Let Me Be Frank With You, Richard Ford, Bloomsbury, 2014, 256pp,
Richard Ford’s early attempts at novel writing did not meet with great success.
For a time, he opted out of the literary life. Since then, he has never
ceased to proclaim that he could stop writing at any time, a decision which
would be as shocking to the literary world as Philip Roth’s, considering
Ford’s current standing in America and Europe. Like his characters, Ford
is a vocational shape-shifter. He started off as a locomotive engineer’s assistant,
went on to study hotel management, changed to English and then
law. He joined the US Marines, left novel writing to become a sportswriter
and then went back to writing fiction.
Surprisingly for such a painstaking realist writer, his juvenilia was steeped
in the postmodernist experimentalism of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme
and William Gass. When he enrolled in a creative writing course at the
University of California, E. L. Doctorow steered him back towards more
traditional modes of writing. In a recent American writers’ symposium in
Vincennes in 2014, Ford said that he sometimes wonders about how conservative
he has become in novelistic terms. Despite having both feet solidly
planted in the realist tradition, however, Ford has retained what he calls
Gass’s rather French idea that language is like a pane of glass in which the
interest lies as much in the pane itself as in what you see through it. There is
an almost Nabokovian density to his diction at times. Ford also views character
in the postmodern perspective as ‘unfixed, provisional, unpredictable,
decidedly unwhole’ (interview for The Paris Review, 1996).
His breakthrough came with the publication of The Sportswriter, the first
of the Frank Bascombe novels. Critical acclaim was consolidated by Rock
Springs, a volume of short stories that followed shortly after. These stories
centre on the down-and-out and the out-of-luck, contributing to making
Ford a major exponent of so-called Dirty Realism. Ford’s outstanding contribution
to the art of the short story was confirmed with Women With Men
(1997) and A Multitude of Sins (2002).
Although reviews of Ford’s novel Canada (2012) were laudatory to the
point of eulogy at times, Ford’s return to the voice of the ordinary-minded
human being (the son of criminal parents in this case) seemed like a bit
of a comedown from his usual linguistic panache and the sharpness of his
observations. Nevertheless, the novel succeeds despite its rather humdrum
style and its inevitable foregrounding of platitude.
Ford came to public attention in Britain when Bill Buford, the editor of
Granta at the time, included him in a 1983 reputation-establishing Granta
anthology under the title Dirty Realism, a term which Buford defined as
‘the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the
belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother,
a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a
disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic,
sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute
a new voice in fiction.’ This trend was later sourced back to writers like
Charles Bukowski and Carson McCullers, and could easily be linked back
even further to the ‘gritty realism’ attributed to the British poets of the First
World War and the Naturalist writers before them.
Dirty Realism has also been called Kmart Realism, brand-name fiction or
simply minimalism. One can see how Ford might have been connected to
this grouping of writers, but his Frank Bascombe novels have ultimately
relatively little in common with Dirty Realism which tends to eschew adverbs,
metaphor and internal monologue. Dirty Realism’s focus on the indigent
is also not the main preoccupation of the Bascombe tetralogy as the
narrator is a relatively affluent member of a privileged community.
Ford is keen to expand the definition of verisimilitude in the realist novel,
making his character Frank Bascombe an unusually broad-minded real es81
tate agent with a decidedly literary mindset. To those who claim that this
combination is unrealistic, Ford has argued that he wishes to broaden the
reader’s conventional understanding about human beings.
Let Me Be Frank With You is a series of four short novellas of roughly sixty
pages each. After he finished the third opus of the Bascombe trilogy, Ford
announced it would be his last. Faced with repeated demands from his followers
for another Bascombe book, Ford started considering the idea: the
trigger came when he went down with his wife to see the damage caused
by hurricane Sandy in New Jersey (the couple had already supported storm
victims in New Orleans). He says that when he started thinking of writing
about things that would not have been recorded in the media, he realized
that the voice in which the first sentences formed in his mind was Frank
Bascombe’s. Ford has always insisted on the writer’s absolute control over
his characters, but this is clearly an instance of benign writerly ‘schizophrenia’
in which an author is compelled to use a character when he begins to
hear his voice.
The first story, entitled ‘I’m Here’, recounts Bascombe’s encounter with the
man who bought his house some time before the superstorm, and having to
face the buyer’s ire over the fact that the house has been severely damaged.
