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Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land is a sprawling novel covering just a few days in the life of 56-year-old Frank Bascombe, who has previously appeared in The Sportswriter and Independence Day. Readers familiar with these earlier novels will know that Frank has been married twice, and his first marriage to Ann ended after the death of their son Ralph. Frank works as a realtor in New Jersey, and in his job he gets to see people make important decisions about their lives. Frank thinks about people and America a great deal, and he finds them both fascinating and disappointing.
As we meet Frank again, we find he is still in real estate, but he has moved from Haddam (which bore a close relationship to the actual town of Princeton) to Sea-Clift, on the Shore. It is another wealthy community, and Frank has done well for himself. However, he is not feeling so great, because his second wife Sally has recently left him for her first husband, Wally. What's more, Frank has prostate cancer, which is being treated with some success by using radioactive titanium seeds implanted in his prostate. To make matters worse, it is the third week of November in the year 2000, so there's a dispute about result of the national election, and it is looking as if an idiot with the aid of the Supreme Court is going to subvert the democratic process and end up in the White House. Frank spends most of the novel driving around New Jersey seeing various people, and musing about them as well as on the housing market, his Tibetan employee Mike, his wives and two living children, and what his life amounts to.
Frank does not say much to other people, but he thinks at length. The novel is nearly 500 pages, and not much happens. There is some violence, and even a few deaths, but Frank takes them all in his stride. After all, he has seen his own share of death, and he is constantly reminded of his own mortality by his need to pee at least once an hour, and effect of his disease and its treatment. When Frank is interacting with others in his distinctive bristling manner, he generally has some good stories and interesting reflections on what is going on. He has a wry turn of phrase, speaking with a sardonic smile on his face, displaying a skeptical yet strangely generous view of life.
And yet, Thanksgiving won't be ignored. Americans are hard-wired for something to be thankful for. Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude. Even if Aunt Bella's flat-lined and in custodial care down in Rucksville, Alabama, we still "need" her to have some white meat and gravy, and be thankful, thankful, thankful. After all, we are--if only because we're not in her bedroom slippers.
Although Frank is an interesting guide, following him around New Jersey can try the reader's patience. There's not much thrill in finding out what happens next, because we know it is going to be more of the same. The characters we meet are often odd and even bizarre, so they hold our attention for a few pages, but after a while, we may start to wonder why Frank wants to tell the reader so much about his life. His meeting with his daughter Clarissa who has just left her girlfriend and taken up with a man called Thom is a hoot: Frank's scorn for Thom is heartwarming. But after he leaves them, more than half way through the book, Thanksgiving seems hardly any closer than it was when we started, we start to hope we could just get to the point, and what exactly is the point, anyway? How much do we want to know about social trends in New Jersey? Ford tries his reader's patience.
However, once we get into the final stretch of the last hundred paces, the going picks up. Frank is reunited with his hostile and rather pathetic son Paul, and Frank tries to be nice, but Paul seems to be set on remaining angry. This relationship is wonderfully drawn, making the reader glad to have kept reading. Paul is in his late twenties now and he has new girlfriend, Jill, who also works thinking up cards for Hallmark in Kansas City. She lost a hand in an accident, and she writes sympathy cards. Paul is working on a more aggressive line of cards called Smart Alec, for which he can use his ability for puns and off-color jokes.
It's a very distinctive feature of The Lay of the Land that despite the book's length, Frank spends little sustained time with any individial person, and once he has had one encounter with another character, he moves on. These relationships do not really deepen, although a few change. Frank's life is what it is, and there's not much room for character development. Maybe that's what he means when he refers to himself as being in the "Permanent Period." Sometimes it felt as if people were hardly communicating with each other at all, thus bizarrely being reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's plays in which the characters all say their pieces but never really connect with each other. Ford is no advocate of existential angst over the pointlessness of life, nor even of rebellion against social norms, but Frank's narration nevertheless often feels like a monologue into a void. He doesn't need to meet anyone more than once, because one meeting says it all.
This third novel in the Bascombe series is less likeable than the first two, yet it is still a powerful work. Ford's long sentences and paragraphs, written in Frank's distinctive tone of voice, are stunning when they work well. Ford, through Frank, is continually referring to peculiar and distinctive items in American culture and details of everyday life. Through the novel, he shows the difficulty of relationships and the quirks of modern life. Finishing the book is a relief, yet feels like an accomplishment.
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.