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2 Burnside Literature- A to Z

The Lay of the Land (Vintage Contemporaries)

by

The Lay of the Land (Vintage Contemporaries) Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Part 1

Toms River, across the Barnegat Bay, teems out ahead of me in the blustery winds and under the high autumnal sun of an American Thanksgiving Tuesday. From the bridge over from Sea-Clift, sunlight diamonds the water below the girdering grid. The white-capped bay surface reveals, at a distance, only a single wet-suited jet-skier plowing and bucking along, clinging to his devil machine as it plunges, wave into steely wave. “Wet and chilly, bad for the willy,” we sang in Sigma Chi, “Dry and warm, big as a babys arm.” I take a backward look to see if the NEW JERSEY'S BEST KEPT SECRET sign has survived the tourist season—now over. Each summer, the barrier island on which Sea-Clift sits at almost the southern tip hosts six thousand visitors per linear mile, many geared up for sun n fun vandalism and pranksterish grand theft. The sign, which our Realty Roundtable paid for when I was chairman, has regularly ended up over the main entrance of the Rutgers University library, up in New Brunswick. Today, Im happy to see its where it belongs.

New rows of three-storey white-and-pink condos line the mainland shore north and south. Farther up toward Silver Bay and the state wetlands, where bald eagles perch, the low pale-green cinder-block human-cell laboratory owned by a supermarket chain sits alongside a white condom factory owned by Saudis. At this distance, each looks as benign as Sears. And each, in fact, is a good-neighbor clean- industry-partner whose employees and executives send their kids to the local schools and houses of worship. Management puts a stern financial foot down on drugs and pedophiles. Their campuses are well landscaped and policed. Both stabilize the tax base and provide locals a few good yuks.

From the bridge span I can make out the Toms River yacht basin, a forest of empty masts wagging in the breezes, and to the north, a smooth green water tower risen behind the husk of an old nuclear plant currently for sale and scheduled for shutdown in 2002. This is our eastern land view across from the Boro of Sea-Clift, and frankly it is a positivists version of what landscape-seascape has mostly become in a multi-use society.

This morning, Im driving from Sea-Clift, where Ive abided the last eight years, across the sixty-five-mile inland trek over to Haddam, New Jersey, where I once lived for twenty, for a day of diverse duties—some sobering, some fearsome, one purely hopeful. At 12:30, Im paying a funeral-home visitation to my friend Ernie McAuliffe, who died on Saturday. At four, my former wife, Ann Dykstra, has asked to “meet” me at the school where she works, the prospect of which has ignited piano-wire anxiety as to the possible subjects—my health, her health, our two grown and worrisome children, the surprise announcement of a new cavalier in her life (an event ex-wives feel the need to share). I also mean to make a quick stop by my dentists for an on-the-fly adjustment to my night guard (which Ive brought). And I have a Sponsor appointment at two—which is the hopeful part.

Sponsors is a network of mostly central New Jersey citizens—men and women—whose goal is nothing more than to help people (female Sponsors claim to come at everything from a more humanistic/nurturing angle, but I havent noticed that in my own life). The idea of Sponsoring is that many people with problems need nothing more than a little sound advice from time to time—not problems youd visit a shrink for, or take drugs to cure, or that requires a program Blue Cross would co-pay. Just something you cant quite figure out by yourself, and that wont exactly go away, but that if you could just have a common-sense conversation about, youd feel a helluva lot better. A good example would be that you own a sailboat but arent sure how to sail it very well. And after a while you realize youre reluctant even to get in the damn thing for fear of sailing it into some rocks, endangering your life, losing your investment and embittering yourself with embarrassment. Meantime its sitting in gaspingly expensive dry dock at Brads Marina in Shark River, suffering subtle structural damage from being out of the water too long, and youre becoming the butt of whispered dumb-ass-novice cracks and slurs by the boatyard staff. You end up never driving down there even when you want to, and instead find yourself trying to avoid ever thinking about your sailboat, like a murder you committed decades ago and have escaped prosecution for by moving to another state and adopting a new identity, but that makes you feel ghastly every morning at four oclock when you wake up covered with sweat.

