IT’S December 2012, and on the New Jersey shore they’re still cleaning up six weeks after Hurricane Sandy.
Let Me Be Frank With You
The chat on the radio talk shows is about how there’s something new in the ether, what with so much of the ocean having been lifted up, and some of the Tea Party nutters are trying to blame Obama for the way Sandy targeted so many of those big Republican beachfront properties, like the one Frank Bascombe sold to Arnie Urquhart eight years ago, even though both of them actually voted Democrat.
You’ll remember Frank Bascombe from Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter (1986), and if you haven’t read that, or Independence Day (1995) or The Lay Of The Land (2006), then one of the greatest trilogies by a living writer is still waiting for you and I envy you enormously.
Let me be frank with you, though. Ford’s new book has such a dire title – cheesy, superficial, trite, boastful: everything that retired New Jersey estate agent Frank Bascombe isn’t – that you’re going to start out thinking that someone’s lost the plot here and there’s no way on earth such adulation is justified.
Fear not. The only tapering off in this deft collection of four interlinked stories is in Frank’s health, and that of his first wife Ann and their coevals, and emphatically not in Ford’s writing, which is as sinewy and sinuous, as bleak and blackly comic as ever. Here, for example, he is describing Ann’s few years of well-heeled bliss with her most recent husband:
“…after four years of landing on glaciers in minuscule airplanes, walking the Via Dolorosa barefoot, two trips to the Masters, back-country trips to the Maghreb, plus any number of books-on-tape, videos of Harvard lectures on neuroplasticity, trips to Chautauqua to hear washed-up writers squawk about ‘what it’s like to be them’, plus four visits to the Mayo – following all of that, Teddy simply died one morning while sitting, an oversized baby, in the Atlantic surf wearing pink bathing trunks.”
Frank can’t do anything to help the hurricane victims – he retired from the property business years ago – yet when people like Arnie ask to see him at the ruins of the house they both once lived in, he turns up. This wrecked patch of the planet made him rich: he feels he should.
Ford’s writing has always had an emotional precision to match his superbly detailed observation. Whether Bascombe is looking at hurricane damage, visiting Ann – whose slowly circling chin is the first sign of Parkinson’s – in her feng-shuied apartment at a state-of-the-art staged care community, or writing about the sliding property market in Haddam, Ford’s descriptive powers fix whatever he sees firmly in the reader’s imagination.
Those three once-a-decade novels have already fleshed out the astringent way in which Bascombe thinks and feels. None of that is dissipated here. Just because he occasionally reads for the blind doesn’t automatically mean he’s a newly-minted Mr Nice: he chooses to read them Naipaul because “he’s as adept as they get at throwing the gauntlet down and calling bullshit on the world”. Just because he turns up every month to greet returning soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq doesn’t mean he’s a wide-eyed patriot: instead, the column he writes for We Salute You magazine is a sassy takedown of what we would call the bleeding obvious about the civilian world. Just because a dying friend (a member of the Divorced Men’s Club from Independence Day) asks to see him, does he go like a shot? Not at all: instead, he’s thinking that maybe he ought to start trimming the number of people he cares about before nature does it for him.
So that’s Frank: unfooled, self-absorbed, the kind of man who knows his Emerson (“an infinite remoteness underlies us all”) and sees it clearer than ever as life ebbs and the great American Dream ebbs with it. As an estate agent, he’s always known how houses define what we want our lives to be, and now those houses are swept away by the wind or left to rot by recession, just as our bodies are being compromised by age and infirmity.
For all that, this is anything but a depressing book. Frank might be facing painful subluxation in his C3 and C4, but his mind is sharp, and he looks at life with the keenest eye, self-aware, quirkily funny. He still thinks of his son’s death 30-odd years later, still feels some link with Ann, despite everything. They’ll be buried, it turns out, in the same cemetery. And this brilliant book makes them so real that you feel as though, when that happens, you ought to go to the funeral.
