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In Richard Ford’s New Novel, One More Trip for Old Times’ Sake



BE MINE, by Richard Ford

Richard Ford has long been our chief literary appraiser of bad men’s wear. Philip Roth also had an eye for this sort of thing. In “American Pastoral,” a loud shirt worn by a country-club type is “WASP motley.” But Ford is in a league of his own.

In his Frank Bascombe books — his new one, “Be Mine,” is the fifth and last — we’ve met fellows in “green jackass pants” and “tu-tone suede leisure sneakers” and “smushed-pecker shorts.” A few of the better descriptions aren’t printable here. We know these men. They are, in Ford’s argot, the change jinglers, with strip-mall haircuts and hamburger laughs. Don’t stare. You might look right into the “hairy spelunkle of a left nostril.”

Frank, on the other hand, is invariably turned out in aw-shucks Ivy League holiday-weekend array circa 1996 (though he went to Michigan and was briefly in the Marines): chinos, Weejuns, faded Brooks Brothers madras shirts. He’s thin, tall-ish, handsome enough; he shares his creator’s pale eyes. “A casual look,” he has said, “can sometimes keep you remote from events.”

The men he gawks at aren’t ogres, not entirely. As Frank slid from sportswriting into real estate — in “Be Mine” he is 74 and mostly retired — he has taken an increasingly long view of the human condition. His America is a big tent. The clods and old farts, well, they have their saving graces, and so does everyone else. In the American way, each wandering soul is a potential customer.

In “The Sportswriter,” the first novel in this series, Frank started out as a sensitive young literary man who had published a book of stories. Ford was wise to yank him, root and nerve, out of the word business. As John Updike asked, praising a Roth character who is a dentist (and not Roth’s alter-ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman), “Who cares what it’s like to be a writer?” Updike’s own Rabbit Angstrom ran a Toyota dealership.

Real estate put dirt on the spade of Ford’s thinking. He is a crucial and electric writer about houses and the potential for cracks in any foundation — the radon in life’s basement. Buying a house is an existential moment. The stress can make strong people throw up. Ford has made the most of these scenes. They are comic and harrowing.

Though the Bascombe novels are set mostly in New Jersey’s wealthier suburbs, they are, oddly, road novels. Frank is happiest and most himself behind the wheel, his windshield an IMAX screen though which he soaks up news about the state of his neighbors and of the American experiment writ large.

In this way, he resembles another explicator of New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen — about whom Ford has written perceptively. They share another quality. Their late-period titles are flimsy, bordering on embarrassing. Springsteen went from “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to “Letter to You.” Holy moly. Ford went from “Independence Day” and “The Lay of the Land” to “Let Me Be Frank With You” and “Be Mine.” Good Lord. Are these the most feebly titled books from any Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction?

The Bascombe novels are road novels, as well, because they are set during holidays, when families are in flux. “The Sportswriter” (1986) takes place over Easter; the title of “Independence Day” (1995) is self-explanatory; “The Lay of the Land” (2006) leads up to Thanksgiving; “Let Me Be Frank With You” (2014), a collection of stories, is set at Christmas; the candy heart-titled “Be Mine” is a Valentine’s Day reverie.

This one features a road trip of a darker sort. Frank’s grown son, Paul, has A.L.S., or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and he is not long for this world. They drive in a derelict R.V. from Rochester, Minn., where Paul is in an experimental protocol at Mayo Clinic, to Mount Rushmore.

They’re an odd couple. Paul is 47, fat, warty, balding and often in a wheelchair. Frank thinks he resembles Larry Flynt, the pornographer. They display their love through puns and insults. “You’re a simpleton, Frank,” is a typical crack. It’s every father’s dream, surely, to have his son resemble an insult-comic version of Larry Flynt.

Paul refers to A.L.S. as “Al’s,” as if it were a bar. Frank has also had health issues, including prostate cancer. His own Mayo doctor told him that major stress is “like eating a Baconator every meal.” His goal? “To be happy — before the gray curtain comes down.”

Ford is among the elite American writers of the past half-century, and this book displays his gifts — the crunchy verbs, the crisp vision, the clocking of absurdities, the swift reasoning, his sense of the (mostly unintentional) damage humans inflict on one another and how most of our internal wounds utterly fail to clot.

This book is set just before Covid appeared. Here’s a typical snippet of Ford’s prose, as Frank glimpses a television screen:

President Trump’s swollen, eyes-bulging face filled the TV screen behind the honor bar, doing his pooch-lipped, arms-folded Mussolini. I couldn’t take my eyes off him — tuberous limbs, prognathous jaw, looking in all directions at once, seeking approval but not finding enough.

