The Lay of the LandRichard FordAlfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 496 pp.
I first met Frank Bascombe about twenty years ago when I read The Sportswriter, a novel I was introduced to by the manager of the Loyola University bookstore in New Orleans, who later introduced me to Bascombe’s creator, Richard Ford.
I’ve kept in touch with Frank over the years. We have a few things in common: both have taught college and like to write; both lived for years in the Trenton-Princeton, New Jersey, area (Frank read the Trenton Times, for which my father wrote editorials); and both have homes on the Jersey shore-mine an eleven-room place at Sea Bright, which I share with several hundred Jesuits, and Frank’s at Sea-Clift, just a few miles south along the beach.
The Lay of the Land is the third, and perhaps final, volume-after The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995)-chronicling the moment-by-moment adventures of an extraordinarily perceptive but limited man making his best attempt to be good. It’s hard not to like Frank Bascombe. Even when his life-or, in particular, one of his marriages (he has had two)-is falling apart, he struggles to be a good father, to keep his integrity. Laced with wry observations, his conversation holds you-as when, in the days before Thanksgiving 2000, with the presidential election being stolen, he watches George W. Bush on the screen of a barroom TV and muses on “Bush’s grinning, smirking, depthless face...talking soundlessly, arms held away from his sides as if he was hiding tennis balls in his armpits.”
Like every man, Frank is a prisoner of his past, including twists of fate for which he is not responsible. At fifty-five he has prostate cancer, and the Mayo Clinic has “smart-bombed” him with radioactive iodine seeds, and these, along with his hourly urinations, remind him that someday he will die. With this in mind, Frank summons the remnants of his dysfunctional family to his house in Sea-Clift for a Thanksgiving meal. Here, remarkably, Ford-who has no children-portrays a world of complex generational interaction, where virtually everyone is divorced and children routinely rebel against parents who nonetheless continue to love them.
It’s the usual chaos of an American family, albeit a little more so. Frank’s first wife, Ann, divorced him after their young son Ralph died, then married another man who has also died; now she has come back to retest her love for Frank. Sally, his second wife, has left him because her first husband, who she thought was dead, has popped up again-after spending twenty years as a gardener on a Scottish island. Frank’s son Paul, who at fifteen was socked in the eye by a fastball in the climax of Independence Day, is now twenty-seven and writes greeting cards in Kansas City. Flabby and bearded, wearing a gold stud in his ear, he snarls at his father who, he claims, has held him down in life. Everyone, it seems, is damaged. Paul has brought home for the holiday a tall, gleaming girlfriend with a stump where her hand should be. His sister Clarissa, meanwhile, has recently disavowed lesbianism for a stint as a bisexual, accompanied now by a young man whom Frank rightly abhors.
With this cast of characters in the background, Ford zeroes in on his protagonist’s daily life. For three days we accompany Frank on his rounds: attending a funeral; closing a deal on a million-dollar seafront home with his Tibetan immigrant real-estate partner, who has newly renamed himself Mike Maloney; happening on the scene of an explosion at the local hospital; observing the demolition of a historic hotel in Asbury Park; making a “sponsor” visit to a woman seeking advice from a service club where Frank is a member (a woman, coincidentally, with whom he had sex years before). We share some bad hours in local pubs, including one where Frank gets into a fistfight over Bush v. Gore, and another where, while waiting to have a car window repaired at a garage next door, he knocks back three afternoon cocktails, considers a fourth, and breaks into stuttering and tears when reminded of his young son’s death and burial.
Over the years Frank has dabbled in fringe spirituality, card-readers, and Buddhism; and I sometimes wonder if he would have been happier as a Catholic. Perhaps as a member of Call to Action or Voice of the Faithful he could channel his anger into reforming church structures. His first marriage could be declared null and the second validated-if Sally returns. But what sort of Catholic novelist would have suited him as a creator? He’s too middle-class for Evelyn Waugh, and not a big enough sinner for Graham Greene. Instead, he works out his struggles in the world of Richard Ford, where salvation, if it comes at all, is secular.
Not every reader will love Frank. My friend Bob, having read The Sportswriter and Independence Day, says Ford writes beautifully, but considers Frank a zero: a man who lives in the world of his head and does little good for other people. Some critics, meanwhile, are impatient with Frank’s lengthy internal monologues. Here he describes that landmark Asbury Park hotel, about to be blown up by developers: “Standing alone, the Queen Regent looks like one of those condemned men from a hundred revolutions who the camera catches standing in an empty field beside an open grave, looking placid, resigned, distracted-awaiting fate like a bus-when suddenly volleys from off-stage soundlessly pelt and splatter them, so they’re changed in an instant from present to past.” In Frank’s defense, some will agree with his wife Sally when she tells him he is one of those people “who make us feel generous and kind and even smarter than we probably are.” And as for those interior monologues, if read slowly, they can reward a reader’s patience.
The London Tablet calls Ford the New Jersey Chekov; when I interviewed him for an article some years ago, he said his ambition was the same as that of William Dean Howells: to “create a literature worthy of America.” Does The Lay of the Land speak to everyone? Maybe not. But it comes pretty close. It is a novel for men who fear their visit to the urologist; for the spouse who can’t get his ex out of his head; for parents whose children have died young or grown up to snarl at them, children who bring home friends wired to upset the home; for men and women offended by those they have loved and struggling to forgive them; for anyone who has taken a job where he can survive and even “succeed,” but who will die knowing he has settled for a lower road; for everyone whose life has been blessed with moments of grace, yet who approaches death feeling empty, with no inkling of what, if anything, waits on the other side.