As in previous Bascombe books, the former real estate agent shows himself
to be far more than what you might expect from a realtor. He makes being
a realtor in America sound like being a profane priest, having to bear the
weight of your clients’ sins, worries and recriminations. Bascombe even
points out that he knows of two realtors in the area who were shot by angry
The story that follows, ‘Everything Could Be Worse’, dovetails elegantly
with the first, echoing a suggestion made at the end of the first in its title.
This time, it is Bascombe who receives a visit from a former occupant of
his current house. The story seems more casual and less intense until the
visitor reveals the unsettling reason behind her visit, providing the clinching
shocker technique that characterizes the art of the short story, rather
than the novel.
The third long story, the wryly titled ‘The New Normal’, dramatizes Bascombe’s
visit to his ex-wife in a ‘Feng-Shui-approved apartment’ where she
is being treated for Parkinson’s disease. It shows Ford’s talent for eliciting
intense interest from the most banal material. His relish for satirical portraiture
of stock American character types is given vent with the usual savoury
results. The story includes a delightful spoof of an American policeman, a
recurring set piece in Ford’s oeuvre. Like Samuel Beckett, Ford manages
to make encounters with authority figures hilariously engrossing. Buck
is a state cop who has been convinced that ‘a pair of black horn-rimmed
Dave Garroway specs would make him look less like a Polish meatball,
and make people take him more seriously, which probably never happens.’
An alternative American-style preacher named Fike is given the same sardonic
treatment in the last story in which Bascombe pays a visit to a dying,
somewhat treacherous friend: ‘Fike’s morning devotionals all have this
tickle-your-funny-bone, cloyingly Christian pseudo-irreverence calculated
to paint God Almighty as just one of the boys’. As always, Ford deftly
transforms minute sartorial details into telling psychological reflectors:
‘Just for today, he’s also wearing a one-faith-fits-all purple priest’s collar
camouflaging whatever mischief he’s up to here.’
The latest Bascombe stories are more humorous than any of Ford’s other
works. When asked about this at a recent reading, Ford cited the preface
to Henry James’s What Maisie Knew in which James writes that life is full
of ‘the close connection of bliss and bale’. Ford argued that in a series of
stories focused on disaster, he wanted to provide the comfort of comedy.
Although the tone is more apparently light, these stories are far from being
Diet Ford. The comedy is generally laced with thought-generating observations.
Here’s an example of anxiety-suppressing humour in which the
narrator contemplates the prospect of becoming elderly: “What is it about
falling? ‘He died of a fall.’ ‘The poor thing never recovered after his fall.’
‘He broke his hip in a fall and was never the same.’ ‘Death came relatively
quickly after a fall in the back yard.’ How fucking far do these people fall?
Off of buildings? Over spuming cataracts? Down manholes? Is it further to
the ground than it used to be?”
Ford has pointed out in interview that his penchant for comedy is also a
culturally-acquired phenomenon. He attributes it to the fact of being a
Southerner (he was born in Jackson, Mississippi) in ‘an absurd racist society’:
when he moved to the north, he retained this sense of the ridiculous.
The ironic touches are refreshing and the punning frankness evoked in the
title shines through page after page in a way that allows Frank to evoke
specifically American taboos in a way that is almost as daring as a poem
by Tony Hoagland: ‘almost all conversations between myself and African
Americans devolve into this phony, race-neutral natter about making the
world a better place’. Frank is equally honest about pointing out his own
polite insincerity in conversation: “‘Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us
stronger, right?’ I don’t, of course, believe this. Most things that don’t kill
us right off, kill us later.”
Let Me Be Frank With You features some of Ford’s best Bascombe material.
There is something about the relative brevity of short fiction that tightens
his writing. Ford’s short stories and novellas are roomy enough to accommodate
the characteristic Ulyssean wandering of his narrators, and they are
tight enough to exclude the feeling that the speaker should cut to the chase.
If you have a distaste for the Slow culture movement, then you might not
enjoy the trilogy: the Bascombe novels give you the sensation that you’re
being taken for a drive around a small part of New Jersey with an interestingly
talkative driver who is in no hurry to get anywhere. Ford’s writing
provides Slow Realism at its best, aesthetically maximalist in its thoroughgoing
rendering of setting and character, and his latest stories captivatingly
offer both depth and pace at the same time.