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The Lay of the Land (Vintage Contemporaries)by Richard Ford
Tuesday, December 02, 2014 07:30 PM
Powell's City of Books on Burnside, Portland, OR
In his trio of novels portraying the life of an entire American generation, Richard Ford has imagined one of the most indelible characters in modern literature, Frank Bascombe. Now, in Let Me Be Frank with You (Ecco), Ford reinvents Bascombe in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
Richard Ford's anti-hero Frank Bascombe has returned, middle-aged, possibly wiser, more cynical, and heading into a Thanksgiving season without his wife, but with other family members that he might not want to see. Ford is a great writer; in The Lay of the Land, he shows us that acceptance is a good quality to have while giving us the realities of life with sly, deadpan humor.
"When publishers, with heavy heart, stamp 'literary fiction' on books nowadays, they generally mean to brand them as serious in intent, not hitching a lift on genre or journalistic trends. The Lay of the Land is literary in that it is an entirely linguistic edifice. What happens? Frank's consciousness happens. Unlike his short stories, which found 'success' only when sold to Hollywood back in the 1960s, it is practically screenproof." James Campbell, The Times Literary Supplement (read the entire TLS review)
"The Lay of the Land is longer and weaker than both [The Sportswriter and Independence Day]. This isn't to say that Ford is not one hell of a writer; he is. Master of a smooth and seamless American vernacular, funny as hell, he's always a good read. But sentence for sentence or pound for pound, a slugging middleweight is still a middleweight, and by the end of Lay, Ford's a buckle-kneed, arm-weary middleweight clinching and waiting for the bell." Scott Raab, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
With The Sportswriter, in 1985, Richard Ford began a cycle of novels that ten years later — after Independence Day won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award — was hailed by The Times of London as "an extraordinary epic [that] is nothing less than the story of the twentieth century itself."
Frank Bascombe's story resumes, in the fall of 2000, with the presidential election still hanging in the balance and Thanksgiving looming before him with all the perils of a post-nuclear family get-together. He's now plying his trade as a realtor on the Jersey shore and contending with health, marital, and familial issues that have his full attention: "all the ways that life seems like life at age fifty-five strewn around me like poppies."
Richard Ford's first novel in over a decade: the funniest, most engaging (and explosive) book he's written, and a major literary event.
"Frank Bascombe meticulously maps New Jersey with a realtor's rapacious eye, and he is an equally intense topographer of his teeming inner landscape. In the first of Ford's magisterial Bascombe novels (The Sportswriter, 1986), Frank staved off feelings of loss and regret with a dissociated 'dreaminess.' He graduated to a more conventional detachment during what he calls the 'Existence Period' of the Pen/Faulkner and Pulitzer Prize–winning Independence Day (1995). Now we find the 55-year-old former fiction writer and sports journalist in a 'Permanent Period,' a time of being, not becoming. He's long adjusted to the dissolution of his first marriage to women's golf instructor Ann Dykstra (which foundered 17 years earlier after the death of their nine-year-old, firstborn son, Ralph) and settled for eight years with second wife Sally Caldwell in Sea-Clift, N.J. Permanence has proven turbulent: Sally has abandoned Frank for her thought-to-be-dead first husband, and Frank's undergone treatment for prostate cancer. The novel's action unfolds in 2000 over the week before Thanksgiving, as Frank bemoans the contested election, mourns the imminent departure of Clinton ('My President,' he says) and anticipates with measured ambivalence the impending holiday meal: his guests will include his 27-year-old son, Paul, a once-troubled adolescent grown into an abrasive 'mainstreamer,' who writes for Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo., and his 25-year-old daughter, Clarissa, a glamorous bisexual Harvard grad who's unfailingly loyal to her dad. Frank's quotidian routines are punctuated by weird but subtly depicted events: he happens on the scene of a bombing at the hospital in his former hometown of Haddam, N.J., clenches his jaw through an awkward meeting with Ann, provokes a bar fight and observes the demolition of an old building. But the real dramatic arc occurs in Frank's emotional life — until the climax takes him out of his head. Ford summons a remarkable voice for his protagonist — ruminant, jaunty, merciless, generous and painfully observant — building a dense narrative from Frank's improvisations, epiphanies and revisions. His reluctance to 'fully occupy' his real estate career ('it's really about arriving and destinations, and all the prospects that await you or might await you in some place you never thought about') illuminates the preoccupations of the boomer generation; for Frank, an unwritten novel and broken relationships combine with the dwindling fantasy of endless possibility — in work and in love — to breed doubt: 'Is this it?' and 'Am I good?' Frank wonders. The answers don't come easy." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) halt when an accident befell Frank's surviving son moments after father and child had bitterly fought. The compulsory, halfhearted 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 apercus 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 The Washington Post Book World, the New York Times and Slate." Reviewed by Jeff Turrentine, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"The third and most eventful novel in the Frank Bascombe series....Though not as consistently compelling as Independence Day (too many chickens coming home to roost), this reaffirms that Frank Bascombe is for Ford what Rabbit Angstrom is for Updike." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Ford manages to become his character and remove authorial boundaries, transforming his novel into a story told to us by an old friend. A fitting way to complete the Frank Bascombe legacy." Library Journal
"[I]t's a pleasure to see what [Frank's] been up to, and fall back into his dreamy, remarkable voice....
"Lay of the Land...is distinct not only for its singular style but also for its generosity. Ford shows that life is never easy and never placid. We will fight and flail, love and lose. Yet we keep moving forward for that occasional moment of pure understanding." Minneapolis Star Tribune
"[O]ne of its pleasures is the reminder that Ford can do conversation — not just straightforward, revelatory dialogue, but the shorthand, crusty, idiomatic way that guys, particularly business guys, talk to one another." Boston Globe
"Where The Lay of the Land excels is when Ford draws us out of Frank's head and into the world....Yet even this is not enough to sustain the novel....The Lay of the Land hints that there must be more to the story, but it never quite connects with what that is." Los Angeles Times
"By turns hilarious and sad, The Lay of the Land is a fitting end piece...but for those who have been following Frank's peregrinations since 1986, it's not without regret that we watch him shuffle off....It will be a while before we see his like in fiction again." Denver Post
"[T]here are some wonderful, deeply moving passages...buried beneath pages and pages of self-indulgent self-analysis and random ruminations...not the makings of a fitting follow-up to The Sportswriter and Independence Day, only the stale ingredients of an unnecessary and by-the-numbers sequel." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"[A] big, glorious, messy evocation of a life lived, if not always to its fullest, at least as best as it can be under the circumstances." San Francisco Chronicle
"Ford has crafted a near-perfect vernacular for Frank, one that manages to make him simultaneously opaque and transparent." Miami Herald
"There is plenty of comedy, of a low-key, whimsical kind, and the usual assortment of odd characters" A. O. Scott, New York Times
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
A New York Times Best Book of the Year
A sportswriter and a real estate agent, husband and father -Frank Bascombe has been many things to many people. His uncertain youth behind him, we follow him through three days during the autumn of 2000, when his trade as a realtor on the Jersey Shore is thriving. But as a presidential election hangs in the balance, and a postnuclear-family Thanksgiving looms before him, Frank discovers that what he terms “the Permanent Period” is fraught with unforeseen perils. An astonishing meditation on America today and filled with brilliant insights, The Lay of the Land is a magnificent achievement from one of the most celebrated chroniclers of our time.
About the Author
The author of five previous novels and three collections of short fiction, Richard Ford's honors also include the PEN/Malamud Award. He lives in Maine and New Orleans.
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