November 10, 2014
Guest: Will Holshouser
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When I was growing up, I thought of the accordion as a pretty corny and annoying instrument. Accordion meant "The Lawrence Welk Show," bad bar mitzvah bands and - worse yet - my father's accordion lessons. But I wish I still had my father's accordion because I now realize what a remarkable instrument it is.
My guest today, Will Holshouser, takes full advantage of the instruments possibilities. He has a magnificent accordion, and he brought it to our studio to play for us. Holshouser has played all kinds of music on accordion, including Cajun avant-garde jazz, indie rock, folk, klezmer and styles from Argentina, Madagascar and other countries around the world. His new album, "Introducing Musette Explosion," features French waltzes and dances, as well as original songs in the musette style. Let's start with the track "A Recurring Dream." It features Marcus Rojas on tuba and Matt Munisteri on guitar.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A RECURRING DREAM")
GROSS: That's music by Musette Explosion with my guest Will Holshouser on accordion. Will, welcome to FRESH AIR, and thank you for bringing your instrument with you. It's a beautiful accordion. And so few people play accordion nowadays, so how did you become an accordion player?
WILL HOLSHOUSER: Well, I grew up playing the piano and studied mostly jazz. Then when I was in college, a friend of mine bought me an old accordion as a surprise. He bought it at a rummage sale, and I loved it right away. It was an old musty instrument. It smelled funny. But something about it - there was a fun factor that was a change from the piano for me. I love that the fact that it sits on your chest. You can feel it vibrating. And it had a bunch of connections to different kinds of folk music, which the piano did not have, at least for me. So it was - I was instantly fascinated by the whole world. And you can hear it breathing right here.
GROSS: So since I think most people, well, don't have an accordion at home and don't get to see accordion very much. I'm assuming a lot of people aren't really familiar will what an accordion can really do and how it works. So give us a little tour of your very beautiful accordion.
HOLSHOUSER: Well, sure. Well, the - on the right side, there's a keyboard. It looks like a piano keyboard. And these keys - when you push a key, it opens a valve in the accordion, and that allows air to pass over metal reeds, which are inside the box. So the nickname for it - one nickname for is the squeezebox. So as you move the bellows back and forth, that generates the air. And then when you push the keys on the right hand or the buttons on the left hand, that lets the air through, and the reeds sound. So my accordion has four sets of reeds. It can play very low notes on the right hand...
(SCALE PLAYED ON ACCORDION)
HOLSHOUSER: ...Or very high notes, if you hit a - there's these register switches. You can change the read bank that's activated.
(SCALE PLAYED ON ACCORDION)
HOLSHOUSER: So - and then there are two middle sets of reeds, which are slightly detuned.
(SCALE PLAYED ON ACCORDION)
HOLSHOUSER: And you can also play all four sets together.
HOLSHOUSER: So - and then the left hand has buttons, which, in the standard accordion system, are bass notes and chords. And...
HOLSHOUSER: This was made - invented in the 19th century to play music that did that.
HOLSHOUSER: European music - and it's all based, of course, around the European tonal system. That system is called stradella. There's a town in Italy called Stradella where it was invented. So it's a lot of fun. It's a very versatile instrument with a very wide range and wide dynamics. The dynamics come from the bellows, which - it's often said the bellows in the accordion is like the bow of a violin. That's where you get dynamics, expression and a whole host of other effects.
GROSS: So manipulate the bellows differently to give us a sense of how the tone changes depending on how your - what's the verb for what you do with the bellows? What's the right verb?
HOLSHOUSER: I suppose. Yeah. Well, it's - you know, it's mostly dynamics, but you can - the sound of the note does change as you change the air pressure.
(SOUNDBITE OF NOTE PLAYED ON ACCORDION)
GROSS: So it's going from slow to fast, in terms of what you're doing with the bellows.
HOLSHOUSER: Yeah. As you push harder, it gets louder, as you push more air across the reed. And there's some special effects. If you open the valve halfway and push the air really hard, it can bend the pitch.
