Richard Ford

Let Me Be Frank With You

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Let Me Be Frank With You Summary

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American author Richard Ford has written three critically acclaimed novels about the life of a white, middle-aged New Jersey man. 2014’s Let Me Be Frank With You returns to this character once again, this time in a collection of four short novellas. Written in the first person, these stories feature the inner monologue of Frank Bascombe, who is highly observant, cynical, funny, somewhat racist, and resigned to the ups and downs of life at an age in which he says his best option for keeping a positive self-image is avoiding mirrors.

The four novellas in Let Me Be Frank With You are set around Christmas 2012, a few months after the devastation of hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the New Jersey coastline that October. The Mississippi-born Frank is now 68 years old and has survived prostate cancer as well as a bullet wound. He has retired from his job as a real estate agent and is settling into life in Hallam, New Jersey, where he lives with his second wife, Sally Caldwell. Frank volunteers at the airport where he greets veterans of overseas combat with welcome packets. He also reads to the blind over the air of a community radio station, although his book choice is the gloomy VS Naipaul novel The Enigma of Arrival, which most of his audience can only tolerate in small chunks.

The first novella, “I’m Here,” starts with Sally telling Frank one morning about a piece of history she has just read. In 1862, the U.S. government hanged 38 captured Sioux warriors during the Dakota uprising. Before their execution, all 38 yelled, “I’m here!” This poignant image adds to Sally’s already overwhelmed mental state as she tries to process the stories of loss and injury she encounters every day. The rest of the narrative concerns Frank’s trip to the ocean-front house where he and Sally used to live before they moved inland. He sold this beach house to Arnie Urquhart, a wealthy fish dealer, not long before the hurricane struck. Now that the house is decimated, Arnie asks Frank to visit, and despite his reluctance, a guilt-ridden Frank agrees to come. On the way there, Frank ruminates over the increased danger that falling now poses for him as an old person: “Is it farther to the ground than it used to be?” Frank also casually considers that Arnie could be planning to kill him, although what Arnie really wants is to share his pain and disappointment with someone else, and Frank lets the man unburden himself.

In the second tale, “Everything Could Be Worse,” an African-American former history teacher named Charlotte Pines knocks on Frank’s door. She used to live in that house as a child and would like to visit it for old times’ sake. During his exchanges with her, Frank’s inner monologue dwells on things like how she is too well-dressed to be a robber and how there isn’t any point of connection he can draw on because they are of different races. In the meantime, Charlotte slowly lays out the gruesome details of her life in this house. Many years ago, her father killed her mother and brother in the basement and then shot himself. This unearthed trauma is so hard to process that even Frank’s extremely bland support comes across to Charlotte as warmth and human decency. The story ends with him congratulating himself on earning the comment “I like the way you say things, Mr. Bascombe” and on his request for her to call him “Frank.”

In the third novella, “The New Normal,” it is revealed that Frank’s first marriage to a woman named Ann fell apart 30 years earlier, after the death of their young son, Ralph. Now, Ann has used the settlement from another divorce to move to a high-end assisted living facility near Frank’s house. He comes to visit her every month out of a sense of obligation. This time, he is bringing her a present, a “special, yoga-approved, form-fitted, densely foamed and molded orthopedic pillow.” As he lugs the pillow, Frank considers the absurdities of New Age-y phenomena like Feng Shui and the decision to make this senior residence look like a furniture catalog decorated with vagina-like fruit paintings. The conversation between them is wounding, and Ann accuses Frank of not loving her enough. Ann dramatically reveals that she has Parkinson’s disease and that she has been considering elective suicide. Frank’s response is typically distant, pointing out that death is normal: “I think it’s all a matter of space. […] At some point you just need to leave the theater so the next crowd can see the movie.”

“Deaths of Others,” the final story, is about Frank’s reunion with Eddie, a brilliant inventor. Thirty years ago, he and Frank used to commiserate about divorce. Now Eddie is dying of pancreatic cancer and would like to unburden himself of a terrible secret. Eddie had an affair with Ann 30 years prior, and this may have played a part in the dissolution of Frank and Ann’s marriage. Eddie expects Frank to be shocked, but Frank literally couldn’t care less as he simply no longer has the mental space to worry about what happened that long ago. The second part of the story concerns Frank’s encounter with Ezekiel Lewis, an African-American oil truck driver whose father used to work for Frank. In Frank’s mind, Ezekiel is “the best of us” because he and his wife are helping victims of the hurricane. Frank considers what would be different if he could have “one black friend in town,” but he doesn’t, and his conversation with Ezekiel is just standard politeness. Still, when Ezekiel makes an accidental reference to Frank’s long-dead son, Frank feels “saved.”

Richard Ford’s novel was a critical success upon publication. The Washington Post’s Kate Kellaway called it a “pitch-perfect book” while Maureen Corrigan’s NPR review praised Ford, writing that “his poetic awareness, particularly of aging and mortality, is profound and hilarious.”