Thursday, November 20, 2014

Perfectly Frank

Richard Ford is one of the few authors that’ll I’ll buy any book he writes as soon as it is published in hardcover. I’m particularly fond of the Frank Bascombe novels, Ford’s protagonist from The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land, written in the first person by a “familiar old friend” from New Jersey.  I feel I know this person as I knew Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.  Frank is four years younger than I and Rabbit was ten years older.  But the times recounted by these characters are of my era.  No wonder I’m so familiar with the landscapes of their lives. And it is interesting that both Updike and Ford had declared the end of their Angstrom and Bascombe novels with the completion their trilogies, only to come out with one more, as if the character told the writer he had something else to say.  I certainly thought the Bascombe works had come to an end when he wrote Canada, a fine novel.

But primarily it is Frank’s voice, the way he thinks, that connects with me -- plaintive, sardonic, ironic, perplexed, now somewhat resigned, and with a wry wit. 

The hardcover edition of Let Me Be Frank With You is also a treasure to hold, a three piece binding, nicely designed  including the jacket, printed on an off white stock, with headbands and foot bands, but as with most hardcover editions nowadays, no longer smyth sewn – instead it’s a “perfect bound book” in a hard case.  In my book production days, this would be library-unacceptable, but I suppose we should be grateful that the hardcover book still hangs on, pre-digital-historical relic though it may be.

I confess I ordered this as soon as I heard about it without knowing the details.  It’s by Richard Ford and it’s another Frank Bascombe book.  That’s all I needed to know.  It turned out not be a novel but instead four lengthy short stories, loosely held together by Hurricane Sandy and the theme of aging. 

The leitmotiv of the Hurricane is actually central to the first story, “I’m Here.” At the request of an old real estate client, Arne Urguhart (Frank became a real estate agent after he was a sportswriter and an aspiring novelist), he goes to the Jersey shore to see what’s left of the house he sold Arne, actually the house that Frank lived in with his ex-wife Ann. 

In the second story, “Everything Could Be Worse,” he is visited in his present home in Haddam, the town where Frank began his journey in the The Sportswriter, by a Mrs. Pines, who has become displaced by the Hurricane, and injured as well, a cast on her arm, and has an unexpected urge to see the home in which she grew up and in which a terrible crime was committed.  Frank invites her to tour the house and her story unfolds.

From there we segue to “The New Normal” where Frank goes to visit his ex-wife who is now a resident of a high-end retirement community, with progressively deteriorating Parkinson’s disease, one she even blames on the Hurricane as a “super-real change agent.  It was in the air. 

The concluding story says much about the underlying theme of the entire collection, “Death of Others.”  Here he goes to visit a friend who is literally at death’s door, living in a home he’s occupied for scores of years, being attended to by hospice.  Frank was once his neighbor.  The dying man, Eddie Medley, makes a startling confession to Frank. The Hurricane in this story hangs in the background on Eddie’s silent TV, a program surveying the damage.

I was prepared to be disappointed by this book as it is not another FB novel.  Independence Day, the second FB novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is probably his best.  Just the opening sentence of that one expresses his love of the geographic territory: In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.  In his new short story collection, such a sentence would seem to be impossible.  Why?  Because FB has aged.  He sees life and Haddam differently now.

So, while being disappointed that this was not another novel, if one concentrates on “the voice” and the themes, perhaps it actually works better as a number of loosely connected short stories.  I think that genre feels so natural for what Ford has to say.  What Frank says about “love” could be said about his life — Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.  And so these stories represent single acts, making up Frank as he enters old age.

When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway.  Not that much is happening, except on the medical front.  Better to strip things down.  And where better to start stripping than the words we choose to express our increasingly rare, increasingly vagrant thoughts.

It's not true that as you get older things slide away like molasses off a table top. What is true is I don't remember some things that well, owing to the fact that I don't care all that much. I now wear a cheap Swatch watch, but I do sometimes lose the handle on the day of the month, especially near the end and the beginning, when I get off-track about "thirty days hath September ... " This, I believe, is normal and doesn't worry me. It's not as if I put my trousers on backwards every morning, tie my shoelaces together, and can't find my way to the mailbox.

And I was also amused by Frank’s description of the dangers of falling as a senior citizen.  I’ve been warned as well because one of my so-called “necessary” medications has the side effect of thinning bones. They even wanted to give me other medication to combat those side effects, but that one has its own likely side effects (I refused). Pick your poison I’m told, although as one doctor empathetically told me, “it’s not your bones that’s gonna get you, it’s something else.”  I could not have said it any better than Frank, though, and reading this book should be required as one enters the final stage of one’s life.  As Bette Davis said, “growing old is not for sissies.”

Here’s Frank’s take on it: I'm also concerned about stepping on a nail, myself And because of something Sally said, I feel a need to more consciously pick my feet up when I walk-"the gramps shuffle" being the unmaskable, final-journey approach signal. It'll also keep me from falling down and busting my ass. 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 farther to the ground than it used to be? In years gone by I'd fall on the ice, hop back up, and never think a thought. Now it's a death sentence. What Sally said to me was "Be careful when you go down those front steps, sweetheart. The surface isn't regular, so pick your feet up." Why am I now a walking accident waiting to happen? Why am I more worried about that than whether there's an afterlife?

He somewhat reluctantly, but obligingly, goes once a month to visit his ex-wife (his present wife, Sally, is fine with this) Ann who now lives in cutting edge senior care center, one in which there is progressive health care, right to the grave. At Ann’s new home, Carnage Hill (love the name of the place), being sick to death is like a passage on a cruise ship where you’re up on the captain’s deck, eating with him and possibly Engelbert Humperdinck, and no one’s getting Legionnaires’ or being cross about anything.  And you never set sail or arrive anywhere, so there’re no bad surprises or disappointments about the ports of call being shabby and alienating.  There aren’t any ports of call. This is it.

