March 22, 2017

Riding Coach From Princeton to Great Falls With Richard Ford

One of the most intense reading experiences of my life happened when I worked as a freelance proofreader for Knopf and was Fed-Exed the galleys for Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994) on Friday with the task of getting the proofed work back no later than Monday. I was looking at well over 400 pages of narrative that included a fair amount of Spanish, a language of which I knew little beyond adios. By Sunday I was glassy-eyed, dazzled, mesmerized, and so swept up in the power of the thing that all I could talk about when I came up for air was The Crossing. 

Now it’s happening again with Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada, for which I have no deadline and no reason to be reading beyond making a reasonably informed comparison with the most recent volume in Ford’s acclaimed Frank Bascombe series, Let Me Be Frank With You (Ecco 2014), a grouping of four long stories, three of which are set in the Princeton-haunted fictive town of Haddam, N.J. I picked up a copy of Canada at the library late Saturday afternoon and have been devoted to it ever since. It’s 412 pages long and I’m only halfway through. As with The Crossing, this is one of those rare reading experiences where a page-turner and a work of literature become one and the same. My mission here, however, is to preview Ford’s appearance at Friday’s spring benefit for People & Stories/Gente et Cuentos by writing about the Bascombe book, which is a relatively (if deceptively) easier ride at 238 amply spaced pages.

Given the upcoming local event, I’m focusing on Let Me Be Frank With You with attention to the Princeton connection. In any case, there’s no way I could do justice to what Ford has accomplished in Canada. The phrase pitch-perfect has been used and abused to the point where it may soon earn a place in Frank Bascombe’s “personal inventory” of the words that “should no longer be usable” according to his belief that “life’s a matter of gradual subtraction.” Assuming pitch-perfect still has sufficient voltage, it’s a quick and easy (Frank might say default) way to suggest the sense of Ford’s total command of prose and plot in Canada.

Townies

Richard Ford and his wife Kristina lived in Princeton from the autumn of 1976 into the early 1980s, first in an apartment on Linden Lane, then in a house they bought on Jefferson Road, just around the corner from the library. “We were townies, not university mice,” Ford said in an email regarding his November 2007 appearance at the Friends of the Library’s annual fundraiser. “Ties to PU didn’t come along until some time later….Looked at from this remove of time, being a townie was probably what saved me, and made me able to imagine the three books I set in what might be seen as a made-up place that occasionally resembles Princeton.”

Although Let Me Be Frank contains references to reading the Packet and driving “down to the Choir College” before taking a turn toward “Hodge Road” and “the well-heeled west side of town,” Ford’s post-Hurricane-Sandy Haddam makes an awkward fit with politically progressive 21st-century Princeton, especially when he refers to “a surprisingly large segment of our Haddam population (traditionally Republican; recently asininely Tea Party)” hewing to the belief that President Obama “either personally caused Hurricane Sandy, or at the very least piloted it … to target the Jersey Shore.”

Perhaps the clearest intimation of Princeton-
in-Haddam is a reference to the “still-holding-on black trace … beyond the Boro cemetery” where “tidy frame homes have been re-colonized by Nicaraguans and Hondurans” while becoming “available to a new wave of white young-marrieds who … pride themselves on living in a ‘heritage’ neighborhood.”

An Instrument and a Vessel

When asked in a 2014 New Yorker interview what made him take on Frank Bascombe again after previously indicating that The Lay of the Land would be the last book in the series, Ford mentions seeing first-hand the devastation Hurricane Sandy inflicted on that novel’s Jersey Shore setting, the impact of which sent Frank Bascombe sentences “skirling” in his head. At the same time, Ford emphatically denies the interviewer’s casual assumption that Frank is a living person: “He’s an instrument and a vessel, made of language, which I fill up with all sorts of things that are running through my mind.”

Of all the quirky, earthy, piquant, jargon-jaunty, casually figurative, seemingly spontaneously inventive examples of Bascombe’s personal style I could cite, one of my favorites echoes a word Ford stresses in the New Yorker interview, first when he quotes Thoreau to the effect “that a writer is someone with nothing to do who finds something to do” and again in paraphrasing Neruda’s “something kicked in my soul” as “something kicking somewhere that becomes a call to language.” The Bascombe sentence I’m thinking of occurs in the third story, “The New Normal,” in reference to his first wife’s father, “a feeder-industry magnate for the automotive monolith (he produced a thing that made a metal thing that caused a smaller third thing not to get too hot, and work better; those were days when people still made things and used machines, instead of the opposite).”

