How do you speak respectfully about something terrible? I loved The Sportswriter and Independence Day, Richard Ford’s classic novels, published in 1986 and 1995 respectively, about the failed writer turned real-estate agent Frank Bascombe. Taken with, say, Jernigan, by David Gates, and Straight Man, by Richard Russo (hold that thought), they showed us the deep emotional swales of the 90s white male, who was supposed to rule the world but felt ruled by it, in true late-capitalist style: a group of soliloquizing Hamlets, pitched against the sleazy masculine-success story of their Fortinbras, William Jefferson Clinton. Call them Sons of Portnoy.
In two subsequent Bascombe appearances, however, The Lay of the Land (2006) and Let Me Be Frank with You (2014), Ford’s tough, beautiful prose grew flabbier, and his famous lead’s narration more aimless and irritable. Now, in Be Mine, reportedly the last Bascombe novel, the decline seems complete.
Its subject is (as in Independence Day, winner of the Pulitzer Prize) a road trip that Bascombe takes with his son, Paul—no longer a child but an adult of nearly 50, who as the novel begins is gamely resisting the death sentence of an A.L.S. diagnosis. He and his father live together near the Mayo Clinic, where Paul is in treatment, but at the outset of the book they are preparing a trip through the Midwest, in the general direction of Mount Rushmore.
Ford is a formidable writer, and there are lines in Be Mine that sing—the grand atrium at Mayo is “murmurous with thronging humankind crossing and crisscrossing like the great trade routes of antiquity”—but they are overwhelmed by the book’s defects: it is sour where Ford was once acerbic, whiny where he was once witty, and its characters seem shallower, mere cardboard cutouts who exist to people Bascombe’s self-regarding modesty with points of observation.
A far better book is Russo’s Somebody’s Fool, the third in a trilogy that began with 1993’s brilliant Nobody’s Fool, a subtle, sentimental vision of working-class upstate New York. (You may remember Paul Newman as Sully, perhaps Russo’s signature character, in the film adaptation.) At 74, Russo is still writing terrific comic-realist novels, even if they have grown shaggier and less focused over time.
Somebody’s Fool again tracks the characters of North Bath, New York, which at the book’s outset is being absorbed into Schuyler Springs, a Saratoga Springs knockoff of Russo’s imagining. (Both Ford and Russo like these macro-economic backdrops: for Ford, recessions, hurricanes, and other national events; for Russo, more often, the long deterioration of life for regular people in America.) Among these are Peter, the son of Sully, now dead; Janey, a sympathetic and well-drawn waitress frustrated at her own awful choices; and, from the previous two books, the hapless but well-intentioned cop Doug Raymer.
Russo is more interested in the reader than Ford is, and less allergic to the contemporary world; Raymer is in love with a Black police officer, Charice, who’s surrounded by rotten cops as the “first Black police chief north of Albany.” He’s especially effective when writing about ne’er-do-wells, drunks, and misfits—in particular the idealistic ones, such as Peter, who, when he contemplates leaving North Bath, finds it difficult to give up “not the idea of finding a finer place to live out what remained of his life, so much as his fond hope that when he at last arrived there, he would find a finer version of himself.”
Yet Russo, too, has slackened as a writer. In Ford this signals itself by his constant use of the abandoning phrase “etc., etc.,” while in Russo it takes the shape of long strings of questions, sometimes nearly as long as a page, which languidly shove out plot and character development in favor of rueful woolgathering.
Is all this just a matter of age? No: there are many writers as old as or older than either of these who are still producing original and energetic work.
Something else is afoot. Russo, too, won a Pulitzer, for the fine Empire Falls, and both authors’ bios mention a recent lifetime-achievement award (the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction for Ford, and the Grand Prix de Littérature Américaine for Russo). Almost all great fiction has a starveling voracity: to see, to experience, to understand. In these sequels to sequels, by contrast, there’s an uneasy, fattened indolence. The moment has stopped being theirs—and while Russo, at least, has tried to move into the new one, neither writer seems hungry enough to set out with new characters in exploration of something radical. In this sense, these two superb American novelists have produced books that suffer from the quintessential personal disaster of white men on these shores: success.
Charles Finch is the author of the Charles Lenox mystery series