Essays and Criticism
The Progression of Frank Bascombe
Frank Bascombe’s journey through 1980s America is a secular one. In all his meetings and conversations with people, not one of them (with the possible exception of Karl Bemish) expresses a belief in God. The characters do not have a religious faith or suggest even for a moment that they look to God for support in difficult times. Bascombe himself tells Karl quite explicitly that he is an atheist. These are people who must make their way through the minefield of human experience without the traditional props and succor that religion has offered to troubled souls.
Given the absence of religion to help people deal with the inescapable vulnerability that is the human condition, it might seem odd—as it indeed seems to Bascombe—that his girlfriend Sally Caldwell remarks, while they are discussing how they perceive themselves, that she sees him “in an odd priestly mode.” Bascombe responds that being seen as some kind of priest is the worst thing imaginable, “since priests are the least self-aware, most unenlightened, irresolute, isolated and frustrated people on the earth.” Bascombe gives no clue as to why he has arrived at such a negative appraisal of priests, but Sally’s observation has more in it than he might care to acknowledge. In a world that has no religious faith, Bascombe acts as a kind of secular shepherd of souls, helping people find and settle into their temporary resting places—their homes—where they can find shelter from life’s storms.
Bascombe’s dealings with Joe and Phyllis Markham are a case in point. In the course of showing them over forty houses in and around Haddam, Bascombe gets to know, like a priest hearing a confession, many of their secrets and a lot about their hopes, desires, and frustrations, not to mention the stresses in their marriage. At one point, after the couple arrives having argued on the way down, Phyllis even asks Bascombe to mediate between them (“I wonder if you’d mind just talking to him”). Bascombe is used to this kind of thing and is not bothered by “steely silences, bitter cryptic asides, eyes rolled to heaven and dagger stares passed between prospective home buyers.” Mostly, in addition to offering whatever helpful comments about real estate that he can muster, he acts as a nonjudgmental listener, a person who can be a receptacle for his clients’ anger and frustration without reacting in a personal way. When, for example, Joe Markham treats Bascombe with thinly disguised contempt and later leaves messages on his answering service, calling him all kinds of unpleasant and obscene names, Bascombe does not let it affect the evenness of his manner. Like a priest, he has a broad understanding of people’s sins and follies, and he also has a certain sense of mission about his work. “I do like to help the poor and displaced,” he later says to Karl, and when he finally manages to get the Markhams installed in a house they can at least tolerate, he takes his leave having “done the best I can by everyone” and asking rhetorically, “What more can you do for wayward strangers than to shelter them?”
But if Bascombe can be seen as a kind of Good Samaritan and secular priest, he is a priest without a theology to guide him. Not only this, he has little belief or trust in the strengths and virtues of the traditional family unit. It is hard to blame him. There is barely a single intact, harmonious family in the novel. Bascombe is unhappily divorced, with a fifteen-year-old son whose life is in crisis (a common result of so-called broken homes); his ex-wife is now unhappily (so it would appear) remarried; Bascombe’s stepbrother Irv Ornstein is divorced twice and his second wife wants no contact with him. The unstable Markhams are on their second marriages, with Joe’s son from his first marriage possessing a conviction for armed robbery; Sally Caldwell’s husband, Wally, disappeared twenty years earlier and has not been heard of since. Marriage is thus presented as a risky undertaking, with the chances of success small and the possibility of lasting pain large. Irv Ornstein resists making any commitment to his current girlfriend, fearing that if he does he will lose his own identity and regret it for the rest of his life. When Irv shows Bascombe an old black and white family snapshot that he has carried around with him for years, it strikes the reader (and Bascombe, who calls it “[Irv’s] precious artifact”) as a relic from a bygone age. The family unit may once have been the foundation unit of society, but it can no longer lay claim to such a position.
With neither faith in God nor family to sustain him, Bascombe has cobbled together a kind of private, secular faith in the value of independence, which he has carefully cultivated during what he calls his Existence Period, the time of stability that followed the turbulence caused by the death of his first son and his subsequent divorce. But he has paid a...
(The entire section is 2011 words.)