Bloomsbury, $32.99 pb, 352 pp
When pushed to vote on the bleakest poem among Philip Larkin’s death-obsessed body of work, most would likely stump for his late masterpiece ‘Aubade’, that arid interrogation of human finitude. Yet his ‘The Building’, from 1972, is in many ways a more savage appraisal of individual extinction and the structures we build in an attempt to deny it: ‘Higher than the handsomest hotel / The lucent comb shows up for miles …’ Larkin was referring here to the Hull Royal Infirmary, a modernist pile which loomed over the poet’s hometown after it opened in 1967. Yet the poem could just as easily be translocated to Rochester, Minnesota, where the substantial modern tower of the Mayo Clinic stands: a building around which, too, surrounding streets stand like ‘a great sigh out of the last century’.
The Mayo is the venue on which Frank Bascombe’s latest and seemingly last outing as the American everyman initially centres. It is the place where his surviving son, Paul –whose older brother’s death as a child was the primal loss haunting The Sportswriter (1986), the first Frank Bascombe novel – has gone to undergo experimental treatment for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, an incurable degenerative disorder.
Bascombe, that well-worn fictional avatar of Ford’s – a short story writer turned sports journalist turned realtor – is now semi-retired. At seventy-four, he is approaching that point in life where death is coming into tune as a personal matter. Despite having lost both his wives in recent years and living at some distance (emotionally and geographically) from his only daughter, Frank has little choice but to take on the role of caregiver to his ailing son.