In 1986, Richard Ford took an Alice Hoffman novel out into his back yard and shot it. Hoffman had had the temerity to give Ford’s third novel, The Sportswriter, a middling review in the New York Times. Ford at the time believed The Sportswriter to be his masterpiece. It tells the story of Frank Bascombe, once an author of short stories, now, in his late 30s, a sportswriter living a middle-class life in the ordinary town of Haddam, New Jersey.
Frank is, when we first meet him, divorced and mourning the death of his nine-year-old son, Ralph. The action of the novel begins in a cemetery, where Frank and his ex-wife pay a dawn visit to Ralph’s grave. Nonetheless, The Sportswriter is about that great American theme, the pursuit of happiness. Can you be happy in the face of the horrors that life throws at you? Frank’s answer is a provisional yes. Hoffman, in her review, suggested that Frank’s happiness was just a project of denial – that he was an egoist who “chooses to ignore tangled, emotionally charged family relationships, fixating instead on non-relationships and non-events”.
Now that Frank’s story has fattened into a sequence spanning four decades and five books, it is easier to perceive that Hoffman’s review may have missed The Sportswriter’s point (though shooting her book in retaliation still seems excessive). As you progress through The Sportswriter and its sequels – Independence Day (1995), The Lay of the Land (2006) and the title novella in the collection Let Me Be Frank With You (2014) – it becomes clearer and clearer that these are, indeed, books about happiness as a project of conscious denial. Frank, in his own way, does what the alien Tralfamadorians tell Billy Pilgrim to do in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: he lives only in the happy moments.
In case we, like Hoffman, miss the point, Be Mine, the fifth and (I don’t think it really spoils anything to say) final Bascombe book, begins with a prologue entitled Happiness. Frank, “b 1945”, is “approaching my stipulated biblical allotment”. In this overture, he attends his high-school reunion, where he meets Pug Minokur, once the class basketball champ. Pug now has dementia and remembers nothing. “I’m really happy,” Pug says, before being led away by his grandson.
Age, forgetting, fathers, children, happiness: the scene is set. We switch to Rochester, Minnesota, where Frank’s unpleasant 47-year-old son Paul is taking part in a clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic. Paul has a form of motor neurone disease; his prognosis is terminal. Frank cares for him; Paul resents his care. They are “joined unwillingly at the heart”. The action of the novel shows Frank taking Paul in a rented RV to see America’s stone presidents at Mount Rushmore – one last performance in “the theatre of lasts”.
There can be no happy ending here, and Frank knows it. But “I happen to believe there’s plenty to be said for a robust state of denial about many things – death being high on the list”.
Looking away from Paul’s death, Frank looks instead at America – Ford’s other great subject in the Bascombe books, which now essentially constitute a social history of Ford’s own boomer generation from midlife to end times.
Once again, Ford sends Frank out into ordinary America and has him report back. Frank’s brief is every little thing: the contents of local newspapers (“There is a moose loose on a golf course”), the occupants of a neurology ward waiting room (“half-camo’d veterans … a burly nun”), the shops in a midwestern mall (“A Footlocker. A Caribou coffee. A Nordic Shop. A sunglasses kiosk”). He tracks also his feelings, ideas, half-formed responses. As of Be Mine, Frank is back in the real-estate business but his true job is, in the closing words of The Lay of the Land, “to live, to live, to live it out”.
Realism, in these books, is an act of worship, but not complacent worship. John Banville once called Ford “a relaxed existentialist”. It’s true. His is a realism shorn of metaphysical certainties – a 20th-century realism. Ford’s world is contingent, frightening, beautiful, comically manifold. It’s one thing piled on top of another. Hence all the catalogues, the trivia, the teeming sensory details: American abundance on the page.
It’s now a somewhat soiled and tattered abundance, actually, hedged around with dangers. In the Comanche Mall, “as in many public places now – and for perfectly supportable reasons”, Frank feels that “someone from somewhere may be about to shoot me”. The RV rental place Frank visits is called A Fool’s Paradise. This, of course, is what America is. It is also what Frank has always knowingly tried to cultivate. As he says: “The ability to feel good when there’s almost no good to feel is a talent right up there with surviving loss.” The ironies here aren’t cynically deployed. A fool’s paradise may be the only paradise we get.
Resolutely uncynical, blessed with the perceptual gifts of his creator, Frank Bascombe incarnates an old idea of America, now waning; and he knows it. The Mount Rushmore presidents, finally reached, have something “decidedly measly about them […] the great men themselves seem unapologetically apart, as if they’ve seen me, and I’m too small.” If that seems a bit on the nose, well, neither Frank Bascombe nor Richard Ford have ever shied away from the obvious – the obvious being, like everything else, part of the job.
• Be Mine by Richard Ford is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.