Ann get’s under Frank’s skin. And she has a knack of getting me under her magnifying glass for the sun to bake me a while before I can exit back home to second-marriage deniability.

He handles his visits by displaying his “default self.” The Default Self, my answer to all her true-thing issues, is an expedient that comes along with nothing more than being sixty-eight - the Default Period of life. Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves, characters we can't do anything about (but lie). Old Emerson believed the same. " ... A man should give us a sense of mass ... ," etc. My mass has simply been deemed deficient. But I believe nothing of the sort. Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else - nothing hard or kernel-like. I've never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I've seen the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.

His move back to Haddam -- where he originally began as a sportswriter aka aspiring novelist – gives him both a sense of place and an opportunity to express his sense of change.   Wallace Stevens commented “we have lived too shallowly in too many places.”  Not Frank Bascombe. 

Our move to Haddam, a return to streets, housing stocks and turbid memories I thought I'd forever parted with, was like many decisions people my age make: conservative, reflexive, unadventurous, and comfort-hungry - all posing as their opposite: novel, spirited, enlightened, a stride into the mystery of life, a bold move only a reckless few would ever chance. As if I'd decided to move to Nairobi and open a Gino's. Sadly, we only know well what we've already done.

Indeed, neighborhoods change and new neighbors are remote….  

In the eight years since Sally and I arrived back from Sea Clift, we haven't much become acquainted with our neighbors. Very little gabbing over the fence to share a humorous "W" story. Few if any spontaneous invitations in for a Heineken. No Super Bowl parties, potlucks, or housewarmings. Next door might be a Manhattan Project pioneer, Tolstoy's grand-daughter, or John Wayne Gacy. But you'd hardly know it, and no one seems interested. Neighbors are another vestige of a bygone time. All of which I'm fine with”

Code variances have led to such unpredictable changes, especially for Frank’s neighborhood which has been recodified as a “mixed use” neighborhood, the end of life as we know it.  Though my bet is I’ll be in my resting place before that bad day dawns.  If there’s a spirit of one-ness in my b. ’45 generation, it’s that we all plan to be dead before the big shit train finds the station…..How these occurrences foretell changes that’ll eventuate in a Vietnamese massage becoming my new neighbor is far from clear.  But it happens – like tectonic plates, whose movement you don’t feel ‘til it’s the big one and your QOL goes away in an afternoon.  From my own experience, Amen to that.

The last story seems to tie everything together.  It carries the ironic title of “Death of Others” as if it can’t happen to us, something we all secretly believe, even knowing intellectually it will.  If we didn’t hold on to that fantasy, perhaps we’d go crazy.  In this regard, I envy religious people who actually look forward to the “afterlife.”

In the mornings as he has his breakfast Frank listens to the local call in radio station, a program called Yeah?  What’s It To You?  Most of the discussion lately has been about the “killer storm.” He enjoys listening to his fellow Haddam citizens, their views and personal life evaluations…as nutty as they sometimes are.  For a man in retirement, those brief immersions offer a fairly satisfying substitute to what was once plausible, fully lived life.

He also reads the local obits to honor the deceased, but also quietly to take cognizance of how much any life can actually contain (a lot!), while acknowledging that for any of us a point comes when most of life’s been lived and there’s much less of it than there used to be, and yet what’s there is not to be missed or pissed away in a blur.”

On that radio program he hears the labored voice of Eddie Medley, ex neighbor, and a Michigan Wolverine alumnus as Frank.  An old friend.  A dying friend.  Eddie also leaves a message on Frank’s answering machine.  Something in his voice…frail, but revealing of an inward-tendingness that spoke of pathos and solitude, irreverence and unexpected wonder. More the tryer than I'd first thought, but caked over by illness and time. Even in a depleted state, he seemed to radiate what most modern friendships never do, in spite of all the time we waste on them: the chance that something interesting could be imparted, before-the-curtain-sways-shut-and-all-becomes-darkness. Something about living with just your same ole self all these years, and how enough was really enough. I didn't know anyone else who thought that. Only me. And what's more interesting in the world than being agreed with?

Frank really doesn’t want to see him, a dying man.  He tells him on the phone he’s too busy.  Eddie replies: I’m busy too.  Busy getting dead.  If you want to catch me live, you better get over here.  Maybe you don’t want to.  Maybe you’re that kind of chickenshit.  Pancreatic cancer’s gone to my lungs and belly…It is goddamn efficient.  I’ll say that.  They knew how to make cancer when they made this shit.

At his advancing age Frank has also been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness  Only (in my view) it’s a less-ness that’s as good as anything that happened before – plus it’s a lot easier. 

Although Frank does volunteer work, reading for the blind and welcoming veterans back home, he leaves 60 percent of available hours for the unexpected – a galvanizing call to beneficent action, in this case.  But what I mostly want to do is nothing I don’t want to do.  Nonetheless, as he has the time for the “unexpected” and he goes to see his old friend.

He finally gets to Eddie’s house and is admitted by the hospice worker to the bedroom. Eddie looks like a skeleton, has trouble even talking, breathing, but he is trying to tell him something. Frank bends down to listen ’That’s what I’m here for.’ Not literally true.  Eddie may mistake me for the angel of death, and this moment his last try at coherence.  Death makes of everything in life a dream.  Eddie reveals an old, dark secret, one impacting Frank.  No spoilers here.

The take away of this splendid collection of FB stories is if you are planning to grow old, or if you have already joined our group, this is a primer of what is in store.  But it’s more than the content, it’s the unique voice of Frank Bascombe, and hopefully there will be other such works from Ford in the future.  And remember, there’s something to be said for the good no-nonsense hurricane, to bully life back into perspective.