LET ME BE FRANK WITH YOU, by Richard Ford. Ecco, 240 pp., $27.99.
Frank Bascombe is back. The failed novelist, onetime sportswriter and real estate agent has been spotted again in his fictional New Jersey town of Haddam.
He's as ruminative as ever, continually brooding over past and present; as ironic as ever, flippantly naming his retirement status "The Next Level," the way sportscasters refer to professional careers that await outstanding collegiate athletes. And this Mississippi-born gentleman also remains as charming and gracious as ever, at least on the surface.
In a much-lauded trilogy of novels -- "The Sportswriter," "Independence Day" and "The Lay of the Land" -- Richard Ford has fashioned his protagonist into a shrewd observer of the American scene from the '80s into the early 21st century. Though often compared to Updike's Rabbit, Frank is far more discerning and sophisticated. He analyzes the landscape, while Rabbit melts into it. He comprehends what only mystifies Rabbit.
Never mind the wink-wink title of Ford's new book, "Let Me Be Frank With You" -- it's a substantial work of fiction. The four interrelated novellas depict Frank grappling with various aspects of his past, from his ex-wife to long-lost acquaintances to our country's tortured race relations. Now 68, unsettled by prostate problems and occasional vertigo, he's also peering into a future whose only certainty is death.
Frank's connections to people barely range beyond the skin-deep. Yet some inner force -- call it character -- propels him into accepting invitations he'd rather reject. So he visits his Parkinson's- ridden ex-wife in a high-end nursing home; a man to whom he sold his seaside house (recently destroyed by superstorm Sandy); and a curmudgeon Frank met in a divorced men's group who has summoned him to his deathbed. In each encounter, the chances of metaphorical vertigo are high.
Ford lets Frank tell these stories in his own meandering way. Since Frank can be as much given to internal musings as to descriptions of suburban sprawl -- he's laconic in speech, garrulous in thought -- the narrative moves in a leisurely stop-and-go pace. In some cases, tightening the plot would have made for a better story.
Ford tends to avoid dramatic endings that jolt into sharp relief everything that came before. The sole exception, in the story titled "Everything Could Be Worse," opens with an African-American stranger on Frank's doorstep. Frank invites her in, and the well-dressed, middle-aged Charlotte Pines, who once lived in this house, tells her story. It begins in triumph and ends in tragedy. I'd rate Ford's story a triumph, the best in this sharp-eyed collection.
Frank's psychotherapist wife, Sally, makes only a brief, if trenchant, appearance in this book. Let's hope we haven't heard the last of either of them.