(SOUNDBITE OF NOTE PLAYED ON ACCORDION)
GROSS: Wow. I didn't know you could bend notes on accordion. Do you bend notes on a keyboard instrument...
GROSS: ...That's not a synthesizer? That's pretty (laughter)...
GROSS: ...Pretty good. So I should ask you to play a song for us.
GROSS: And your new album, "Introducing Musette Explosion," is all musette, which is a type of French song. Tell us what the genre is.
HOLSHOUSER: Well, it's basically French dance hall music from the first half of the 20th century. And its lead - accordion is the lead instrument. Guitar is also very important. And one of the standard forms in this type of music is the waltz. And to us, as Americans, it sounds iconically French. But then if you look beneath the surface, it actually has a very multicultural family tree.
So it began with French peasants in Paris playing an instrument called the musette, which was actually a little bagpipe. And then around 1900, there was a wave of Italian immigrants who brought the accordion and a lot of their music to Paris. And they kind of took over the dance halls. The accordion became the lead instrument. The bagpipe was forgotten, but left its name to the genre - musette. And there were also a large Roma Gypsy population in France, and they contributed a lot of their style to this genre, also. Some people say that Roma guitarists were the first ones to write waltzes in minor keys, which became a classic musette sound.
GROSS: And the tradition that Django Reinhardt was from?
HOLSHOUSER: Exactly. His first gig was playing banjo in a musette dance band.
GROSS: Banjo. Wow. Oh, you have banjo - your guitar player, Matt Munisteri, plays banjo on some of the tracks...
HOLSHOUSER: That's right.
GROSS: ...On your album. Oh, OK.
HOLSHOUSER: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: So you should play one of the musettes from your album for us. Do you want to do "Swing Valse"?
HOLSHOUSER: Sure, that sounds great.
GROSS: What you doing to your accordion? (Laughter).
HOLSHOUSER: Oh, I was just making sure that I had the right register on...
HOLSHOUSER: ...Because you can - depending on which register you have, you can get, you know, in a different octave or - each one has a sort of a different sound, a different flavor.
GROSS: OK. And this is - this is my guest, Will Holshouser.
HOLSHOUSER: All right. This is "Swing Valse," written by Baro Ferret and Gus Viseur.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWING VALSE")
GROSS: That's great. That's just so beautiful.
HOLSHOUSER: (Laughter) Thank you.
GROSS: So how were you first introduced to the songs known as musette?
HOLSHOUSER: Through re-issues that came out in the 1990s. There's a great label in France called Fremeaux and Associates. So I heard them, and I was struck by this music and kind of blown away by - how do they get these sounds of the accordion? And Matt Munisteri, my friend, felt the same way, and that's sort how we started playing together. We were both interested in French musette.
And it's so expressive, virtuosic. It's an unusual type of - some of these tunes, especially "Swing Valse" are hybrids of jazz and French music. So when some of these French musette musicians fell in love with jazz of the '20s and '30s, they began to write these hybrid tunes that were - and hence the name "Swing Valse." It's inspired by the American records that they were crazy about.
GROSS: My guest is accordion player and composer Will Holshouser. His new album is called "Introducing Musette Explosion." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is accordion player and composer, Will Holshouser. His new album featuring French waltzes and dances is called "Introducing Musette Explosion." He brought his accordion to our studio. You have really sought out the accordion traditions of different cultures, you know, cajun and zydeco...
GROSS: ...Which are traditions in America from Louisiana. Play a little bit of some zydeco or cajun accordion style for us and tell us what makes that style unique.
HOLSHOUSER: OK, I'll play a tune called the "Balfa Waltz," which is from the repertoire of the Balfa Brothers. Cajun music is usually played on a different type of accordion. It's a...
GROSS: Like a smaller one?
HOLSHOUSER: A smaller one, a diatonic single row button accordion - diatonic meaning it can only play notes for one major key. But the sound is very big and fat. And so to imitate that sound on my piano accordion, I play a lot of octaves.
HOLSHOUSER: And fifths.
