dissembling?” Naked Betty and her sweet embraces are presented as fact, as real as the chrome ram’s head on the hood of the Dodge, but even if she were presented as fantasy and the nude massage as erotic reverie, surely a writer of Ford’s inarguable talent should do better than “curvy and fleshy.” He doesn’t do explicit sex—only very rarely does he do bland cliché.

What a contrast with the exact and wholly convincing descriptions of Paul’s inexorable decline. On the morning of the visit to Mount Rushmore, he emerges from their motel room at the Four Presidents Courts, stumbles on the curb, and bashes his hand and face on the bumper of the Dodge. The challenge is then to hoist him into the truck:

“My hand hurts, and I can’t control my fucking feet,” Paul says, reaching for the hand grip on the windshield post.

“Yes, you can,” I say. “Shift your weight. I’ll push you.” I am pushing him—his pillowy butt, his still-muscled thighs straining, straining …

With his bad hand Paul loops his wrist through the inside hand-hold, manages a foot up to the running board, grasps the seat back with his good hand, and I push him forward and up like a sack of rocks. I fear he might fart more or less in my face where I’m close to him, helping him … Miraculously he doesn’t.

And then he is almost in. I give another grunting upwards lift, ignoring everything but what I’m doing and doing my best to do. And in he sags. At which point nothing else matters.

Ford has a loud and faithful following among writers on both sides of the Atlantic. Lorrie Moore, John Banville, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Geoff Dyer, among others, have been effusive in their praise. My hunch is that he won their admiration (as he won mine) with both the care he takes and the risks he takes. Every sentence is considered, yet many look like they’re about to fall apart in their devious careening. Something similar can be said of the meandering Bascombe books, too: Their course, like Frank’s, is uncompassed by design. Every detour offers an opportunity to ponder. Here we are in Rapid City, South Dakota:

What causes places to be awful is always of interest, since places can be awful in myriad ways—though you sense it the moment you step off the bus. It’s never the air quality or the car-truck congestion or income differential or racial mix or number of parks, miles of bike paths and paved jogging trails, a developed waterfront, access to public transit or a thriving art scene. A town can be on this year’s “best place to live and raise a family” list—alongside Portland Maine, Billings Montana, and Rochester—and be wretched. It’s about yawning streets, deathwatch stoplights and the aggregate number of used car lots … It’s about how fast new “loft” projects pave over old cow pastures, and how the older malls are faring and whether new-car dealerships look like Ming pagodas.

The path from car-truck congestion to yawning streets and deathwatch stoplights to old cow pastures and Ming pagodas is crooked and jumbled in true Ford fashion, a curated chaos. What Frank says about himself also applies to his voice: “I personally have never minded a low-grade sensation of randomness and have sought, as much as convenient, to keep randomness nourished.”

One of the risks Ford skirts is boredom. Are there things you’d rather be doing, you wonder, than listening to Frank bloviate? Ford pulls back from the brink with the brilliant set pieces that punctuate the narrative: traversing the atrium of the Mayo Clinic, “where, on any given day, thousands enter and thousands leave 200% confident that if there’s a cure for them, this is where it lives”; a visit to the World’s Only Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota (“everything in your wildest dreams made out of corn”); the “Life-Changing Patriotic Experience” of Mount Rushmore.

The four chiseled visages. L to R—Washington (the father), Jefferson (the expansionist), Roosevelt #1 (the ham, snugged in like an imposter) and stone-face Lincoln, the emancipator (though there are fresh questions surrounding that). None of these candidates could get a vote today—slavers, misogynists, homophobes, warmongers, historical slyboots, all playing with house money.

Ford is far too subtle to make an explicit connection between Paul’s degenerative disease and whatever has happened to our nation, but those four “granitudinally white faces” inevitably evoke an absent other. On a television screen in an airport lounge a few months earlier, Frank had caught a glimpse of “President Trump’s swollen, eyes-bulging face … doing his pooch-lipped, arms-folded Mussolini.” He’s got his number: “tuberous limbs, prognathous jaw, looking in all directions at once, seeking approval but not finding enough.”

Paul’s desperate condition insulates Frank from “the whole nationwide Busby-Berkeley” of impeachment and election. Proliferating yard signage elicits a characteristic response: “Trump–Biden. Hard to know which bunch I’d rather run afoul of—a mob of shrieking, sandaled liberals waving blue security blankets, or a stampede of tattooed muscle-bound yokels with AR-15s and redacted copies of the constitution.” As usual, he’s willing to see every side of every story.

Always the meditative humanist (at one point he kept a copy of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in his car), Frank dedicates himself in Be Mine to the problem of happiness—a problem particularly acute when you’re a septuagenarian caring for your dying middle-aged son. In Sioux Falls, with Heidegger’s help, he comes to a tentative conclusion: “Being old really is like having a fatal disease, at least insofar as I’m no more ready than my son is to give up on comfort, idleness and taking grave things lightly.” Later he plumps for Augustine of Hippo (just as “good is the absence of bad … happiness is the absence of unhappiness”) with an added dash of William Blake (“Good [is] only good in specifics”). Here’s what he tells himself:

I know the hollow in the heart that is longing and longing’s opposite—doing good because you want to do good and are a good man in spite of what you know is true of you. Yes. Happiness can still be yours, ole chap; since happiness is not a pure element like Manganese or Boron, but an alloy of metals both precious and base, and durable.

What does he crave in the aftermath of his road trip with Paul? “I desire to feel free for a moment of airy, well-earned ease and clear-sightedness. Which is to say, not walled off.” Uncompassed is Frank’s default mode; un-encompassed suits him too. He’ll stand his ground, keep his distance, look around—and withhold judgment if possible. If not, he may offer his favorite equivocation: “Yeah-no. The entire human condition in two words.”

This article appears in the July/August 2023 print edition with the headline “Inside Frank Bascombe’s Head, Again.”