"Let Me Be Frank With You" (Ecco), by Richard Ford
When the final novel in the Frank Bascombe trilogy was published in 2007, its author made it plain that a fourth book about the introspective sportswriter-turned-real estate broker wasn't even a remote possibility.
But now, seven years later, Richard Ford has resurrected his anti-hero in a collection of four loosely connected novellas in which Bascombe is a 68-year-old retiree living in inland New Jersey with his second wife, Sally.
In a stroke of luck, Frank had unloaded his multimillion-dollar oceanfront home before Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey shore, turning the redwood-and-glass property into rubble in as dramatic a fashion as the financial crisis had upended the economy.
Frank has entered life's final phase, "my end-of-days' time — known otherwise as retirement." He travels once a week with a group of veterans to the Newark airport to greet troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and reads for the blind on a local radio station. He spends his remaining time ruminating about life and doing pretty much what he pleases.
Frank's relative contentment is shaken up by four odd encounters that shape the book: a strange meeting near the wreckage of his home with its unlucky buyer; a surprise visit to his current home by a black woman whose family lived there decades ago, prior to a horrendous tragedy that unfolded in the basement; Frank's pre-Christmas visit to deliver an orthopedic pillow to his Parkinson's stricken ex-wife in assisted living; and a visit to a long-forgotten acquaintance who is dying of cancer.
The stories serve as vehicles for Frank's witty, sad, poignant and incisive ruminations on life in America in the early 21st century. Whereas Sally views life as a natural sequence of events, Frank looks at it "in terms of failures survived, leaving the horizon gratifyingly — but briefly — clear of obstructions."
Frank, who has been undergoing treatment for prostate cancer, shares concerns common to the elderly. Along with multiple aches and pains, he is reminded to pick up his feet when he walks so as to avoid "the gramps shuffle," that "final-journey approach signal." He deflects his orthopedist's suggestion about a test for his prospects of Alzheimer's disease because he doesn't know what he would do with the information. He also worries that getting on in age is causing his breath to reek, so much so that he has taken to brushing his tongue three times a day.
He still has the same wry approach to life. He is prone to making inappropriate comments, but sometimes only thinks them and is able to stop himself in time. As always, Frank tends to overthink stuff, from New Jersey real estate values to opposition to President Obama, and it's those inner thoughts and the way our hero expresses them that make him such an engaging companion.
Readers of the Bascombe trilogy — "The Sportswriter," ''Independence Day," for which Ford won the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner, and "The Lay of the Land" — are sure to be delighted at this unexpected opportunity to renew their acquaintance with Frank and see how he's coping with life's changes.