Hop in: Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore offer unforgettable summer road trips
Lots of summer books traditionally invite readers on a road trip, but when literary masters like Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore are in the drivers' seats, the only thing we readers can count on is that we'll travel far beyond the range of GPS.
Ford wrote his first novel about Frank Bascombe, a wannabe novelist turned sportswriter and real estate salesman, in 1986. Over the decades, two more novels and one short story collection followed Frank through two marriages, the loss of a child, middle age and semi-retirement. Now Ford is bringing the Bascombe saga to an end in Be Mine, a novel that finds Frank, at 74, stepping up to be the caregiver for his 40-something year old son, Paul, who's been diagnosed with ALS, also known as "Lou Gehrig's disease."
This is a winter's tale in more ways than one: It's a frigid February in Rochester, Minn., and, for the past two months, Frank and Paul have been living a suspended existence in a rented house close to the Mayo Clinic, where Paul has been part of a trial study. Now that trial is wrapping up and Frank, in a ham-fisted grab for diversion and connection with his prickly son, rents a clunker of a RV to set out for Mount Rushmore. Paul, Frank tells us, has a taste for "the heartfelt" combined with "the preposterous." A trip to Rushmore to survey "the four presidents' visages, hammered into a mountain like Stone-Age marionettes" should fit the bill.
Throughout his Bascombe books, Ford has always set the particulars of what's going on in Frank's life against a larger American story: This one takes place in the winter of 2020 when a presidential election fractures the land and a pandemic waits in the wings. Given Paul's health condition and Frank's age, mortality is the central preoccupation in Be Mine. But Ford never trumpets his pronouncements about life, death, the all of it: Rather, they edge in sideways, as in this quick conversational moment between Frank, our first person narrator, and Paul as they pull into a hotel parking lot:
"Do you think I'm going to spend the rest of my life doing this?" [Paul asks]. ...
I wait to speak. "Isn't this trip any fun?"
"No it's good." [says Paul.]
Yeah-no [I think.] The entire human condition in two words.
If Be Mine is indeed the last Bascombe novel, it's an elegiac and wry finale to a great saga. But, "yeah-no," I hope that maybe this isn't quite the end.
As a writer, Lorrie Moore is an all-American genius-eccentric. When I reviewed her 2014 short story collection Bark, I likened her — in her loopy, macabre vision — to Emily Dickinson; Moore's new novel, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, only intensifies that comparison.
In brief, the novel tells two stories: The slighter, opening one is set during the Civil War. Through letters and a journal we meet a woman named Elizabeth who keeps a boarding house where she fends off a sly "gentleman lodger" — an itinerant actor — who, she says, "is keen to relieve me of my spinsterhood ..."
The main story, set in the present day, concerns a teacher from Illinois named Finn who's come to New York to sit at the bedside of his dying brother. While at the hospice, Finn learns that Lily — his depressed former girlfriend with whom he's still hopelessly in love — has died by suicide. Distraught, he travels to her grave, only to be greeted by Lily herself, in the flesh — albeit, rapidly decaying flesh that causes her to smell "like warm food cooling." Because Lily says she wants her body to be moved to the forensic body farm in Knoxville, Tenn., Finn helps her into his car and off they go.
Are you with me so far?
Moore's short stories and novels are so much their own self-enclosed worlds that it's almost beside the point to say what they're "about." But, in its fragmentary Civil War plot and off-kilter vision of the afterlife, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is a bit reminiscent of George Saunders' 2017 novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Most vividly, though, Moore's story invokes — and comically literalizes — the universal desire to have more time with a loved one who's died. You might be reluctant to go along on such a morbid — and very dusty — ride, but you'd be missing one of the most singular and affecting on-the-road stories in the American canon.
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