HOLSHOUSER: So it's a draoney type of sound. It's very rhythmic; it's very droaney. And I love to play this kind of music on my accordion. When I first started learning accordion, I just decided I don't really care. That's a different type of accordion. Sure, if I wanted to be super authentic and specialize in cajun music, I would need to learn that type of accordion. But to just learn something from it and enjoy it, I don't need to change up my whole game. So anyway, this is "Balfa Waltz."
GROSS: Great, and this is my guest, Will Holshouser. And he has a new album called "Introducing Musette Explosion." Musette Explosion is the name of his band that plays musette French waltzes.
HOLSHOUSER: All right, here's the "Balfa Waltz." (Playing accordion).
GROSS: Nice, and that was the "Balfa Waltz," played for us in our studio by Willa Holshouser. And he has a new album called the "Musette Explosion." Musette Explosion is the name of one of his bands. What's another example of a cultural tradition whose music accordion heavily figures into that has its own style that you've learned?
HOLSHOUSER: Well, there's a great accordion tradition in Madagascar, which, again, I discovered through records.
GROSS: There's a place I wouldn't have thought had a great accordion tradition.
HOLSHOUSER: Yeah, you know, when I first heard about it I was really surprised too. But the accordion went all over the world, starting from Europe with colonialism in the 19 century, and the French were in Madagascar. And some accordions wound up there. And the people in Madagascar did something very, very different with the accordion.
GROSS: But what did they do differently that you can show us?
HOLSHOUSER: Well, here's a tune that I arranged for Regina Carter's band - Reverse thread - and it's called "Zerapickey." And this tune uses - it's almost using the accordion as a drum in a way. It uses the bellows shaking effect to make a certain rhythm.
HOLSHOUSER: So I'll show you how that works. This is "Zerapickey." (Playing accordion).
GROSS: That's really unusual sounding.
HOLSHOUSER: It is. It is.
GROSS: Did you learn that from records or did you go to Madagascar?
HOLSHOUSER: No, I learned it from records.
GROSS: Its and you can figure out how that Sam was being achieved?
HOLSHOUSER: Yeah. It's an approximation, you know. And the original recording has two accordions and drums. So, you know, I got what I could off the transcription. But yeah, it's a fascinating kind of music. And it's a very unusual way of using the instrument.
GROSS: So I'm watching you playing that. How much - how physically exerting is it to play accordion compared to, say, piano, which is what you played before?
HOLSHOUSER: It's actually not as hard as it looks. Some people think oh, it takes a lot of arm strength or something to pump the bellows, but it's very ergonomic. The straps that go around your shoulders and the instrument itself is heavy. It weighs about 29 pounds, bur it sits on your lap. My kind of accordion, I sit down to play it. And it really doesn't feel - it doesn't feel strenuous to play a lot of musical instruments. The important thing is to stay relaxed. There's always danger of tendinitis in your arms or muscle strains in your neck or back if you tense up. So the key is to stay relaxed, and if you do that it's really not that physically demanding.
GROSS: No problem, stay relaxed.
HOLSHOUSER: That's right.
GROSS: Nothing to it. There's something very old-fashioned and avant-garde about the accordion and let me see if I can explain that. It seems old-fashioned because in this era of, like, digital instruments and everything, like, you're physically pumping air into it, you know? You're doing it manually to get the air over the reeds to create the sound. But there's something kind of avant-garde about it because you can get all these really unusual overtones through this array of buttons, almost as if it was a synthesizer or organ, where you're - you know, you're just creating unusual harmonics.
HOLSHOUSER: It's true. And especially, yeah, dissonance on the accordion, playing notes very close together can bring out those overtones. And there's a whole range of effects you can get.
GROSS: Show us some effects you can get.
HOLSHOUSER: All right, here's some very high notes with special overtones. (Playing accordion).You can shake the bellows (playing accordion). You can make it (playing accordion) shimmer like that. You can do these bending notes like I said you before (playing accordion).
HOLSHOUSER: There's a sort of cluster - nice clusters you can get (playing accordion).
GROSS: Oh, I like that.
HOLSHOUSER: You can flop around on the keyboard like a fish. There are rhythmic things you can do with the bellows (playing accordion).
