Love and Death in New Jersey

Richard Ford has never written a frivolous word. So the title of his latest four related novellas, Let MeBe Frank With You (Harper Collins), should not be dismissed. It is the fourth of the Frank Bascombe series, about a sportswriter turned real estate agent. Beginning with The Sportswriter (1986), Frank leads us through the dissolution of his first marriage following the death of their son, Ralph, of Reyes disease at age 9 to today, when at 68 he prepares for death. At the end of The Lay of the Land (2006), he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and shot twice in the chest by a crazy 14-year-old on a bike.

If the voice in the title is the author’s, Ford alerts the readers that he will speak frankly. Or, perhaps, Ford suggests he himself is becoming like Frank; when we read Frank’s voice we are reading his.

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Each story is an encounter between Frank and characters from his past, each of which tests his values. He says he has been reducing his character to its “default” status in preparation for his final days. That is his essence, free of distractions and failings. Most of his friends are already dead, and losing them has made death mean less to him and life mean a great deal more. Yet for reasons he does not fully understand, other people find they can tell him things they cannot share with anyone else.

Throughout the four Bascombe volumes, Ford has staged these revelations around religious feasts and national holidays that call into play values like human dignity and God’s presence: Christmas (twice), Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. In Frank’s first story he returns to the Sandy-strewn ruins of his own house in Sea Clift, N.J.—washed off its foundation, spread over the grass and asphalt, chimney gone, fireplace standing alone in what was a living room, “a basement once full of bicycles, old uniforms and ancestors’ boxes sucked up and blown away.” Add images of America where families are torn apart, aimless wars drag on, traditions are shattered. Arnie, to whom he sold his house 10 years before, appears, wealthy but changed, remade by plastic surgery, with a third wife and hair transplant. Put off, Frank tries to escape Arnie’s hug, but fails.

At his home in Haddam, N.J., a visitor, Mrs. Pine, tells him that his house was her family home in the 1960s, then stuns him with the revelation that her father killed her mother, brother and himself in their living room. The reader too is stunned, except that we read this every day. “Many times I thought of killing myself,” she adds. “I wasn’t brave enough.”

Every month Frank drives to visit his first wife, Ann Dykstra, who has moved into a “state of the art staged-care facility” called Community Carnage Hill, whose goal is to “re-brand aging as a to-be-looked-forward-to phenomenon” and describes it as a “multidisciplinary experience.” So four days before Christmas he delivers his present, a yogi-approved orthopedic pillow recommended to homeopathically “treat” her Parkinson’s disease. A spark of their love remains. She tells him she wants to be buried near their son, Ralph. Frank has told Mrs. Pine that he hopes to die before his wife does. The reader wonders where Frank wishes to be buried.

Two days before Christmas, Frank visits Eddie Medley, a rich old acquaintance from the Divorced Men’s Club, whom he does not really like but who—with parchment skin, zombie eyes and sunken temples—has summoned him to make a deathbed apology calculated to hurt him. Coughing continually, Eddie asks him about his writing: when you write a book, “how do you know when you have finished it?” Frank confesses he was never good at endings. Eddie gasps “Oh-oh-oh-oh oh!” A smell escapes from under the covers. Frank, who has no desire to touch him, offers to help him in anything, including an enema. I thought of Jesus, who was willing to touch a leper, or today a victim of Ebola.

Outside Frank meets an old friend, Ezekiel, a 39-year-old black teacher, coach and humanitarian who is collecting food for his church to deliver to the “people sufferin’ on the Shore.” Streets away, the bells of St. Leo gong out carols.

Ford told me, about 30 years ago in New Orleans, that his one ambition is the same as William Dean Howell’s: “to create a literature worthy of America.” That he has done, and more.

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