Be Mine 
by Richard Ford.
Bloomsbury, 342 pp., £18.99, June, 978 1 5266 6176 0
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Richard Ford​ is sceptical about character. He thinks it changeable, provisional, unpredictable, irresolute and ‘decidedly unwhole’, which makes things tricky for a novelist. You send a man to see his girlfriend in the expectation that she’ll dump him and she tells him how sweet he is. You don’t know where you are with people. They don’t know where they are themselves. You give voice to your narrator over five decades and more than 2100 pages, as Ford has with Frank Bascombe in The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), The Lay of the Land (2006), Let Me Be Frank with You (2014) and now Be Mine, and still find him incalculable.

Bascombe himself is scathing about knowability: ‘Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else – nothing hard or kernel-like.’ Instead of a stable narratable self, the best Bascombe can manage is a sort of default one, adopted to reassure others. Given his disjunctions, reassurance isn’t easily provided. He’s earnest but doesn’t take himself seriously; hard-working but prone to dreaminess; ‘unadventuresome’ but resourceful; socially engaged and a good listener (large parts of the Bascombe quintet are comprised of his conversations with others, many of them strangers) yet regarded as a ‘chronic loner’. He has no ambition to ‘blaze my initials forever into history’s oak’ but would like to be remembered as a certain sort of guy and not, as he fears, a mysterious blank. In Updike’s Rabbit quartet, Harry Angstrom comes screaming unmistakeably off the page, whereas Bascombe, however engaging, doesn’t add up.

It’s in the hope that he might ‘come away with a reflected and clearer sense of “what kind of person I was” as my narrative neared its finish line’ that, at the start of Be Mine, Bascombe reluctantly attends a reunion with the class of ’63, Marines he’d served with in the Gulf Pines Military Academy (the ones who didn’t get killed in Vietnam). Revelation doesn’t arrive; character stays hidden behind the arras. But the reunion leaves him wondering what he might do, late in life, to achieve a sense of purpose and fulfilment: ‘To be happy – before the grey curtain comes down. Or at least to consider why you’re not, if you’re not.’

All of the Bascombe books take place over a few days before a national holiday: respectively, Easter, 4 July, Thanksgiving, Christmas and, in Be Mine, Valentine’s Day. It’s a way for Ford to explore the shifting nature of the US and, though he’d dislike the grandiosity of the project being called a ‘state-of-the-nation’ effort, his documentation is exhaustive: billboards, slang, slogans, traffic, junk food, drink cans, hospitals, hotels, clothes, hairstyles, political schisms. Haddam, New Jersey is Bascombe’s longtime home, but he travels widely. Many roads are taken and notated: ‘I’ve gotten us off at exit 78 and onto SD 44’; ‘I take the scenic drive up 35 [then] switch to NJ 34’; ‘I’m speeding again, off the bridge and onto Route 35, Ocean Avenue.’ If someone hasn’t yet produced a Bascombe road map, for display on a T-shirt or tea towel, it’s time they did.

The road trip in the new book is from Rochester, Minnesota to Mount Rushmore, ‘most notional of national monuments, and thus most American’. Bascombe’s Valentine companion isn’t a sweetheart but his 47-year-old son, Paul, who has been diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Paul is undergoing treatment, but the outlook isn’t good; he’s already having trouble walking. He has always been an ‘outlier’ and a ‘man apart’, a ‘warty-fingered’ ‘klutzburger’ traumatised by seeing the family basset hound run over when he was six, and bemused at being Frank’s only son after his older brother died of Reye’s syndrome at the age of nine. He also has an eye defect fr0m an accident that took place, in a baseball cage, on a previous road trip with his father as a teenager (a stupendous scene in Independence Day). The two of them had been having a row just before Paul was hit, and Frank’s inadequacies as a parent still bother him: he has an ‘undeniable sensation of negligence’ and a ‘fear that I have never afforded [Paul] his adult due, have placated him, underrated him, sometimes forgotten him, as if he was not always plausible to me’. It didn’t help that Paul spent years ‘writing dopey greeting cards at Hallmark’.

Frank’s move to be with Paul during his treatment at the Mayo Clinic is evidence of his potential for caregiving, as is his worry that Paul is merely being ‘studied, like a gerbil’. But it’s questionable how well he’ll perform when the two of them are stuck together for three days in the lumbering RV they’ve rented from an outfit called A Fool’s Paradise. The trip gets off to an awkward start at the Mayo (‘a glistening, many-building’d, many-tiered, many-lobed, swarming colossus’) when Frank whisks Paul away from a festivity at which he’s due to be presented with a token of appreciation for ‘being an awesome colleague in the trial’ (‘We just want to celebrate you. OK, Paul?’). Saved from bullshit and humiliation, Paul doesn’t mind being removed but it’s Frank who takes the lead and about-turns the wheelchair. He thinks there’s nothing to celebrate about being terminally ill. And he hates that word ‘awesome’, which joins a list of no-nos he’s previously compiled, including ‘poop’, ‘friggin’, ‘insanely’ (as in ‘I’m insanely hungry’), hydrate’ (‘when it just means “drink”’), ‘no problem’ and ‘reach out’.