HOLSHOUSER: Sometimes when I play for my daughter's class, I'll do a train effect. The kids like that (playing accordion).
GROSS: I like that too.
HOLSHOUSER: (Playing accordion). Anyway, so yeah, that's - and that's done by shaking the bellows back and forth. So yeah, there all kinds of things you can do. You know, you can use the breath - the breathing sound (playing accordion).
HOLSHOUSER: And you just heard the bellows kind of squeezing, flopping together. So yeah, there's a whole bunch of effects you can get.
GROSS: I love it. I love it. Will Holshouser will be back in the second half of the show. His new album is called "Introducing Musette Explosion." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with accordion player and composer Will Holshouser, who brought his according to the studio to play for us. His new album, "Introducing Musette Explosion," features French waltzes and dances in the musette tradition as well as original songs inspired by the musette tradition.
There's an original song I'm going to ask you to play that you do on your new album, "The Musette Explosion." And this is an original song in the style of a French musette. And it's called "Chanson Pop," which translates to pop song.
GROSS: (Laughter) So would you talk about composing it? And there's two different parts to the song. It's, like, a six-minute piece on the recording. I'm going to ask you to play an excerpt of the opening melody. And then we'll talk about that and then we'll play an expert - I'm going to ask you to play an excerpt from deeper in.
GROSS: So - but give us an overview of this piece in writing it and what your intention was.
HOLSHOUSER: Well, one of the kinds of work that I've really enjoyed doing as an accordionist in New York over the last, you know, 20 years or so is accompanying singers. And I've had great pleasure to accompany some singers that do French repertoire from the Chanson tradition, which of course just means song. But it's - for example, the most famous exponent of this Chanson tradition is Edith Piaf. And for a while, I was playing with a great singer from France named Michel Hermoa (ph). And I was the only accompanist. It was really fun because I was - it was just vocals and accordion. So I was the entire backdrop. And he would - he was very good at coaching me and developing these accompaniments. And he said a song - one of these songs is like a movie. So this verse is one scene and you need to create a backdrop. Maybe it's like a sunny day or something. And the next verse or the next part of the song is totally different, create a different backdrop. So to me learning about that tradition - which is a little different from the musette tradition - the musette tradition is more the waltzes, the dances, the dance music. And the Chanson tradition is more the poetic songwriting. There's some overlap, but this piece I was thinking of some of those Piaf songs. And not really trying to imitate them, but sort of trying to tap into the wonderful grandiosity of some of those pieces. So I'll play the opening melody first.
GROSS: Perfect, yes.
HOLSHOUSER: OK. (Playing accordion).
GROSS: That's beautiful. And that's Will Holshouser in our studio playing the opening of his song "Chanson Pop." And I know you said that that's based on, like, Chanson, French song. To me it sounds like it's also based on hymns.
GROSS: And I know that your father was a minister.
HOLSHOUSER: That's right.
GROSS: And I imagine you heard a lot of hymns growing up. Do you hear a little hymn-like quality in that piece?
HOLSHOUSER: You're a very perceptive listener.
GROSS: Aren't I?
HOLSHOUSER: Yes, absolutely. And that's really - for me that's almost the very beginning of my musical life. My interest in music is going to church as a kid, and hearing these hymns and feeling something stirring inside me that I couldn't describe. You know, feeling almost like a kind of truth or something that was a very direct experience, and that I really couldn't put into words.
GROSS: Was it a combination of beautiful music in a sacred place?
HOLSHOUSER: I think so. Yeah. It was, you know, clearly people coming together to be quiet and to think about serious things. My first music teacher was the artist in residence at our church. And he wrote jazz for the services. His name is Douglas Cook, and he wrote very beautiful, very dissonant, meditative jazz that would be in the services. So for me that's the beginning of a lot of my - what I like about music is the hymns, the music that Doug wrote in our service. And to me its music - that what's great about music is it's this internal language that we can all share. It's accessible to everybody.
GROSS: Yes. And one of the beautiful things about hymns is that they're supposed be accessible to everybody in terms of singing. They're not complicated.
