THE LAY OF THE LAND
By Richard Ford
Knopf. 485 pp. $26.95
Holidays can be tough, all right; just ask Frank Bascombe. In The Sportswriter (1986), the novel in which Richard Ford introduced us to his introspective American everyman, Easter cruelly resurrected memories of Frank's dead son, his broken marriage and his aborted literary career. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning follow-up, Independence Day (1995), a Fourth of July weekend getaway came to an abrupt halt when an accident befell Frank's surviving son moments after father and child had bitterly fought. The compulsory, half-hearted reflection inspired by most holidays stands in stark contrast to Frank's version, which is hard-won and sincere. And in his own discursive way, Frank always manages to find the kernel of significance at each holiday's core -- the miraculous possibility of a second chance, for instance, or the gratefulness one feels to live in a country where second chances aren't just tolerated but encouraged.
In The Lay of the Land , the eagerly awaited third installment in the Bascombe saga, Ford invites us to spend Thanksgiving with the 55-year-old Frank, who is still selling New Jersey real estate (as he did in Independence Day , having long ago given up the writing life), though he has moved from the picturesque suburb of Haddam to the grittier Jersey Shore town of Sea-Clift. At first glance, it doesn't seem as if Frank has too much to be thankful for. His second wife, Sally, has just left him for her first husband, who has magically reappeared after being presumed dead for decades. A bout with cancer has left Frank with "sixty radioactive iodine seeds encased in titanium BBs and smart-bombed into my prostate." His visiting daughter has brought with her a new paramour Frank hates; his visiting son seethes with bottled-up resentment. And on top of all that, it looks as if the Supreme Court is about to hand the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, a scenario that Frank finds almost as dispiriting as spousal abandonment and life-threatening illness.
Through it all, he's doing his best to remain philosophical, hewing to the rules of what he calls his "Permanent Period," that span of late middle age when "very little you say comes in quotes, when few contrarian voices mutter doubts in your head, when the past seems more generic than specific, when life's a destination more than a journey and when who you feel yourself to be is pretty much how people will remember you once you've croaked -- in other words, when personal integration . . . is finally achieved." Though reasonably effective as a prophylactic against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the Permanent Period and its stoical precepts aren't foolproof, and Frank knows it. "It's loony, of course, to think that by lowering expectations and keeping ambitions to a minimum we can ever avert the surprising and unwanted," he confesses.
Ford's amazing trick here is in coaxing out all that's spectacular in the rather unspectacular stops that make up a New Jersey real-estate agent's itinerary. The Lay of the Land 's first 200 pages describe the ordinary events of a single day, in which Frank's "quest" amounts to nothing more than accompanying his colleague to a potential development site, attending the funeral-home viewing of a deceased friend, performing his duty as a volunteer mentor, visiting his ex-wife at her workplace and getting his dental night guard adjusted. And yet in these same 200 pages Ford once again shows why he deserves to be hailed as one of the great American novelists of his generation and why Frank Bascombe deserves a spot on the modern American fictional-character roster, alongside John Updike's Harry Angstrom, Walker Percy's Binx Bolling and Saul Bellow's Augie March.
In Ford's hands, every one of Frank's mundane errands is pregnant with revelatory potential. Anyone who has ever come to some profound conclusion about the human condition while stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the post office will immediately grasp what the author is doing here: reminding us that even the smallest and most insignificant-seeming of our experiences can trigger the cascade of memories, feelings and observations that combine to form genuine insight.
Frank's insights aren't just flashy aperçus meant to impress before fading away forever; they actually accrete, as if they're being stored in preparation for some explosive moment when he will need all the wisdom he can muster just to survive. And as it happens, that climactic moment always arrives at the end of each Bascombe novel, when Frank is tested by one of those "surprising and unwanted" exigencies that he knows, deep down, can't be averted. In The Lay of the Land , it's a bona fide shocker, though Frank handles it with his characteristic mix of laconic good humor and philosophical equilibrium. He's like Clint Eastwood and William James rolled up into one.
It's probably time we all just accepted that Ford isn't going to do anything about certain tics, such as his jarring references to "Negroes" and "Chinamen" (as if he were writing in 1961), or the manner in which his interlocutors constantly address each other by name when conversing. (Does anybody really do that outside of novels and infomercials?) And it's true that spending long stretches of time with Frank in his hyper-ruminative mode can come to feel a little like "My Dinner With Polonius." Even his friends think so -- one of them, a crotchety old-timer named Wade (some readers will remember him from The Sportswriter ) admonishes him: "You're a nunce, you know that? You like being a nunce. You get to do a lot of good thinking that way."
Ford is more aware of the problem than his creation is, and he occasionally drops wry hints that the overexamined life can be just as troublesome as the unexamined one. But it's a testament to Ford's mastery that we never tire of Frank's company. Whether we're battling rush-hour traffic with him, joining him for a few highballs while his car is in the shop, accompanying him on a client visit or just listening in while he returns some phone calls, we always feel lucky to hang out with him and hear what he has to say. Frank Bascombe -- a divorced, middle-aged New Jersey real-estate agent with health problems, kid problems, ex-wife problems and a deep, submerged grief that erupts volcanically from time to time -- has become our unlikely Virgil, guiding us through the modern American purgatory of big-box stores along frontage roads, slowly decaying town squares and leafy, secret-harboring suburbs. He's there to remind us that glimmering meaning is hiding everywhere, even in the ugliest or most banal of places. ·
Jeff Turrentine's reviews and essays have appeared in Book World, the New York Times and Slate.