Sponsor conversations address just such problems, often focusing on the debilitating effects of ill-advised impulse purchases or bad decisions regarding property or personal services. As a realtor, I know a lot about these things. Another example would be how do you approach your Dutch housekeeper, Bettina, whos stopped cleaning altogether and begun sitting in the kitchen all day drinking coffee, smoking, watching TV and talking on the telephone long-distance, but you cant figure out how to get her on track, or worst case, send her packing. Sponsor advice would be what a friend would say: Get rid of the boat, or else take some private lessons at the yacht club next spring; probably nothings all that wrong with it for the time being—these things are built to last. Or Ill write out a brief speech for the Sponsoree to deliver to Bettina or leave in the kitchen, which, along with a healthy check, will send her on her way without fuss. Shes probably illegal and unhappy herself.

Anybody with a feet-on-the-ground idea of what makes sense in the world can offer advice like this. Yet its surprising the number of people who have no friends they can ask sound advice from, and no capacity to trust themselves. Things go on driving them crazy even though the solutions usually as easy as tightening a lug nut.

The Sponsor theory is: We offer other humans the chance to be human; to seek and also to find. No donations (or questions) asked.

A drive across the coastal incline back to Haddam is not at all unusual for me. Despite my last decade spent happily on the Shore, despite a new wife, new house, a new professional address—Realty-Wise Associates—despite a wholly reframed life, Ive kept my Haddam affiliations alive and relatively thriving. A town you used to live in signifies something—possibly interesting—about you: what you were once. And what you were always has its private allures and comforts. I still, for instance, keep my Haddam Realty license current and do some referrals and appraisals for United Jersey, where I know most of the officers. For a time, I owned (and expensively maintained) two rental houses, though I sold them in the late-nineties gentrification boom. And for several years, I sat on the Governors Board of the Theological Institute—that is, until fanatical Fresh Light Koreans bought the whole damn school, changed the name to the Fresh Light Seminary (salvation through studied acts of discipline) and I was invited to retire. Ive also kept my human infrastructure (medical- dental) centered in Haddam, where professional standards are indexed to the tax base. And quite frankly, I often just find solace in the leaf-shaded streets, making note of this change or that improvement, whats been turned into condos, whats on the market at what astronomical price, where historical streets have been revectored, buildings torn down, dressed up, revisaged, as well as silently viewing (mostly from my car window) the familiar pale faces of neighbors Ive known since the seventies, grown softened now and re- charactered by times passage.

Of course, at some unpredictable but certain moment, I can also feel a heavy curtain-closing sensation all around me; the air grows thin and dense at once, the ground hardens under my feet, the streets yawn wide, the houses all seem too new, and I get the williwaws. At which instant I turn tail, switch on my warning blinkers and beat it back to Sea-Clift, the ocean, the continents end and my chosen new life— happy not to think about Haddam for another six months.

What is home then, you might wonder? The place you first see daylight, or the place you choose for yourself? Or is it the someplace you just cant keep from going back to, though the air theres grown less breathable, the futures over, where they really dont want you back, and where you once left on a breeze without a rearward glance? Home? Homes a musable concept if youre born to one place, as I was (the syrup-aired southern coast), educated to another (the glaciated mid-continent), then come full stop in a third— spending years finding suitable “homes” for others. Home may only be where youve memorized the grid pattern, where you can pay with a check, where someone youve already met takes your blood pressure, palpates your liver, slips a digit here and there, measures the angstroms gone off your molars bit by bit—in other words, where your primary care-givers await, their pale gloves already pulled on and snugged.

My other duty for the morning is to act as ad hoc business adviser and confidant to my realty associate Mike Mahoney, about whom some personal data would be noteworthy.

Mike hails from faraway Gyangze, Tibet (the real Tibet, not the one in Ohio), and is a five-foot-three-inch, forty-three-year-old realty dynamo with the standard Tibetans flat, bony-cheeked, beamy Chinamans face, gun-slit eyes, abbreviated arm length and, in his case, skint black hair through which his beige scalp glistens. “Mike Mahoney” was the “American” name hung on him by coworkers at his first U.S. job at an industrial-linen company in Carteret—his native name, Lobsang Dhargey, being thought by them too much of a word sandwich. Ive told him that one or the other—Mike Lobsang or Mike Dhargey—could be an interesting fillip for business. But Mikes view is that after fifteen years hes adjusted to Mike Mahoney and likes being “Irish.” He has, in fact, become a full-blooded, naturalized American—at the courthouse in Newark with four hundred others. Still its easy to picture him in a magenta robe and sandals, sporting a yellow horn hat and blowing a ceremonial trumpet off the craggy side of Mount Qomolangma—which is often how I think of him, though he never did it. Youd be right to say I never in a hundred years expected to have a Tibetan as my realty associate, and that New Jersey homebuyers might turn skittish at the idea. But at least about the second of these, what might be true is not. In the year and a half hes worked for me, since walking through my Realty-Wise door and asking for a job, Mike has turned out to be a virtual lion of revenue generation and business savvy: unceasingly farming listings, showing properties, exhibiting cold-call tenacity while proving artful at coaxing balky offers, wheedling acceptances, schmoozing with buyers, keeping negotiating parties in the dark, fast-tracking loan applications and getting money into our bank account where it belongs.

