- Richard Ford and the Course of American Empire
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Does the prospect of love lure a man forward into refuge or is it the inevitable hazard of a lived life? What’s the fair-market worth of the word possibility these days? How tightly is the pursuit of happiness indexed to the commonweal? And how’s that Manifest Destiny notion working out for you, America?
To coax us to consider these questions further, Richard Ford’s new book, Let Me Be Frank With You, is a coda to the Frank Bascombe trilogy that includes The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006). Each book jump cuts forward by roughly a decade, capturing the “normal applauseless life” of a single American man in the run-up to key holidays: Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and now Christmas.
Is Frank really Everyman? More likely, he’s Everyman’s more contemplative neighbor. He’s what Everyman could be if you could get him to step away from his Star Trek reruns and take his boy outside to stare up at the stars. And maybe read a little Ralph Waldo Emerson, some V. S. Naipaul, and use words like tenebrous. But don’t let that scare you off.
Whether you chain-read these books in one fell swoop (I recommend this method) or parse them out over the course of your lifetime (this, too, I recommend), listen for the resonances between them. Take them all in together, like you’d take in big Hudson River School paintings such as Thomas Cole’s Voyage of Life and The Course of Empire, big sweeping landscapes that help you situate yourself in the proper human scale in the middle of The Big Picture. Ford’s got something big to show you about American prospect. Who would have thought that such hazards could manifest over the course of a lifetime and that they sometimes masquerade as refuge? This fourth new book holds some surprises. You may not have seen them coming back in the freewheeling 1980s when you perhaps first read The Sportswriter as a Vintage Contemporary, on the sly in your office cubicle, and it made you feel mysteriously buoyant—the pretty intern! Leaves of Grass! Well played, Frank!—as if the whole world had opened unto you. There’s been a lot of water under everybody’s bridges since then.
In our most recent Frank sighting in The Lay of the Land, he was feeling a vague national threat coming on, waiting for the 2000 election results to be “decided.” He was classifying his neighbors by whether they voted for George W. Bush. He had misgivings about the real-estate racket well before the crash of 2008, even though he had a Tibetan Buddhist real-estate protégé, Lobsang Dhargey, on the [End Page 226] cusp of true American capitalist assimilation: He’s about to make a killing developing Taj Mahal-sized tract mansions to be hawked to “monied subcontinentals with luxury fever.” It was going to be epic: development of the very farmland where the young Bascombe family once purchased pumpkins and mums, in the arcadian time when their son Ralph was still living. During a meeting in which the terse dialogue resembles day traders in a Wall Street pit discussing pork-belly futures, Frank bears witness to new-wave colonization, in Lobsang’s own giddy swoon as he breathes the heady ethers of American prospect:
The thought that this out-of-date farmland, this comely but useless woods, this silted, dry creek could be transformed into a flat-as-a-griddle housing tract, on which behemoth-size dwellings in promiscuous architectural permutations might sprout like a glorious city of yore and that it could all be done to his bidding and profit is almost too much for him.
If you recall, Frank was not entirely at ease with the idea of an America shaped by a world of derivatives and credit-default swaps, even before anyone much knew what they were. Somehow he felt “implicated” in the ominous real-estate bubble he sensed on the economic horizon. Plus, there...