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Frankly, Bascombe's Return Has Some Problems

"Most things that don't kill us right off, kill us later." Welcome back, Frank Bascombe, failed novelist turned real estate agent turned retiree, and Richard Ford's most famous character. Through three previous novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day and The Lay of the Land), readers have seen Frank lose a child, deal with divorce, and even get shot. Frank is cynical. You would be, too.

Anyway, he's back. In Let Me Be Frank with You, a collection of four long stories, the irascible Bascombe is 68, retired and living in Haddam, N.J., dealing with prostate problems and trying to avoid his neighbors. The stories take place in the weeks just before Christmas, and just over a month after Hurricane Sandy battered the Jersey shore.

The first story, "I'm Here," follows Frank to what's left of his old beach house, now owned by a semi-friendly acquaintance of his. Later, in "Everything Could Be Worse," by far the book's best section, Frank is visited at his home in Haddam by a black woman who used to live there.

The encounter isn't a disaster, but it's more than a little awkward, as Frank recounts: "Almost all conversations between myself and African Americans devolve into this phony, race-neutral natter about making the world a better place, which we assume we're doing just by being alive."

"The New Normal" takes Frank to an affluent nursing home, where he visits his ex-wife, recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. The book ends with "Deaths of Others," in which Frank visits an ex-friend who's possibly just hours away from passing on. There is, of course, nothing even slightly joyful about it, but it's somehow one of the most darkly funny things Ford has written.

Frank Bascombe is a singular character: smart but impatient, liberal but politically incorrect, kind, occasionally, but brusque. You can't call him likable, but of course it doesn't matter. Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman and John Updike's "Rabbit" Angstrom are even more off-putting, but they've still starred in some of the best American novels of the 20th century — and there are many who would include the first two Frank Bascombe books in that category.

What's maddening about Frank Bascombe, though, is the same thing that's maddening about Richard Ford. You want to root for them, but they make it as hard as humanly possible. Frank thinks of himself as more tolerant and open-minded than he really is, at one point recalling a presidential debate with the inexcusably racist line "Obama was getting his little black booty spanked by Romney about fiscal stewardship."

For Frank, who at least pays lip service to racial equality, that last sentence is wildly out of character, particularly after his ham-handed attempt at kindness to his African American visitor. It makes the reader wonder what, if anything, Ford is going for here.

Ford, on the other hand, seems to want to be hardboiled — they don't call his genre "dirty realism" for nothing — but can't resist cutesy turns of phrase like "My stomach, however, has begun skirling around and ker-clunking." And then there's the title. There's no accounting for taste, of course, but Let Me Be Frank with You comes off like a bad joke, more suitable for an album by a third-rate lounge act covering Sinatra songs.

That's not to say Ford isn't a great writer. There's so much reluctantly proffered wisdom in this book, like Frank noting, sagely, "Our sympathies are most required when they seem least due." And this, another beautiful observation on our duties as human beings: "Love isn't a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts."

We don't learn much new about Frank Bascombe in this new book, even as he ponders his own mortality, with dying friends, an ailing wife, and a state beaten up badly by a superstorm. He's the same guy he always was. But maybe that's the point — obvious epiphanies are the stuff of heavy-handed fiction, and that's not what Ford writes.

There are some startling observations here, some hidden under Frank's bravado: "There's something to be said for a good no-nonsense hurricane, to bully life back into perspective. It's always worthy of our notice when we don't feel precisely the way we thought we would."

As for Ford, we don't learn much new about him, either, but there's never been any real physical space between his cards and his vest. Some of Let Me Be Frank with You seems phoned in, to be sure, but none of it seems untruthful. The thing about going through the motions is sometimes the motions are really beautiful.

Let Me Be Frank with You isn't perfect, but it's not unworthy of its three remarkable predecessors, which together form one of the toughest acts to follow in contemporary American literature. It is, by turns, smart, annoying, funny, obnoxious and honest. In other words, it's a Richard Ford book.

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Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.