GROSS: Like regular people are, as opposed to professional singers - are supposed to be able to sing them. The melodies are usually fairly, you know, simple. They resolve. There's aspects of that in the song that you just played, though it's more complicated than that. But in the second part of that song, which I'm going to ask you play now, it takes a really different turn. It's really low and rumbly. And it almost sounds like organ music for a silent film. So I'm going to ask you play the second part of "Chanson Pop," like that middle part. And if you want to say a few words before playing it?
HOLSHOUSER: Sure. You know, as a composer sometimes following a piece of music through to completion, it's not about making it do something, but about listening to where it is going to go. So I wrote this very, you know, melodic first section. And then for the second section it kind of led me on a harmonic adventure. I wanted to throw some dirt in there and mix it up a little bit, but, you know, I sort of just followed the melody where it went and stuck some chords underneath it. And that's how it wound up the way it did.
GROSS: OK. So this is more of "Chanson Pop," played in our studio by our guest Will Holshouser.
GROSS: I absolutely love that.
HOLSHOUSER: Oh, thank you.
GROSS: Can you describe a little bit of what you're doing there to get those kinds of super-low notes and the dark overtones that you're getting?
HOLSHOUSER: I'm using the standard Stradella system of the accordion, which tends to have a more powerful bass sound. You know, earlier I was describing there's two different kinds of Bass systems on my instrument. This one is punchier. And the base notes are arranged in octaves. So you have different registers. It can give you different options, but they're always some form of the octave. So you get these giant, powerful octaves.
HOLSHOUSER: And I'd say what I'm doing is just leaning on those very hard. And the chords are arranged in a pattern of minor thirds and tritones, you know, which sort of skips around. It's sort of - it's not really in one key, it sort of moves around between three keys in that section. So that also gives it a sense of the overtones and of some kind of harmonic collision maybe.
GROSS: Do you want to just do the left hand for us? And this is the hand that has the little keys not the keyboard - black and white keys - but just the little button keys.
HOLSHOUSER: Right. Let's see.
GROSS: That sounds very organ-like to me. Do you think of it that way?
HOLSHOUSER: Sure, yeah. Yeah, organs have those vast octaves also. Registers - it's the same kind of idea of registers of octaves, but it's produced differently. These are reeds and not pipes, but they're little reed organs, too. You know, it's all kind of the same family of blowing air through some little corner of a little mechanical device to - just crushing air through a small space to make some sound happen.
GROSS: Well, even like a clarinet and a saxophone its blowing air, you know, across a reed and into an instrument.
GROSS: And you're the pumping the air over the reeds with your accordion.
HOLSHOUSER: That's true. So that means I can eat dinner before I play.
GROSS: (Laughter) Can you really?
GROSS: Oh, well, that's nice. You know, it's funny mentioning that. On your album there's times when I think I hear you breathing. And it doesn't sound like the accordion bellows. It sounds like you breathing. And it sounds like you're about to sing, which of course you're not. But do you find that you have to time your breathing according to how you're manipulating the bellows?
HOLSHOUSER: You know, I don't do that consciously. It's kind of a habit. But because I'm thinking in terms of phrases when I'm - usually when I'm improvising then in between phrases I'll - you know, and I noticed that too. When we were mixing the record, like, oh that's really loud can we take that out? You know, sometimes it's embarrassing to hear yourself breathing like that. But, you know, we left some of it in because it's natural. And it's all part of the sound of someone performing on an instrument.
GROSS: And it makes it sound more present in a way because it reminds you there's a person playing that instrument. It's not playing itself.
If you're just joining us, my guest is accordion player and composer Will Holshouser. And he has several bands he plays with and that he leads. He has a new band that he leads called Musette Explosion and they have a new album called "Introducing Musette Explosion." And the album is all original and old musette. It's, like, a French tradition of song waltzes and dances. Let's take a short break here. And then he'll play some more for us, and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is accordion player and composer Will Holshouser. His new album, featuring French waltzes and dances, is called "Introducing Musette Explosion." He brought his accordion to our studio. You've played with many different kinds of bands over the years. And one of the kinds of bands you've played with is Klezmer bands, you know, playing, like, Jewish pop music that dates back to, I don't know, the early 19th century maybe? You tell me.
