At this stage Frank Bascombe has been around so long he feels like a pedantic acquaintance you've never quite managed to shake. He first appeared in 1986 in The Sportswriter, a beautifully constructed novel that catapulted its author, Richard Ford, from relative obscurity to literary stardom. And since then Frank has popped up at regular intervals to take his country's feverish temperature in the novels Independence Day (1996), The Lay of the Land (2006) and now this profound and charming collection of long stories.
Mr Ford is 70, and old Frank isn't far behind. In Let Me Be Frank With You the failed novelist, former sports journalist and recently retired real estate agent has sold his little slice of heaven on New Jersey's Atlantic coast and moved inland to his old stomping ground, Haddam. And just in time, as it turns out, because in the opening story, 'I'm Here', Bascombe travels back to Sea-Clift in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to meet Arnie Urquhart, the poor fool who bought his house. The formerly idyllic town looks as if "a giant had strode out of the grey sea and kicked the shit out of everything", including poor Arnie's summer house, which sits on its side some distance from its foundations. In an awkward, poignant, ruefully comic scene, he and Frank bear witness to the carnage.
In 'Everything Could Be Worse', Frank receives a visit from a handsome, elderly African-American woman called Mrs Pines, and experiences interracial panic as she tells him of the awful things that took place in his house when she lived there as a child. 'The New Normal', the best and funniest of the stories, sees him head out on a wintry night to the five-star retirement home where his Parkinson's-afflicted first wife, Ann, is awaiting the end in style. And in 'Deaths of Others', Frank gets right to the heart of the matter by becoming inadvertently entangled in the final moments of a man he hardly knew and never really liked.
Through all of this, as ever, Frank Bascombe bears eloquent witness to middle America's slow collapse. Publicly affable, privately caustic, Frank casts a withering eye on the cultureless vacuum that post-war America has now become, and pours scorn on Republicans, gun-lovers and charlatans, financial and spiritual. He's the laureate of the parking lot, the poet of the mini-mall, though why he failed as a novelist remains mysterious because he's prone to suspiciously brilliant turns of phrase.
In Frank's hands, even ugliness has the sheen of grandeur: his old house is "washed backwards off its foundation, booted topsy-turvy across the asphalt, turned sideways, tupped on its side against the grassy-sandy beach berm. . . " But Frank Bascombe is as funny as he is philosophical, and well placed to mournfully chart his country's moral and spiritual decline. He's as important a literary everyman as Harry Angstrom or Nathan Zuckerman, if Philip Roth's know-it-all writer can be called an everyman, and winningly likeable to boot.
In Let Me Be Frank With You, he faces up to the mounting indignities of old age, decrepitude and impending death with humour - for really, what else is there? And although it's a collection of stories, Richard Ford's book somehow has the satisfying completeness of a novel. It's a beautiful little tome, wise, witty and impeccably written.
Let Me Be Frank With You; Richard Ford; Bloomsbury, hdbk, 256 pages, €20.