Maine author Richard Ford first introduced Frank Bascombe to American readers some 40 years ago. Since then, Ford’s outings with this iconic character have twice gained recognition from The Pulitzer Prize Board – as the winner (in fiction) for “Independence Day,” in 1996, and again, in 2015, as a finalist, for “Let Me Be Frank With You.” Now, nearly a decade later, Frank Bascombe returns in a heart-wrenching story that also abounds with wit. Ford has plied his latest novel with some of the smartest repartee around.

“Be Mine” features Frank, now 74 and semi-retired, in his swan song. The former sportswriter and real estate agent is escorting his son, Paul, to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for an experimental drug trial. Paul, 47, has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. So it is that we meet father and son in the strange wilderness of this ruinous condition. The novel is a meditation on life and death, on happiness in the face of mortality, that is, by turns, irreverent, poignant and droll.

“Paul in his wheelchair breathes rhythmically, sighs, sniffs, huffs, his warty fingers flittering,” Frank says. “Sometimes in sleep he laughs. I hear it through the walls. In his dreams, does he know he has a fatal disease? Are we only sick when we’re awake? Is the joke on us?”

As Paul’s treatment winds down, Frank is plotting their next (and likely final) excursion together. He rents a camper and they embark on a road trip. Amid the familiar framework of fried foods, wrong turns and sore body parts, their dialogue is unmistakably end-stage, a mix of humor and angst, as they speak in a father-son code that trades on profanity, one-upmanship and denial. It’s their M.O. for conveying love and fear in the face of death.

“Do you worry how I’ll make out if you died?” Paul asks. “I just thought about it. What’re you going to do when I give up the goat?”

“I don’t know,” Frank says. “Get my own goat, maybe.”


Frank Bascombe has been around the block a few times, this novel his fifth appearance. He’s a perennial philosopher and cynic, a kind of everyman. Twice divorced, Frank ascribes the end of his first marriage to the loss of their son, Ralph, who died as a young boy. The marriage never rebounded from the loss, a heaviness Frank still carries with him. Now, at this late stage in life, he finds himself caring for his other son, Paul, who is an unabashed oddball.

Paul is a Larry Flynt lookalike, but with glasses; a Hallmark greeting card writer who’s obsessed with the life and work of English actor and singer-songwriter Anthony Newley. Not infrequently, when talking to his dad, Paul breaks into song. Punning and wordplay are his survival tactics: He refers to ALS as Al’s, as if it were a bar and grill. He often addresses Frank as Lawrence, a play on Florence Nightingale. Paul is a fan of all things Americana and kitsch; their pairing is his idea of perfection. No wonder Frank chooses Mount Rushmore, with its cheesy tourism, as the destination for their road trip.

“Are you up to me having ALS?” Paul says. “Can you handle the gimp in South Dakota or wherever the f—-. I’m not half the man I used to be. There’s a shadow hanging over me. Tony sings that.” Then later: “I’m perfectly normal. I’m the poster boy for death with dignity. I could do ads on TV. What could you do ads for?”

“All-suffering fathers. I don’t say that. ‘Nothing, I guess,’” Frank says.

Banter aside, the visit to Mount Rushmore is the triumph Frank had hoped for. Paul prizes the pointlessness of the place and delights in being there. “There’s not enough in the world that’s intentionally this stupid,” he says, taking it all in. Yet for Frank, it’s a rare moment of alignment with his son.

“I’m merely happy to believe we see the same thing the same way for once – more or less. It is pointless and it is stupid,” Frank says. “And if seeing it can’t fix him, it can a little.”

“Be Mine” opens and closes with chapters entitled “Happiness,” a theme that increasingly interests Frank, as the options for its achievement appear to dwindle. This may be one of the funniest sad books, with its unrelenting elemental quandaries. Frank and Paul are like a vaudeville team one minute; separate islands, the next. Ford raises the ultimate questions of “what to do and how to be,” and hands the reins over to his two stunning protagonists.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. She is the author of “Someday This Will Fit,” a collection of linked essays.

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