HOLSHOUSER: Yeah, Eastern European Jewish music.
GROSS: Right. So you're not Jewish. So it just, like, it's the - it's about the music to you, not like personal, cultural heritage or anything.
HOLSHOUSER: That's right.
GROSS: So how did you get involved with Klezmer bands? And what do you really like about the music?
HOLSHOUSER: Well, it's something that it was another feature of living in New York. Being a professional accordionist, you end up getting calls for a dizzying array of work. And I just happened to get calls from Klezmer bands who needed an accordionist. And for - the longest association I've had with a Klezmer musician has been playing with David Krakauer for about 10 years, and that was great. I learned so much from David and from Klezmer about different rhythmic ways of playing the accordion because my job in that band was almost like the rhythm guitar. But that's - for me, that was one of the most exciting things about Klezmer music - is the punchy rhythmic activity.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of what you mean?
HOLSHOUSER: Sure. (Playing accordion).
GROSS: Definitely hear what you mean.
GROSS: You know, it's funny because, like, when I was growing up, there was often an accordion in the Bar Mitzvah band and then, like, really flashy, cheesy restaurant performers. Did you grow up with any of that?
HOLSHOUSER: No. I heard very little accordion music as a kid.
GROSS: I think probably all of that had probably disappeared by the time you were coming of age.
HOLSHOUSER: Yeah. I was born in 1968. So growing up in the '70s and '80s in Boston, I really didn't hear any accordion music. And I think, yeah, the era of, you know - for a long time the accordion was associated with, you know, immigrants or ethnicity or the old world, things that people in the '50s and '60s really wanted to get away from. So - and of course, the wave of cool that came in with rock 'n roll and pop culture in the '60s kind of wiped away a lot of accordion music. So by the time I was a kid discovering music, I - there really wasn't very much around. About the only place I heard the accordion, as a kid in high school, was on records by The Pogues. So, you know...
GROSS: (Laughter) Which is, like, a hip-hop, punk, Irish band.
HOLSHOUSER: You're right, yeah. And I loved it. So then a few years later, when my friend gave me the old accordion, one of the first things that I thought of was The Pogues. And I think there is a connection between folk music and punk rock in terms of the...
GROSS: Well, they made that connection.
HOLSHOUSER: They did. They sure did. Yeah - the raw immediacy of it.
GROSS: Let's close with another track from your new album, "Musette Explosion." And there's a song that you do on it called "Douce Joie," which means sweet joy. And one of the things I really like about this track is that, you know, the trio is made up of you on accordion, Matt Munisteri on guitar and sometimes banjo, and Marcus Rojas on tuba. And I don't think you associate tuba with French musette.
HOLSHOUSER: That's right. Yeah. It's not a part of the traditional style, but...
GROSS: Nor do I associate it with accordion - with any accordion style.
HOLSHOUSER: Right. Well, it's there in - maybe in polka music, you know.
GROSS: OK, sure.
HOLSHOUSER: But it is a lot louder than the accordion. But Marcus is such a master of the tuba. He can blend right in. And, you know, Matt and I started playing this music a long time ago, back in the '90s. And we played with bass players for a while. And, at a certain point, you know, the bass role was almost too defined. So when we thought of playing with Marcus, we didn't just want a tuba player. We wanted Marcus. I'd been a big fan of his for a long time, from Henry Threadgill records and so forth. And Marcus can play the role of bass. He can also be a horn soloist - sound kind of like a French horn. He can make a whole lot of rhythmic effects - bird sounds, whale sounds. So, yeah, he's not just a tuba player. He's a tuba player that can bring a lot of creativity to any situation.
GROSS: Well, I really like the interplay of the tuba and the accordion on this.
HOLSHOUSER: Oh, thanks.
GROSS: Yeah. So let's hear it. Thank you so much for joining us and for playing for us. It's just really been terrific. I really appreciate it.
HOLSHOUSER: Thank you Terry, my pleasure.
GROSS: So this is "Douce Joie," from the new album "Musette Explosion," featuring my guest, Will Holshouser, on accordion.
