Frank Bascombe is to Richard Ford as Rabbit Angstrom was to John Updike: a character the author checks in on every few years, one whose wary sensibilities keep him attuned to shifts in America’s psychic winds. Let Me Be Frank With You–the title is a groaner, but it suits the man’s existential dilemmas–is the fourth in a series that began in 1986 with The Sportswriter. A quartet of stories set around Christmas 2012 (each Bascombe volume co-opts a holiday), amid the physical and emotional debris of Hurricane Sandy, it’s an estimable book–wise, funny and superbly attentive to the world. If this is the last of Bascombe, it’s an honorable end.
Bascombe is now a retired New Jersey real estate agent, mostly healthy but mindful that at 68 his life is a process of “gradual subtraction,” purging words from his vocabulary, cooling to his two grown children, paring his circle of friends. Each story pivots on an encounter between him and some intruder on his hard-won equanimity, including the guy who bought his (now obliterated) beach house, a courtly black woman who turns up at his door to impart a secret he’d rather not know, and his acidic ex-wife, now struggling with Parkinson’s disease.
When he’s not fending off the world, Bascombe is gingerly calibrating dealings with his wife Sally, a grief counselor ministering to the storm-smacked locals. He thinks a lot about the Shore. That’s the Jersey Shore, always capitalized, but also the mortal one, because he knows that he’s standing not far from its edge and that old age is largely a matter of how you keep your footing there. It’s wonderfully sad and funny to watch him try.
This appears in the November 24, 2014 issue of TIME.
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