After the deluge

Richard Ford resurrects his signature character in the wake of Hurricane Sandy

With "The Lay of the Land" in 2006, Richard Ford led his readers to believe that they'd seen the last of Frank Bascombe, the failed novelist and reasonably successful real estate agent from New Jersey, whose tribulations had begun in "The Sportswriter" and continued in the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Independence Day." But in the wake of his 2012 stand-alone novel "Canada," Ford has resurrected his signature creation for at least one more go-around. Rather than a novel in its own right, "Let Me Be Frank With You" is a collection of four linked novellas, all set in New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, that put Frank on collision courses with people he didn't really expect to see again.

On Friday, Dec. 5, Ford will appear at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park.

Over the phone at the start of a two-month, 15-stop book tour, the author was forthright about why he chose to structure this book as he did.

"I didn't have the licks, the chops, the heft in my novelistic musculature to mount a big novel," he said. "I mean, I could make up some bull---- reason to tell you, but the truth is that I was affected strongly by Hurricane Sandy. I was riding back from the Jersey Shore with my wife and I started generating these lines in my brain, which is sort of how things come to me. I was just finished writing 'Canada' and I thought, 'Oh my God. I just don't have it in me to write another long novel.'"

He did, however, think he could cover the same ground in a more convenient way by writing novellas. "To make the stories separate, rather than trying to invent some architecture to encapsulate them all, was very appealing to me," Ford said.

It also made sense to bring back his best-known character as the new volume's protagonist. During signings, Ford had met an unusual number of readers who said to him, "Won't you please write one more book about Frank Bascombe?"

"That's not a real reason to write a book: because somebody asks you to," he said. "But it was not immaterial to my feeling that there would be a readership for the book."

The previous Bascombe books were each set around a holiday (Easter, July Fourth and Thanksgiving), and "Let Me Be Frank With You" continues the tradition. The first novella, "I'm Here," opens a few days before Christmas 2012. Although Frank's home in the fictional suburb of Haddam, New Jersey remains unscathed by Sandy, many of his neighbors have been left with nothing more than empty lots on which they must still pay property taxes. Each of the following novellas brings Frank closer to the reluctant contemplation of his own mortality. "Everything Could Be Worse" finds him visited by one of his home's former residents, who reveals to him the property's unsuspected history of violence. In "The New Normal," Frank runs an errand for Ann, the ex-wife with whom he has established a kind of bristly detente and who is now being treated for Parkinson's disease. The final novella, "Deaths of Others," puts Frank face-to-face with a dying acquaintance who now wants to impart one bit of unwelcome news before it's too late.

In synopsis, the novellas in this collection might sound dour and depressing, but they play out as anything but. Ford is able to construct extended scenes that address the big issues family, marriage, money, race, death in ways both hilarious and heartbreaking. A Mississippian now residing in coastal Maine, Ford still has a magpie's eye for the shiny, telling details about New Jersey.

"New Jersey is a place I have a real affinity for," he said. "Even though I don't live there, I still sort of spend a lot of my (mental) time every day there. There's certain ways I take an assay of the human condition that really require me to be writing about New Jersey."

Although "Let Me Be Frank with You" contains call-backs to the previous volumes in the sequence, readers new to Ford's fiction will have no trouble slipping into its assured rhythms. The first-person, present-tense narration rife with acerbic asides, literary name-dropping and bittersweet observations about time and its passing instantly grabs hold of the attention and imagination.

Ford said that he had assumed this new collection would be Frank's swan song, but a conversation with a reader in Washington, D.C. opened another possibility.

Ford recounted, "[The reader said to me, 'What you need to do, Ford, is to get Frank close to death.' I said, 'It's a first-person narration. How do I do that? I can't have him die and have it be Sunset Boulevard.' He said, 'You need to write the last Frank Bascombe story and set it at Valentine's Day.' And I thought, 'Well, goddamn, that's not a half-bad idea.'"

Whether or not that idea comes to fruition, in the meantime, "Let Me Be Frank with You" delivers what it promises: a quartet of fresh, though brief, glimpses of a beloved character. There are no outsized revelations, only small, smart realizations of the pain, absurdity and tenderness of contemporary life in the U.S., after the tide has come crashing in.

Freelance writer Michael Berry can be emailed at mikeberry@mindspring.com.

What: Author Richard Ford in conversation with Rachel Smith

Where: Kepler's Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

When: Friday, Dec. 5, at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to keplers.com/event/richard-ford or call 650-324-4321.

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