(SOUNDBITE OF WILL HOLSHOUSER SONG "DOUCE JOIE")
GROSS: Music from Will Holshouser's new album, which is called "Introducing Musette Explosion." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Richard Ford's new book of interconnected short stories - the fourth book about his character, Frank Bascombe. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and short story writer Richard Ford has brought out a new book that takes his beloved hero Frank Bascombe into his sunset years. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Frank may be slowing down, but Ford is still at the height of his powers.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It's such a goofy title. "Let Me Be Frank With You" is the latest installment in the odyssey of Frank Bascombe, the New Jersey everyman Richard Ford introduced almost 30 years ago in his novel "The Sportswriter." Two more Frank Bascombe novels followed and now this - brilliant collection of four interconnected short stories of about 60 pages each called "Let Me Be Frank With You," in which Ford is indeed being Frank Bascombe with us again, as well as being frank about all sorts of touchy topics in America, such as race, politics, the economy, old age and the oblivion that awaits us all.
It's been eight years since "The Lay Of The Land" was published - the novel Ford said would be the final episode in his Frank Bascombe trilogy. I confess - in the intervening years, the distinctive richness of Frank's first- person narrator voice had faded a bit for me. But "Let Me Be Frank With You" brings it back in full surround sound. Frank is now a 68-year-old retired real estate broker and prostate cancer survivor. His poetic awareness, particularly of aging and mortality, is profound and hilarious. Here, for instance, is a rumination from the first story, called simply "I'm Here." Frank has driven to site of a house he used to own by the ocean, and he tells us how mindful he is these days when he gets up and out of his car.
I feel a need to more consciously pick my feet up when I walk - the gramps shuffle being the unmaskable final journey approach signal. It'll also keep me from falling down and busting my ass. What is it about falling? He died of a fall. He broke his hip in a fall and was never the same. How far do these people fall - off of buildings, over spuming cataracts, down manholes? Is it farther to the ground than it used to be? In years gone by, I'd fall on the ice, hop back up and never think a thought. Now it's a death sentence. Why am I more worried about falling than whether there's an afterlife?
Like that other poetic Jersey boy Walt Whitman, Frank views the state of his own body as being in tandem with that of the American body politic. Both are in decline. For instance, Main Street in Frank's home of Haddam, New Jersey, is looking shabby these days. Frank remarks that prime storefront properties sit empty. And rumor has it a dollar store and an Arby's are buying in where Laura Ashley and Anthropology once thrived.
There's a big reason why Frank's internal and external landscapes seem particularly bleak in the four stories in this new collection. They all take place in the early winter of 2012, soon after Hurricane Sandy slammed into the Jersey Shore. The cover of "Let Me Be Frank With You" features a photo of that mangled roller coaster in Seaside Heights that was washed out into the Atlantic Ocean. It's the most iconic image of Sandy's wrath, and it's also an iconic image for Ford's achievement throughout his Frank Bascombe books - books that chart the whole roller coaster ride of life.
Even in his youth, that ride was never a carefree one for Frank. He and his first wife, Ann, divorced after the death of his young son Ralph, and for a long time, he was adrift. Now he's hurtling toward the finish.
In the standout third story here, called "The New Normal," Frank reluctantly visits Ann at the managed care facility she's moved into since getting a diagnosis of Parkinson's. That story is at once a howler filled with mordant observations about how the upscale facility looks like the home decor department at Nordstrom. But it's also tragic, in a mundane way. When Ann mentions elective suicide, Frank responds with his view of the inevitable end of things. I think it's all a matter of space, he says. At some point, you need to leave the theater, so the next crowd can see the movie. Say it ain't so, Frank. I never want him to leave the theater - at least, not before I do. In the meantime, the stories in "Let Me Be Frank With You" have led me back into rereading the earlier Bascombe book - an advantage of art over life.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of the new book "So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "Let Me Be Frank With You" by Richard Ford. We'll feature a new interview with Richard Ford on Wednesday. In the meantime, you can read an excerpt of his new book on our website, freshair.npr.org
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