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Is Frank Bascombe a loser? Does it matter?

As "Be Mine," Richard Ford's fifth (and supposedly final) book about fictional avatar Bascombe, gets underway, the onetime sportswriter/now retired real estate agent is twice divorced, emotionally estranged from the adult daughter who was once the apple of his eye, regularly hiring a massage therapist in order to flirt with and daydream about her, and — as ever — unusually prone to nosy, idle speculation about the lives of people he doesn't know.

Now 74, Bascombe's once-expansive life has contracted considerably. It's early 2020, and he's been forced into the role of primary caregiver to son Paul, 47 and recently diagnosed with ALS. The setting has shifted from suburban New Jersey, Bascombe's longtime stomping grounds, to Minnesota, where Paul is enrolled in a clinical trial at the Mayo Clinic.

Frank loves but has never much liked Paul, a prickly man-child with a love of corny puns, a large collection of T-shirts with silly slogans ("Genius at Wrok") and a ventriloquist's dummy that his father loathes. The fact that Frank is now expecting to outlive his son hasn't changed their strained dynamic.

Over three previous novels and a collection of four linked novellas, Bascombe has narrated his way through the minutiae of daily life — grappling with family and work, musing on current events and societal trends, atomizing interpersonal interactions and suburban existence.

If it all sounds a little drab, it's not. Ford is, as ever, a deeply skilled prose stylist, infusing the quotidian with a kind of muscular grace. In his hands the normal feels new, the mundane extraordinary. If "Be Mine" is a bit smaller and less given to vintage Bascombe rambles than its predecessors, that feels right, given the way that aging can shrink one's world.

Minnesotans are likely to enjoy Ford's hyper-local references to Rochester (Comanche Mall, Kutzky Park, Mayo's Gonda Building) and incisive takes on our manners and quirks. Minnesotans "say 'yeah-no' to everything," he writes, later describing that peculiar verbal tic as "the entire human condition in two words." This is surely the most substantial novel ever to be set primarily in Minnesota's medical capital.

The locale shifts a little more than halfway through, as Frank and Paul, finished with his clinical trial, set out on a road trip to see Mount Rushmore. In this way, "Be Mine" parallels the second Bascombe book, "Independence Day," in which a 40-something Frank and adolescent Paul disastrously road-tripped to various sports halls of fame. That novel, released in 1995, showed how parents and children can so easily disappoint one another, setting lifelong patterns that become nearly impossible to break.

"Be Mine" shows how drastic things might need to get to finally make that break. If Frank has never been able to shake the suspicion that he raised a loser — and wonders what that says about him — he also sees, at the end of the road, that maybe that doesn't matter much at all.

Patrick Condon is a night city editor at the Star Tribune.

Be Mine

By: Richard Ford.

Publisher: Ecco/Harper Collins, 352 pages, $30.