“Be Mine” is not unlike a welcome late-evening phone call, two scotches in, from an old friend. Ford’s readers have been through a lot with this man.

And yet. Valentine’s Day is a shoddy holiday and Mount Rushmore is a shoddy attraction. (In “Independence Day,” father and son drove to the baseball and basketball halls of fame.) Frank and Paul know these things. They hit the road anyway, hoping to squeeze out some of the happiness they might have left.

“Be Mine” isn’t shoddy, exactly, but it’s the thinnest and least persuasive of the Bascombe novels. The seams in these books have begun to show.

Too many strangers break into unprompted, and sometimes hokey, soliloquies. Ford’s penchant for summing up every other paragraph with a cracker-barrel bromide has begun to grate. A book derived from “Be Mine” called “The Wit and Wisdom of Frank Bascombe” would include throw-pillow slogans like “Fatherhood is a battle in any language” and “It is the thought that counts.”

There’s a long, odd, uncomfortable interlude in “Be Mine” during which Frank falls half in love with a much younger Vietnamese woman, Betty Duong Tran, who works in a massage parlor. Ford works to humanize Betty, but he only gets so far.

It’s to Ford’s credit, I suppose, that he isn’t running a P.R. campaign for Frank. He catches his desperation. The massage scenes reminded me of “The Sportswriter,” when Frank consults a palmist, “the stranger who takes your life seriously.” Frank’s one of those men who are extra-aware of the small neon “open” signs that, on the outskirts of most American towns, burn all night in at least one window.

The Bascombe novels have never felt especially up-to-date, culturally. Not everyone cares about pop culture, and Frank has a right to be among those who don’t. But what culture Ford does tuck into “Be Mine” feels random and unlikely.

Frank’s son, for example, is an apparently non-ironic superfan of the music of Anthony Newley, the cockney singer, long dead, who could taxidermy a song like few others; his material felt dated the instant he recorded it. Can we blame Frank for his son’s young fogeydom? He once took Paul on a “boys-only junket to see Mel Tormé at TropWorld” in Atlantic City.

From the start, the Bascombe books have leaned on Frank’s sense of his own mortality. He was still in his 30s when he was uttering things like “The older I get the more things scare me” and looking forward to a soft retirement.

There aren’t many major holidays — Groundhog Day? Hanukkah? — left for Frank to endure on our behalf. I hope “Be Mine” isn’t really the end for him. God forbid he loses his sense of humor, but to paraphrase late-career Leonard Cohen, I want it darker.

BE MINE | By Richard Ford | 342 pp. | Ecco | $30


Whatever Happened to Local Comedy Scenes?



Paris in the 1920s. Hollywood in the ’70s. Chicago in the ’90s?

It’s long been my after-midnight-at-the-bar theory that when it comes to urban cultural vanguards, the Michael Jordan era belongs in the pantheon. Full disclosure: I was there and missed it all.

Despite living in Chicago when young improvisers like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Adam McKay were killing in front of live crowds, I never saw any perform. I don’t have a story of bumping into the legendary comedy teacher Del Close or catching Kanye West’s original rap group. I missed Liz Phair as well as the indie-rock renaissance pushed by labels like Drag City and Touch and Go Records.

Just when I thought the cultural obliviousness of my college years couldn’t be greater, a new book, “The Perfect Amount of Wrong: The Rise of Alt Comedy on Chicago’s North Side,” opens another avenue of regret. Its author, the comic Mike Bridenstine, makes a persuasive case that Chicago in the late ’90s and aughts was one of the great incubators of modern stand-up. Bridenstine was part of it, but his account, catnip for comedy nerds, benefits from detailed reporting, tracking the careers of, among others, Kumail Nanjiani, Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress, Beth Stelling and Cameron Esposito.

Packed with fabled stand-ups who never made it big and their intimate shows, his punchy chapters are perfect for those who argue about comedy the way Stephen A. Smith does about sports. Was the Lyon’s Den (where Holmes and Nanjiani started the same week) the greatest comedy open mic in history? Did T.J. Miller revolutionize crowd work? Does Matt Braunger deserve to be compared to Robin Williams and Will Ferrell? This book should start some fights.

But there’s also a challenging broader argument buried here, about the conditions that make for great art, one that hints at a pessimistic outlook about local scenes in the age of social media.

Chicago has long been known as a place for artists to get good, not famous. It’s far enough from the coasts to keep industry executives at bay. This has produced many eccentric artists and chips on shoulders. For stand-ups, the fact that it was renowned as an improv town was one chip; the second was that the only major club, Zanies, did not book many local acts.