As you can see from that parenthetical cadenza, Ford does a lot with a little (subtraction in action) in expressing Frank’s who-cares repetition of the t-word rather than search out and specify the appropriate terminology. Besides being built to survive a variety of uses throughout the novel, thing is a wild card Frank plays at key moments, as when he poses his concept of “The Default Self” against all his first wife’s “true-thing issues.” The word surfaces again after a dying man who has just confessed having sex with Frank’s first wife asks him “Tell me what you think of me,” to which Frank responds with “the truest thing” that he can say (“It doesn’t change anything”) while thinking: “But is this all that life comes down to when you take away damn near everything? What do you think of me?”

That Title

The previous Bascombe books have solid useful publisher’s-seal-of-approval titles like The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land while Let Me Be Frank With You is from left field, a gamble, a shot in the dark, off the wall, out there. Dismissed by The Guardian as “the only false note in this pitch-perfect book [there it goes again, as Reagan once said]… Frank Bascombe would not, in the old days, have stooped to the pun.”  Maybe not, but in its own strange way the title works. For one thing, it instantly puts you on a first-name basis with the narrator, and yes, Frank is nothing if not frank, and the “With You” gathers you into his story as surely as if you were sharing a seat in coach on a train ride from, say, Montreal to Vancouver.

Many Voices In One

There are times when in spite of being Ford’s “vessel,” Frank seems to take over. In Canada, which also has a first-person narration, the author is, as I suggested, in total, beautiful control. The fun of riding along with Frank (say you’re in the club car now and you’ve had a few) is you’re never sure what he’s going to say next, or how he’s going to put it. As the darkened landscape goes by outside the train window, he may begin to make you uneasy because his fatalistic, not so benign, subtraction-is-everything view of humanity clashes with your own outlook. At times he sounds downright callous, in-your-face, and you find yourself thinking, “Do I really want to have this conversation?”

What makes you stay with Frank is the protean nature of his deceptively down-to-earth persona; he reminds you of Keats’s definition of the “chameleon poet” as “the most unpoetic thing in existence.” In other words, he’s all over the place, reflecting a world of tones, modes, and genres (the ex-realtor who was once a published writer and has done some teaching). He’s picked up some tropes from media (think talk radio, The Sopranos, film noir) and sports (he was also a sportswriter) and pop-tech culture with an ear for the slang of sales talk and tech cliche right down to humming for your amusement the ringtone he heard being played on a dying man’s smart phone. He can be tender, usually when talking about his wife Sally, and sympathetic to a lesser, more knowing degree on the subject of his first wife Ann, who has Parkinson’s. You may detect a slightly racist undercurrent when he describes the African American woman who shows up at his home on Wilson Lane (she grew up there and has a terrible story to tell), and his way of picturing people, regardless of race or gender, sometimes reminds you of a Flannery O’Connor story or of a Raymond Chandler private eye as in his death-bed vista of “odious sick-room implements” that are needed “in order to die better” and include “no resuscitative trappings … no digital gauges to tick off the heart’s gradual sink-sink-sink to sayonara” —a hard-boiled beauty Chandler himself might have admired.

There’s also a touch of Chandler in his account of a meeting with the man he sold his doomed Sea Clift home, as when he thinks, “Possibly he’s packing a PPK and will simply shoot me for once selling him a house that’s now worth chicken feed. I’ve let myself in for this. Men are a strange breed.” Then, when you think you’ve figured him out, he begins to sound like Holden Caulfield when describing the goodbye hug he endures (“my mouth muffled against his goddam mobster coat”).

The Right Word

Imagine, the train arrives at Vancouver and your ole pal Frank hands you a novel he wrote, called Canada. Talk about surprises. You sit down in the waiting room and start reading. You forget where you were going. It seems the train back east leaves in four hours. You know you’re reading a master when you finally get to the last words of the scene that he’s spent 160 pages setting you up for. Talk about subtraction. He’s taken language down to its essence, one simple sentence: “Then that part of this was at an end.”

Not for me. I’m in this one for the long haul. The Crossing took me to darkest Mexico. I’m almost halfway through Canada and  I’m still in Great Falls, Montana.

Richard Ford will be reading from his work at the People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos annual spring benefit at the Princeton Nassau Club at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, March 24. For reservations, contact Pat Andres at (609) 882-4864 or patandres@peopleandstories.org. Ticket prices start at $100, with dessert reception included. Sponsors join the author for dinner before the reading for $250. Additional sponsorship opportunities and benefits are also available. For more information, visit peopleandstories.org.