Be Mine: A Frank Bascombe Novel
by Richard Ford
Reviewed by Stephen Newton
Richard Ford’s Be Mine: A Frank Bascombe Novel, is the fifth in a series narrated by Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist turned successful New Jersey real estate agent, and one of American literature’s iconic fictional characters. In Be Mine, a seventy-four-year-old Frank is the primary caretaker for his son Paul, who, at forty-seven, has been diagnosed with ALS. To accommodate Paul’s treatment at the Mayo Clinic, Frank leaves his New Jersey home and rents a house in Rochester, Minnesota, where the wintry weather deepens the misery of their shared burden: Paul’s rapidly progressing disease.
Frank pays respectful homage to the famed Mayo Clinic, where he and his son must spend most of their days. Known as the Clinic, Frank describes Mayo as, “That colossus of glass and steel in the middle ground, red beacons beaconing, white steam billowing from hidden stacks, a helicopter just settling down—that is the Clinic where everything happening is of the utmost import.”
But Frank dreads the day Paul will graduate out of the ALS clinical trial because it means, nothing else can be done. To dispel the gloom, Frank follows up on a long-ago promise to travel cross-country with Paul in an RV—an adventure that is no longer possible for several sad reasons—and, instead, he rents a used RV for a more doable two-day trip to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, despite a frigid, minus degree February forecast, and ice-covered roads. But Frank is hopeful that, if nothing else, the adventure will be a distraction for them. He tells himself they are, “Latter-day Lewises and latter-day Clarks, spiriting out across wintry Minnesota, and beyond to prairied South Dakota, all the way to Mount Rushmore…”
Since Paul was first diagnosed, Frank has done his best to be his son’s caregiver, Yet, he harbors a morbid fear that he’s not up to the task, that even their impromptu Rushmore odyssey could shorten his fragile son’s already short life, and Frank will be to blame. His fear of disaster is put to the test soon enough when Paul reminds his father that he promised to let him drive the RV, which, even under the best of conditions would be a difficult feat for Paul to manage. But, a promise is a promise, and Frank pulls off the snowy highway to switch drivers. This decision nearly jeopardizes both their lives, as Frank struggles to extract Paul from the van, and then aborts the attempt. “He is trying to get out, and I have a stout grip on him. His feet are on the running board. Though the running board is two feet off the hardpan, and if I drop him and we stagger backwards into the weeds, I’ll damage myself and freeze us both to death before anybody finds us.” Fortunately, Frank manages to return Paul to his seat, and, undaunted, pilots Windbreaker, an ancient, but still serviceable Dodge RV, across the frozen western plains hoping to reach Rushmore by Valentine’s Day.
At one point in Be Mine, Frank berates himself for what he sees as his failure as a father. Being Paul’s sole caregiver has given him a new perspective, a sense that, somehow, he has come up short. “What I feel though, watching him, is an undeniable sensation of negligence. My own. And fear. Fear that I have never afforded him his adult due, have placated him, under-rated him, sometimes forgotten him, as if he was not always plausible to me, being who he is….”
Although their relationship is often strained, it is laced with humor, sarcasm, love, and their shared appreciation and enthusiasm for the absurd, a territory in which Paul is an avid explorer. He is thrilled when his father makes a stop in Mitchell, South Dakota, to tour the Corn Palace and its tacky Corn Boutique, which, “…spreads over the entire arena/performance venue/polling place; a Macy’s of corn-themed crapola—All of it precisely what Paul Bascombe is put on the earth to seek, be deeply interested in and mesmerized by.”
In Be Mine, Frank continues his insightful, self-deprecating commentary about American life that won Ford the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel, Independence Day, the second in the series. His latest novel is set during the politically chaotic climate of 2020, which provides numerous opportunities for Frank to speak eloquently about America’s current state of mind, one of paranoia and confusion. Frank confesses to feeling both as he stands with the other onlookers before the Rushmore monument. “I, of a sudden, again experience the grainy sensation which momentarily stops me: That from some nearby piney steep, someone—a disgruntled park employee, a loner teen—is readying to open up on us (it’s always a he), having scaled the mountain and taken a position commanding the entire promenade and everyone on it. I don’t really believe this. Though why would any sane citizen not consider it?”
What is remarkable about Be Mine, is Ford’s careful examination of Frank’s spiritual struggle in the face of his son’s impending fate. Their journey together even before their road trip to Rushmore has been one of longing to do the right thing in the face of such tragedy—in the end, Frank and his son want to do good. “I know the hollow in the heart that is longing and longing’s opposite—doing good because you want to do good and are a good man in spite of what you know is true of you.”
In the three decades since his debut in The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe has experienced his share of disaster and loss. “Nothing, however,” he says, “has sent me spiraling to the bottom, so that cashing in my own chips seemed like a good idea.”
Perhaps, Frank has survived because, at heart, he is an optimist, who has gained just enough wisdom along the way to guide him through the bleak, uncharted territory he covers in Be Mine. His brave journey to Mount Rushmore with his ailing son in the middle of winter is the perfect setting for their attempts to come to terms with Paul’s ALS and its devastating effects.
Richard Ford has imbued Frank with enviable traits and more than enough faults. He is honest with himself, but not always with others. He thinks often and deeply. He worries about the world in general, and America especially—now and in the future. Above all, Frank tries. Each and every day. From his unique vantage point at the helm of Windbreaker, Frank ponders one of the pivotal questions of our day, “How do we end up where we end up, when all of our intentions are the best?”