“The best thing that ever happened to comedy in Chicago was Zanies saying you can’t perform here,” Bridenstine, 44, told me in a recent phone interview. Rejection fueled comics to start their own shows, presenting bills in restaurant back rooms, bars and scrappy festivals. The isolation of these shows, their lack of publicity, meant that crowds were locals not tourists, die-hards not casual fans. Originality mattered as much as killing. “There was pressure, in a really good way, to be different and weird,” the comic Brooke Van Poppelen says in the book.

This resulted in comics like the wry political observer Dwayne Kennedy, who inspired considerable awe and gushing among peers. “The fact Dwayne Kennedy is not a household name is insanity,” Sarah Silverman has said. One possible explanation might be found from a producer, who says that to book him, you needed to fax his dad.

An early provocateur, Bill O’Donnell was famous for incorporating vomiting into his act. There were guys with nicknames like Tommy Mayo, and others like Nick Vatterott, who refused to do the same joke twice in a week and performed a bit as a ventriloquist’s dummy that required him to sit inside a box for two hours. He delivered a hilarious set on “The Tonight Show” years ago that hinged on him pretending to forget a joke. “Nick Vatterott is my evidence that comedy is not a meritocracy,” Bridenstine said. “I don’t know anybody funnier than him. And I know a lot of people more famous and successful.”

Along with stories of the famous and forgotten, the book leans on the journalism of Allan Johnson, a critic for The Chicago Tribune who died at 46 in 2006. He was an early champion of Bernie Mac, probably the greatest comic to emerge from Chicago that decade and the book’s most glaring omission. (In the 1990s, comedy was more segregated than today, and there is scant coverage here of predominantly Black rooms.) The attention Johnson lavished on local shows, in praise and criticism, was an important spotlight, drawing audiences and creating conversation. His coverage is also an integral source for this book. Considering the depleted state of newspapers, in Chicago and elsewhere, one wonders about the local comedy coverage future authors will draw upon.

The more significant contrast with comedy today is the minor role of the internet. It’s not merely that there wasn’t the push to turn your jokes into videos. Comics were less aware of their peers in other cities in the 1990s, and thus there wasn’t the same anxiety of influence. One Chicago comic, John Roy, describes the sense of wanting to embrace alt comedy on the coasts, but only vaguely knowing about it from reading about Patton Oswalt or seeing Janeane Garofalo on HBO. “We’re trying to reverse engineer this idea of alternative comedy from a couple articles in Rolling Stone and a special,” Roy says in the book. “You don’t really know what it is. But you subsequently get a lot of creativity because people start going: ‘Well, I got to be weird.’”

The internet — with social media and sites like YouTube — diminished the distance between scenes and put all comics in the same digital room. This has advantages. Comedy is bigger than ever, and it’s easier to find quality jokes. Bridenstine argued that while there are more good stand-up shows in Chicago today, the scene isn’t producing “Kinanes, Kumails, Beths or Hannibals.”

Is this merely nostalgia? Perhaps a bit, but it’s fair to ask a troubling question: Is the internet killing off distinct local comedy scenes?

There is a long history of cities producing their own comedic aesthetics. Boston is blustery and blue collar (think Bill Burr), while San Francisco is wild and experimental (see Robin Williams). Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., have their own styles, too. These are all simplifications, but they matter. When everyone can see everyone else online, parallel thinking in jokes increases, and comics move to New York and Los Angeles quickly after viral fame, making coherent local identities harder to maintain.

Who you are around as a young artist is tremendously important. Now we are all, to some degree, around the same people. To be sure, “you had to be there” is a real thing, especially with live comedy, and the internet is full of niches where subcultures can flourish, but whether they will be closely associated with cities is an open question.

Bridenstine sounded skeptical. “City scenes don’t exist in isolation like they used to,” he said, adding a note of optimism while tossing one more chip on his shoulder. “I think new styles will evolve and people will decide to be new and different whenever this current way of arena rock comedy gets old.”

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The Most Novelistic Part That Patrick Stewart Ever Played



“I acted Macbeth for exactly 365 days,” says the actor, whose new memoir is “Making It So.” “The role got into me so deeply it dominated my life at the time and caused me to drink too much alcohol after the performance was over. No other role I have played has affected me so profoundly.”