There’s a further distraction when father and son finally hit the road – more than halfway through the novel – and that’s the Valentine’s Day card Frank has bought for his masseuse, Betty Tran (‘Diminutive, smiling, cheerful, with bobbed hair and darkly alert eyes’). He would have delivered it the previous night if he hadn’t spotted her bidding a super-friendly doorstep farewell to another client. He knows that what he has with Betty is supposed to be professional rather than romantic (‘I am not that big a doozie’), but he can’t help fantasising. With two marriages behind him (Ann, mother of his children, is now dead; Sally has gone off to be some kind of nun), he misses sexual intimacy and still hankers for his one-time lover Catherine, with whom he flirts on the phone. Besides, he can be forgiven for thinking that Betty’s administrations breach the norms of her trade: she sometimes undresses for their sessions, and ‘her agile, soft, assertive fingers will venture, I’m sure unintentionally, into my conducive zone.’

The sexually acquisitive impulse is no quieter in Frank at 74 than it was in his twenties. But Ford isn’t Roth or Updike. A curtain is always drawn; rather than cum there’s decorum (‘my conducive zone’). The risk with Frank’s propositioning, of Catherine as well as Betty, is that it makes him look desperate and silly, but there’s no overheated phallocentric prose. Age is catching up with him. A previous novel disclosed his prostate issues; here there’s vertigo, brain fades, snafus, a mini-stroke and nominal aphasia, plus aches and pains to be relieved with shots of Stolichnaya (‘being old really is like having a fatal disease’). Frank will survive but his failing health adds to the kinship with Paul. Fittingly, the only Valentine’s Day card he receives is from his son.

One reason for the road trip is that Paul has always fancied a ‘Flying Dutchman Tour’ to towns with hilarious names: Whynot (Mississippi), Stinking Springs (New Mexico), Cheat Falls (West Virginia), Cape Flattery (Washington), Sopchoppy (Florida), Horseheads (New York), Carefree (Arizona) and so on. The route to Mount Rushmore is less comical and leaves no time to see Elvis’s motorcycle, the Minute Man Missile Museum or the Crow Creek Hunkpati Oyate Indian Reservation. But it does include a stop-off at the World’s Only Corn Palace, which Frank visited as a child with his parents and of which he has fond memories: ‘Here, with materials found right under their feet (corn), hapless clodhoppers had built a Taj Mahal better (they thought) than the real thing.’ It’s the kind of touristic madhouse that Ford thrives on describing and, despite Frank’s worries, Paul is thrilled to be there, so much so that he’d like to move in and raid the Palace Corn Boutique, with its wacky monothematic goods: ‘Plastic corncob key chains, plastic corn doorstops, corn picture frames, corn fly-swatters, corn backscratchers. Plastic corn church keys, corn sunglasses, corn toilet paper, corn billfolds, corn cowboy hats, ballpoints and toothbrushes.’

If the trip ended there, it would be a high point. But there are miles to go and disruptions to come, whether worried phone calls from Frank’s Republican-voting daughter, Clarissa, who looked after him during his prostate treatment but on whom he has since cooled (‘I don’t much like her, if truth were told’), or Paul’s musings about what it means to be terminally ill. ‘Do you think I got sick because I’m weird?’ he wonders. Frank tells him no but Ford doesn’t spare us the weirdness, which includes Paul’s inept ventriloquising with a puppet called Otto. Grief looms but comic banter keeps it at bay. ‘Maybe I’m dead,’ Paul says, after a discombobulating dream. ‘Am I?’ To which Frank replies: ‘Not that I can tell.’ Or again: ‘Do you think about dying all the time because of me?’ Paul asks. No, Frank tells him, ‘I think about dying all the time because of me.’ Even when the banter sounds hostile, it’s bonding.

There’s a sense that nothing much happens in Bascombe novels, which compress themselves into days and spare us assassinations and car chases. The suburban ordinariness of Haddam – ‘a first-class place for invisibility’ – must be respected. But presidents, good and bad, come and go. Marriages, good and bad, begin and end. And there are suicides, murders, armed robberies, fist fights, bomb explosions and protests, all in some way touching Frank. He’s no criminal, but he does run into the police a good deal, whether as suspect or witness. And it’s apt that he should be questioned, since so little escapes him. He keeps his eyes open, as novelists should.