Bantam Press, £25
IF YOU stick Julia Gillard’s name into Google, the first autocomplete option that appears is “misogyny speech”. In 2012, the then Australian prime minister — the first woman to hold the role — was accused of sexism by opposition leader Tony Abbott. She responded with a catalogue of Abbott’s own sins: “I will not be lectured about misogyny by this man.”
Her cri de coeur has been watched 2.6 million times on YouTube. It has its own Wikipedia entry. And in her new autobiography, the photo caption simply states “that speech”.
The only surprise is that it took so long for Gillard to have her J’accuse moment. Sexism had long been a theme of Abbott’s policy critiques. “Are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, no doesn’t mean no?” he said, echoing decades of rape-denying rhetoric. “Even if you are the single most powerful person in your country, if you are a woman, the images that are shadowed around you are of sex and rape,” Gillard notes.
The best parts of the book are on gender. In fact, they should be required reading for anyone who says feminism’s work is done. Her appearance is perpetually scrutinised. Visiting Japan after the tsunami, she was photographed in Minamisanriku, a ghost town where a boat sits on top of a building. A comment in the press the next day ran: “[Gillard] desperately needs a makeover. It wasn’t the carnage behind that gave me the horrors, but the woman standing in front of it.”
She is chided as “deliberately barren” but faces a dilemma familiar to women politicians: “If you do not have children then you are characterised as out of touch with ‘mainstream lives’. If you do have children, then, heavens, who is looking after them?” Gillard, “a childless, atheist woman living in a de facto relationship”, always seemed an unlikely candidate for the top job in Australian politics. But the book doesn’t do enough to flesh out who she really is beyond a potted biography.
For a non-Australian audience, this is a book to skim rather than scrutinise. But there are interesting reflections and amusing anecdotes too: on the perils of minority government, the treatment of indigenous Australians and how schools probably picked out their red-headed pupils to greet the country’s most famous “ranga” (Aussie slang, derived from orangutan).
Gillard is either a naturally engaging writer or blessed with a good editor – intense media commentary she faces is “like when a chicken in the coop gets pecked so hard she bleeds and then all the others turn to peck her to death”. Is there enough here to sustain anyone but the Aussies? Not quite. But I hope Gillard is contemplating book number two: a version of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In for women in politics.
A Gift From Bob
Hodder & Stoughton, £12.99
BOB marches on. It was only four years ago that the cat’s owner, Big Issue seller, former rough sleeper and heroin addict James Bowen, was approached by literary agent Mary Pachnos about turning their story into a book.
She paired them with ghost-writer Garry Jenkins and their first venture, A Street Cat Named Bob, published in March 2012, sold a million copies in the UK and three million worldwide. It has been smartly followed by a sequel, The World According To Bob; Bob: No Ordinary Cat, the story rewritten for children; For The Love Of Bob, for over-11s; Where In The World Is Bob?, a picture-book of his travels for big kids; and My Name Is Bob, a picture-book for little ones.
Bob’s story has been optioned for a film and he has been working hard doing lots of signings, where he sits on a chair and an assistant stamps his paw-print for him. On Twitter, @StreetCatBob commands 61,400 followers, whereas his amanuensis, @garryj123, rates just 144. Never mind the Man Booker. Floreat Bob!
Now Bob is assaulting the Christmas market too. In A Gift From Bob, remembering the dark old days of 2010, James tells us how he accidentally left the Christmas present of earrings he had bought for his girlfriend Belle on a bus, but then, on Christmas Eve, Bob, while doing his business on a building site, mystically led him to an ideal economic substitute – “a piece of concrete, roughly the size of the palm of my hand… studded with multicoloured stones, some of them crystal-like… It could easily have been a piece of modern art in a gallery”. Belle is thrilled with it. After all, a present is not about the price tag but “the love and thought which went into it, which was actually priceless”.
Then Bob, with Belle’s assistance, gives James his present. It’s a Best Friends Forever picture-album, showing their life together. “It was part of the even greater gift he had given me, probably the most wonderful one I’d ever received. Bob had given me a new life that was full of happiness and hope.”
Priceless isn’t the word for it. n