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18 New Books Coming in October



Thrall first recounted the story of Abed Salama’s search for his 5-year-old son after a bus crash on the outskirts of Jerusalem in a 2021 piece for The New York Review of Books. Now he’s expanded it, weaving the wrenching human saga with a history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Metropolitan Books, Oct. 3

Bohannon presents nothing less than a new history of the species by examining human evolution through the lens of womankind. It’s a provocative corrective that will answer dozens of questions you’ve always had — and even more you never thought to ask.

Knopf, Oct. 3

When the cryptocurrency exchange FTX collapsed in 2022, the journalist Michael Lewis had been spending time with its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, in order to write a book. Now his intimate look at the now-disgraced entrepreneur is scheduled to be published around the time that his trial on fraud charges is set to begin.

Norton, Oct. 3

This return to the horror-soaked setting of “The Haunting of Hill House” — which was greenlit by Shirley Jackson’s estate — features a group of friends who make the mistake of renting the moldering old mansion.

Mulholland Books, Oct. 3

Sinclair, an award-winning Jamaican poet (“Cannibal”) recounts her coming-of-age in a strict Rastafarian community in Montego Bay and the rebellion that grew within her, until she escaped — through education and through language.

37 Ink, Oct. 3

After years as a journeyman stage actor, Stewart found himself an unlikely celebrity in his 40s after being cast as Jean-Luc Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” His memoir vividly recounts the tribulations he overcame — a provincial upbringing, an embittered father — and the teachers and mentors who pointed him skyward.

Gallery, Oct. 3

In his new novel, Labatut chronicles the life and legacy of John von Neumann, the polymath who worked on the Manhattan Project and made pivotal contributions to physics, economics, computing and other fields. It’s a study of scientific genius and the darkness of a hyper-rational mind, told through imagined remembrances by colleagues, associates and loved ones.

Clowes’s latest graphic novel tells the story of a woman’s life from birth to old age and her long quest to track down, or at least understand, her mother. Progressing from the 1960s to the present day, the genre-bending episodes in this book draw upon counterculture, women’s empowerment, apocalypse and the supernatural, among other themes.

Fantagraphics, Oct. 3

A master of intimate, psychologically precise narratives featuring ordinary people caught in extreme circumstances, Garner, now 80, has amassed a devoted following in her native Australia. With the republication of “The Children’s Bach,” a novel about a loosely connected group of 1970s Melbourne residents sorting out their lives, and “This House of Grief,” a nonfiction account of a wrenching murder trial, she is sure to attract new fans here.

Pantheon, Oct. 10

What is there to say about Madonna Louise Ciccone that she hasn’t said herself, in song and video, on talk shows and TikTok, through provocative pronouncements and a book called “Sex”? Over 800 pages, Gabriel, an indefatigable biographer who has also tackled Karl Marx and his wife Jenny von Westphalen, provides an answer.

Little, Brown, Oct. 10

More than three decades after “The Firm” rocketed onto best-seller lists and made him a household name, Grisham revisits the novel’s indelible main characters, Mitch and Abby McDeere.

Doubleday, Oct. 17

Reid, an executive editor at Foreign Affairs, traces the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Republic of Congo, who was in office only a few months before he was deposed and assassinated in 1961. As he plumbs recently declassified files, Reid sheds light on the C.I.A.’s role in the killing.

Knopf, Oct. 17

A Nigerian-born photography professor at a New England college narrates this novel about art and power, finding much to ponder — on colonialism, subjectivity, identity — in the everyday details of teaching, travel and working. Around him is a world not of idyllic pleasures but of latent violence and instability.

Random House, Oct. 17

Ward, the two-time National Book Award-winning novelist, conjures the horrors of antebellum slavery through the story of Annis, who is forced on a harrowing march from a plantation in North Carolina to the slave markets of New Orleans — a journey overseen by spirits and steeped in allusions to Dante’s “Inferno.”

Scribner, Oct. 24

“I never lost sight of what the character gave me,” Winkler, the star of “Happy Days,” writes in a showbiz memoir flavored with gratitude — for a life-changing audition, a long marriage, a sideline writing kids’ books and a second stab at TV acclaim in HBO’s “Barry.”

Celadon, Oct. 31

In her revelatory memoir, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world champion exposes the pain and humiliation she’s endured at the hands of the international body governing athletics and the international public, who have challenged her identity as a woman — and as the fastest woman in the world.

Norton, Oct. 31

History meets horror in Due’s latest novel, about a Black boy in 1950s Florida, Robbie, who gets sent to a brutal reformatory school after defending his sister from a racist attack. But it’s not just the warden Robbie needs to watch out for — this school is also haunted by the ghosts of students who died there.

Saga Press, Oct. 31

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