Which isnt to say hes a usual person to sell real estate alongside of, even though hes not so different from the real estate seller Ive become over the years and for some of the same reasons—neither of us minds being around strangers dawn to dusk, and nothing else seems very suitable. Yet Im aware some of my competitors smirk behind both our backs when they see Mike out planting Realty-Wise signs in front yards. And though occaisonally potential buyers experience a perplexed moment when a voice inside them shouts, “Wait. Im being shown a beach bungalow by a fucking Tibetan!”—most clients come around soon enough to think of Mike as someone special whos theirs, and get over his unexpected Asian-ness as I have, to the point they can treat him like any other biped.

Looked at from a satellite circling the earth, Mike is not very different from most real estate agents, who often turn out to be exotics in their own right: ex-Concorde pilots, ex-NFL linebackers, ex-Jack Kerouac scholars, ex-wives whose husbands run off with Vietnamese au pairs, then wish to God they could come back, but arent allowed to. The real estate sellers role is, after all, never one you fully occupy, no matter how long you do it. You somehow always think of yourself as “really” something else. Mike started his strange lifes odyssey in the mid-eighties as a telemarketer for a U.S. company in Calcutta, where he learned to talk American by taking orders for digital thermocators and moleskin pants from housewives in Pompton Plaines and Bridgeton. And yet with his short gesturing arms, smiley demeanor and aggressively cheerful outlook he can seem and act just like a bespectacled little Adams-appled math professor at Iowa State. And indeed, in his duties as a residential specialist, hes comprehended his role as being a “metaphor” for the assimilating, stateless immigrant wholl always be what he is (particularly if hes from Tibet) yet who develops into a useful, purposeful citizen who helps strangers like himself find safe haven under a roof (he told me hes read around in Camus).

Over the last year and a half, Mike has embraced his new calling with gusto by turning himself into a strangely sharp dresser, by fine- tuning a flat, accentless news-anchor delivery (his voice sometimes seems to come from offstage and not out of him), by sending his two kids to a pricey private school in Rumson, by mortgaging himself to the gizzard, by separating from his nice Tibetan wife, driving a fancy silver Infiniti, never speaking Tibetan (easy enough) and by frequenting—and probably supporting—a girlfriend he hasnt told me about. All of which is fine. My only real complaint with him is that hes a Republican. (Officially, hes a registered Libertarian—fiscal conservative, social moderate, which makes you nothing at all.) But he voted for numbskull Bush and, like many prosperous newcomers, stakes his pennant on the plutocrats principle that whats good for him is probably good for all others—which as a world-view and in spite of his infectious enthusiasm, seems to rob him of a measure of inner animation, a human deficit I usually associate with citizens of the Bay Area, but that he would say is because hes a Buddhist.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780679776673
Author:
Ford, Richard
Publisher:
Vintage Books USA
Author:
Ford, Richard
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Real estate agents
Subject:
Divorced men
Subject:
New jersey
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Publication Date:
20070731
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
496
Dimensions:
8 x 5.15 x 1.05 in 0.8 lb

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Related Subjects

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History and Social Science » American Studies » Popular Culture

The Lay of the Land (Vintage Contemporaries) Used Trade Paper
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Product details 496 pages Random House - English 9780679776673 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

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.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "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.)
"Review A Day" by , "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." (read the entire TLS review)
"Review A Day" by , "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." (read the entire Esquire review)
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[I]t's a pleasure to see what [Frank's] been up to, and fall back into his dreamy, remarkable voice....[B]ut in Lay for the first time it feels as if Ford tries to make up for the long swatches of inaction by throwing in a lot of hard-to-believe intrigue. (Grade: B-)"
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "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."
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "[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."
"Review" by , "Ford has crafted a near-perfect vernacular for Frank, one that manages to make him simultaneously opaque and transparent."
"Review" by , "There is plenty of comedy, of a low-key, whimsical kind, and the usual assortment of odd characters"
"Synopsis" by , NATIONAL BESTSELLER

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.

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