American readers love lonely guys, with their emotional weightlessness and tender detachments. Given such an edge, Richard Ford should have little trouble becoming a literary heartthrob. Author of two earlier novels, A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck, he has already demonstrated his storytelling abilities and technical skills. He has also cultivated an engaging narrative voice, one of those down-home deliveries that can sound like Huck Finn with a college education.

Twenty years ago, Frank Bascombe, hero of Ford's new novel, probably would have been a college English instructor with a stalled novel, a broken marriage and a...

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