From Ford to Fraud


From Ford to Fraud

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH, who is a client of Amazon, whets our appetites for books that will soon hit our shelves.


FRANK Bascombe is one of those figures to whom one writer has devoted so much time and so many pages that you think of him as a living being. Richard Ford introduced him as a journalist in The Sportswriter (1986), and now, in the twilight of his life, he is a house whisperer, a sort of handyman who works for estate agents. This is where we find him in Ford's latest novel, Be Mine.

Frank Bascombe

His work is not what motivates Frank in this novel. For those who thought the Bascombe trilogy — The Sportswriter, Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006) — was one of the great literary events of our era, it has gradually become clear that Frank continues to live in Ford's mind and will come to rest fully only after his death. Let Me Be Frank With You (2014) expanded the trilogy to a quartet, and Be Mine has made it a quintet.

Frank is now 74. He is the same man he was as a sports writer. Not an Einstein, but he still sees things more clearly than us ordinary mortals. He is acutely aware of his dwindling years. And of the way thoughts to which he once had full access suddenly float around in the cosmos: “It is not forgotten but paved over, as before. Vanished. But to ponder this further is, I think, like longing for an afterlife only because so much of day-to-day existence can be drastic."

Death does arrive at the end of the novel when it strikes his son, Paul, who has motor neuron disease. Frank takes him on a final journey to Mount Rushmore and a few other places Paul wanted to see.

The story is often sad. Frank is not present at Paul's moment of death and, for peculiar reasons, cannot attend the funeral either. But as always with Ford's work, there is a strong current of humanity in everything Frank does, and a willingness to accept slights from thoughtless bastards. And then there is Ford's humour, his love of irony, and the loaded words at the end of sentences that suddenly render everything profoundly dense.

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The question that bothers me after experiencing the glory of Ford's writing once again is exactly how he will ultimately turn off the tap. After Paul's death, Frank says, “the most important thing about life is that it will end, and that when it does, whether we are alone or not alone, we die in our own particular way. How that way goes is death’s precious mystery, one that may never be fully plumbed. Again, all I feel I know is that when Paul departed his life, I did not depart mine."

Frank is still alive. May Ford find a way for him to express his wandering memories again and for us to be with him when he finally goes. It's a death I don't want to miss.

Be Mine by Richard Ford was published by Ecco and cost $18.09 at Amazon.

Unique dialogue

While we were struggling with Covid lockdowns and stuff, James McBride brought me sunshine and joy with Deacon King Kong. Now, he follows it up with the most delightful story about the collaboration between the poor African-American and Jewish communities in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in different eras.

McBride is a masterful storyteller, but there is another reason I recommend this novel. McBride is almost unique in the way he uses dialogue. Aspiring writers should read this masterclass from him. The rest (the intertwining of stories, the integration of backstories, the manipulation of reading pace) is pure bonus.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride was published by Riverhead Books  and costs $18.84 at Amazon.


I haven't read a young adult novel on my own initiative in years. However one may view the phenomenon, you have to accept that you are too old for it. My problem is that I am terribly curious. When I saw that Whalefall was about someone who, like Jonah in biblical times, gets swallowed by a whale, there was no chance I would ignore Whalefall. How does a writer solve that problem? Finding out was a tremendous pleasure!

It's about scuba diver Jay Gardiner who ends up in the tentacles of a giant cuttlefish then gets swallowed by a sperm whale. With only an hour's oxygen in his tank, he must escape from the whale's belly. I don't need to issue a spoiler alert here. All I'm going to reveal is that I can't remember the last time I read the final chapters of a book with such intensity. The rest is just the impressive muscles of Daniel Kraus's imagination. Wow!

Whalefall by Daniel Kraus was published by MTV Books and cost $25.19 at Amazon.

Change of direction

The Fraud was published in the US earlier this month and will probably arrive here in the next few months. I am a big fan of Smith, and this is her first novel since Swing Time (2016). All the signs were there that Smith was working on something big behind the scenes. She published Feel Free (2018, a collection of reviews and essays), Grand Union (2019, short stories), and Intimations (2020, essays) — the kind of publications a senior writer releases to buy time.

The Fraud seems to be something truly significant in her body of work. It deals with the life struggles of a writer in the 1860s in London. Is this the next big Zadie Smith event, a real shift in her writing? The possibilities are numerous, with 464 pages in the book. I'm just giving you a heads-up. The pleasure is around the corner.

The Fraud by Zadie Smith was published by Penguin Press and costs $26.10 at Amazon.

♦ VWB ♦

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