After publishing a short-story collection in his twenties, Frank did try to write novels before becoming a sports reporter and then finding his métier in property. ‘Realtors share a basic industry with novelists,’ he says. ‘I think of real estate as related to Keatsian negative capability, with the outcome being not poetry but generalised social good with a profit motive.’ It’s not the most obvious of career trajectories but failed novelists have to do something (‘Some people only have one book in them. There are worse things’), and a waitress Frank takes a shine to finds it ‘odd but completely understandable’ that a man with his literary background should ‘be happy selling houses in New Jersey’. The reader similarly suspends disbelief. Frank is deeply knowledgeable about houses and all that’s involved in selling them, from ‘surveying property lines, memorising setback restrictions, stepping off footprint limits and counting curb-cuts’ to the job of finding a suitable property for a buyer, ‘the one gnostic truth’ being that ‘people never find or buy the house they say they want.’ It must have helped Ford that his wife, Kristina, to whom all his novels are dedicated, has had a long career as a city planner. But his realtor knowledge doesn’t feel worked up or second-hand. For Frank, topography is measured by property – the housing that dominates the lay of the land.

Number 24, where lights are on inside, is built in the solid, monied, happy family-home-as-refuge style, houses Haddam boasts in fulsome supply, owing to its staunch Dutch-Quaker beginnings and to a brief 19th-century craving for ornamental English-German prettiness. Vernacular, this is sometimes called – neat, symmetrical, grey-stucco, red-doored Georgians with slate roofs, four shuttered front windows upstairs and down, a small but fancy wedding-cake entry, curved fanlight with formal sidelights, dentil trim and squared-off (expensive) privet hedges bolstering the front. Intimations of heterodoxy, but nothing truly eye-catching.

However grand or modest the house (and many more are given an estate agent’s appraisal), Frank’s eye never fails to be caught. The distinction of the Bascombe novels is how much they take in, their ‘cartographer’s view of the places we abide’. Frank might be more low-key than other sequential protagonists in modern American fiction – Nathan Zuckerman, Harry Angstrom, Olive Kitteridge, Lucy Barton – and at the end of Be Mine he’s still claiming to be in limbo as a character: ‘I do not believe I have an essential self.’ But he understands what he sees, and his cartographic analysis (and, despite himself, his self-analysis) is incisive.

In Be Mine, Frank has backed away from real estate, leaving his Tibetan associate, Mike, to run the business. Mike has absorbed the lessons of the trade, among them the ‘feathery lie of Western philosophy’ that people have freedom of choice: ‘Selling houses lets you know it. There, humans regularly choose then unchoose, choose then regret choosing, choose then rechoose, resist choosing, then choose wrong and learn to like it.’ Frank has made some bad choices in life (‘I can always do wrong, and frequently do’), but the years have made him contemplative and less likely to screw up. Books add to his stock of wisdom, with ‘the old Nazi’ Heidegger a current obsession and many lines from poems remembered even if (‘as the poet said’) the author isn’t named.

Failed novelist though he is, Frank has strong opinions on the way fiction ought to behave. ‘I do not credit the epiphanic, the seeing-through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering detail,’ he says. ‘These are lies of the liberal arts to distract us from the more precious here and now.’ What offends him is the idea of the blinding yet illuminating flash; in reality, ‘making sense is everlastingly a process of jiggering and re-jiggering and re-re-re-jiggering.’ He also finds it a ‘pernicious lie’ (as a truth-teller he’s very conscious of lies) that at intense moments people are ‘altogether in an emotion’ and not able to see beyond it, rather than, as he does, feeling ‘at least a hundred things at once’. As for fictional back story, it wearies him. The past is random, ‘uncompassed’ and often best forgotten: ‘My own history I think of as a postcard with changing scenes on one side but no particular or memorable messages on the back.’

Despite his protestations, the past doesn’t leave him; for a parent, it can’t. His mission in Be Mine ends at the four-headed symbol of American democracy, Mount Rushmore, which won’t cure Paul but has him ‘smiling beatifically’: ‘It’s completely pointless and ridiculous, and it’s great.’ No less important, the trip is vital to Frank’s own sense of worth. Happiness has always eluded him but now he has found it, by doing something good for once, as a caregiver. Or, as he prefers to put it, in characteristically downbeat fashion: ‘I am happy to have done one seemingly right thing for one seemingly not wrong reason.’

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