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 Prizewinning 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.)
"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....[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-)" Entertainment Weekly
"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
"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
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.
Reading Group Guide
National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist
A New York Times Best Book of the Year
“Ford once again shows why he deserves to be hailed as one of the great American fiction novelists of his generation.”
—The Washington Post Book World
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are meant to enliven your groups discussion of Richard Fords abundant, funny, sorrowful, and miraculously observed new novel, The Lay of the Land.
1. What do you make of the story that opens the novel: that of the community college teacher who, before being gunned down by one of her disgruntled students, was asked if she was ready to meet her maker and replied “Yes. Yes, I think I am” [p. 3]. Why is Frank so riveted by this question? How does he think he might answer in similar circumstances? What does he mean when he says that “Its not a question . . . that suburban life regularly poses to us. Suburban life, in fact, pretty much does the opposite” [p. 4]? Is he right? How do the themes of death, self-accounting, and the terrifying randomness of the American berserker recur throughout The Lay of the Land
2. What does Bascombe mean by the “Permanent Period?” When does he seem to have entered it, and what events threaten to evict him from it? How serious is he when he speaks of its pleasures? In the scheme of this novel, is permanence the same thing as happiness? As resignation?
3. The Lay of the Land is set during Thanksgiving, as The Sportswriter takes place at Easter and Independence Day over a July 4th weekend. How does the holiday figure in the novel? How does Frank feel about it, and how do the other characters appear to be celebrating it? Discuss the novels exploration of themes like gratitude, family, and abundance—as well as the ambiguous meaning of “pilgrim.”
4. What role does politics play in this novel, which occurs during the long, inconclusive hangover of the 2000
presidential election? How does Frank feel about the nations current state of affairs? How do the other characters feel, and to what extent are they characterized by their politics? How does the outcome (or non-outcome) of the vote mirror events in Franks personal life?
5. What has prompted Frank to become a Sponsor, a member of a group “whose goal is nothing more than to help people” [p. 12]? What sort of help does he have in mind, and how does that correspond to what is actually asked of him on his one Sponsorial visit? What does he get from his voluntarism, and how do the services he performs as a Sponsor compare to his kindnesses as a friend, business partner, father, or husband? How do they highlight his failings and deficiencies? What does the very existence of an organization like Sponsors suggest about
American—or at least New Jerseyan—society in the year 2000?
6. What is the significance of Franks career as a realtor? Which of his character traits does it bring into relief? How does it cause him to see the landscape and houses around him, and how does it cause other characters to see him? What does “home” mean to a realtor, who makes his living selling them? What might “home” mean to Franks partner Mike Mahoney (né Lobsang Dhargey), whose original one was in Tibet? Is home, as Frank 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” [p. 14]?
7. Mike Mahoneys name, career-track, and politics suggest a core sample of the American bedrock, except that, as previously mentioned, he happens to be a Buddhist from Tibet. Has the American archetype become someone who was once somebody (or something) else? In what ways are Mike and Frank similar? Are Fords characters constantly becoming new people or simply building additions onto an original structure? And, if Mike represents a paradigm in this novel, what do you make of Anns statement, “We just have to be who we are” [p. 377]?
8. Frank is a cancer survivor, a category whose ambiguity may be surpassed only by the “suicide survivors” that so confuse Mike. How does Frank feel about his condition, and particularly about where it has chosen to turn up in his body?
9. What sort of father is Frank? Which of his surviving children does he favor and for what reasons? To what extent is he still haunted by the death of his first son? Why is he so unnerved when Clarissa, who only yesterday was a straightforward lesbian, brings home a male “friend”? What might account for Franks embarrassment and irritation toward his son Paul and Pauls occasional fury at him? Is Paul right when he accuses his father of “hold[ing] everything . . . down” [p. 396]?
10. How does Frank relate to the women in his life? What sort of husband has he been? How does he react to Anns admission that she still loves him? How has he dealt with his desertion by Sally, and to what extent may he have been complicit in it? (What might it mean when your wife leaves you for a dead man?) What do you make of his Sponsorial call to Marguerite Purcell and of the fact that it transpires without either person alluding to their long-ago sexual fling?
11. For all his relationships, Bascombe seems to be a fundamentally solitary figure. Is this because Ford embeds us so deeply in his consciousness that we experience the essential aloneness that is the hallmark of all consciousness or because Frank really is solitary? What traits or circumstances might make him so?
12. As its title suggests, The Lay of the Land is very much a novel about place. How does Bascombe view his neck of New Jersey? How do his observations about strip malls, McMansions, road houses, and human tissue banks illuminate Bascombes character? How do they comment on the novels action? Does Bascombe loathe the uniformity and ugliness of this environment, or are his feelings about them more complex? Are the authors? What is the significance of the fox that appears in one of the books final scenes?
13. E. M. Forster famously summed up the difference between story and plot as follows: “‘The King died, then the Queen died is the story. ‘The King died, then the Queen died of grief is the plot” [Aspects of the Novel, chapter 5]. What is it that makes the seemingly haphazard events in this novel cohere into a plot? What is the relation between that plots hinges (Franks cancer, Sallys departure, Anns confession, Clarissas disappearance, and Pauls arrival, not to mention the shattering denouement) and its seemingly incidental moments?
14. Frank is both the novels protagonist and its narrator. Every perception and event is filtered through his voice. How would you characterize Franks voice? In what ways does it combine the casual and the literary, the comic and the tragic?
15. Because The Lay of the Land deals with ordinary people engaged in ordinary life in an environment that most readers will find familiar, it is tempting to see it as a miniaturist novel. But its length, its eventfulness, and the sheer, exuberant density of its observations suggest that it is also a work of fictional maximalism like Bellows Herzog or Joyces Ulysses (to which it sometimes alludes). Discuss these approaches to fiction and the ways that Ford reconciles, or navigates, between them.