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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 22nd, 2006
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The Lay of the Land: A Novel

by Richard Ford

The Man In the Big Car

A review by James Campbell

As he meanders towards the end of Part One of The Lay of the Land, Frank Bascombe asks, "Why do so many things happen in cars? Are they the only interior life left?". It is late at night, November 21, 2000, two days before Thanksgiving, and the narrator, like the reader, is coming to a halt after 200 pages of rumination, much of it hosted by Frank's spacious Chevrolet Suburban -- a vehicle that excites both admiration and resentment in his fellow citizens -- all of it conducted in the now familiar orchestration of list-making, back-pedalled self-contradiction, nudged cliché -- "I had a girlfriend, Sally Caldwell, who was giving me the old ‘now or never'" -- and parenthesis. Frank's parentheses, hedged between brackets, dashes, or commas, are the essence of his style and his self. As he observes at one point (in brackets), "There are too many ways to say everything". Compare this sentence --

"When Sally came down later that night and found me asleep on the couch beside the can of Planters with the TV playing, she wasn't unhappy with me -- though she certainly wasn't happy"

-- with this, which is what Ford actually writes:

"When Sally came down later that night and found me asleep on the couch beside the can of Planters with the TV playing (the scene where Joseph Cotten gets bitten by the parrot), she wasn't unhappy with me -- though she certainly wasn't happy."

The bathos, the humour, the likeability, the Frank-ness, are in the parrot and his appropriate bite during the prelude to a marital separation.

Always keen on invoking Sartre and Camus, Frank observes elsewhere that "Other people, in fact -- if you keep the numbers small -- are not always hell". The Lay of the Land, the third instalment of what now presents itself as a turn-of-the-century American chronicle, is bulging with parenthetical put-downs (frequently self-directed), adjectival catalogues and varied "ways to say everything", swimming through Frank's middle-class stream of consciousness. Every other page of the novel contains lists like this one, in which Frank recalls a trip taken with his lesbian daughter, Clarissa, and her lover:

"During my early recovery days, I took her and Cookie to the Red Man Club, my sportsman's hideout on the Pequest, where we shot clay pigeons, played gin rummy, fished for browns till midnight and slept out on the long screen porch on fragrant canvas army cots. We took day trips to the Vet for the last days of the Phillies' season. We visited Atlantic City and lost our shirts. We hiked Ramapo Mountain, the easy part. We went on self-guided tours to every passive park, vernal pond and bird refuge in the guidebook."

The Thanksgiving "package" he has ordered from the organic catering firm Eat No Evil, under direction from Clarissa, "comes with bone china, English cutlery, leaded crystal, Irish napkins as big as Rhode Island, a case of Sonoma red, all finished with ‘not-to-die-for carob pumpkin pie' no sugar, no flour, lard or anything good".

Roughly in line with John Updike's Rabbit series, with which comparisons are unavoidable, Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels have appeared at ten-year intervals. In each one, the action lags behind the date of publication. The Sportswriter (1986) is set in 1983; Frank, thirty-eight and recently divorced from Ann, is the author of a single book of short stories which was "sold to a Hollywood producer for a lot of money". He is working for a "glossy New York sports magazine you have all heard of". By the time of Independence Day, which appeared a decade later, five years have passed in Frank's life; he is preparing to marry Sally, and has forsworn writing for the real-estate business. The Lay of the Land leaps forward twelve years to the 2000 Thanksgiving holiday, the action occurring ten months after the millennium (which the narrator knows, naturally) and ten months before 9/11 (which the reader knows, but he does not). Frank, now fifty-five, is running Realty-Wise Associates, and has "made a bundle". He has left Haddam, New Jersey, for the more salubrious Sea-Clift, sixty-five miles along the Barnegat Bay (some of Ford's names are fictional, others not: residents of made-up Sea-Clift, for example, receive the local news-paper from real-life Asbury). Ann has "purchased back her own former house from me at 116 Cleveland (no commission)". Sally, whom he romanced throughout Independence Day and later married, has departed for Scotland in pursuit of her first husband, Wally, previously assumed dead. Clarissa is coming out of a "committed relationship" with Cookie and is ready to "try men" again (with predictably disastrous consequences). Her brother, Paul, the touching casualty of his parents' separation in the preceding novel, is working for Hallmark, the greetings-card people, in Kansas City and has matured into something it's hard for Frank not to see as oafish. The younger George Bush is headed for the White House, following shenanigans in Florida. However, the major news comes not from the media but from medical reports: Frank has cancer of the prostate. From now on, his life is divided into "before" his diagnosis, when he seems to his present self to have lived without a care and to have been a fool not to realize it, and "after". Every morning in his bay-front house -- "Must be okay to wake up here every day", a visiting policeman says -- every drive in the Suburban, every Happy Hour at an inappropriate "alternative" bar, is dominated by it. Ford being Ford, and Frank being Frank, the prostate theme turns out to have substantial comic mileage.

By choosing yet again to set his story at holiday time (The Sportswriter took place at Easter, Independence Day on the Fourth of July), Ford runs the danger of limiting his scope and pace. It gives his trilogy a conceptual neatness, but risks failing the reader in search of a formal surprise. The three books are largely indistinguishable in tone, and the narrative momentum of The Lay of the Land seems slower, even more digressive, than the two earlier novels. Independence Day used the Fourth of July holiday as a device to carry the real story: a father's attempt to square his primary need, to disencumber himself of an empty marriage, with his children's need to live under a two-parent roof. The depiction of Paul's disrupted little life, and Frank's sincere, clumsy, funny efforts to soothe the hurt he has caused, gave the book its heart. In The Lay of the Land, it is Frank's life that has been disrupted, by his "news", and made to seem little. His "big Suburban", of which the reader occupies the passenger seat, is an extension of what he feels himself to be: good-looking, fortified on the outside, susceptible at all times to damage (it suffers some, too), similar to many vehicles in the thick American holiday traffic -- "only most are newer".

Because there is no plot to The Lay of the Land, and what story there is is mediated through Frank's super-observant consciousness, the action consists of set pieces, either situated in the days around Thanksgiving, or in recollection. Quite a few scenes could have been dispensed with, without endangering the inner or outer character of the novel. For example, the tale of making a good-citizen Sponsor visit to Mrs Purcell, a middle-aged, expensively coiffed widow from the South, whom Frank realizes he has slept with in an earlier chapter of life, could have been cut with a single snip. On the other hand, it is good value, like every page in this long novel; the only aesthetic harm caused by its inclusion is that readers expecting some kind of consequence will be disappointed. Likewise, the implausible pursuit (thwarted, of course) of the waitress-cum-artist Bernice on the morning of Thanksgiving, when Frank, in addition to a dozen other things that require attention (he is hosting dinner for five), is anticipating a transatlantic call from Sally, now decamped from the Inner Hebrides to Maidenhead ("what a name!") and preparing her much-hoped-for return to New Jersey. However, set against the two or three surplus scenes that thicken its waistline, The Lay of the Land has many tours de force, such as the first breakfast-table encounter with Clarissa's experimental beau, Thom ("I'm guessing the spelling"), a man with "DANGER" stamped all over him:

"Thom is known to me and to all men -- fathers, especially -- and loathed . . . . If I had a pistol instead of a handful of house-for-sale sheets, I'd shoot Thom right in the chest in the midst of their cheery bagel 'n cream cheese, eggs 'n bacon ambience and drag him out to the beach for the gulls. (Since I've had cancer, I've compiled an impressive list of people to "take with me" when things get governmentally irreversible . . . .)"

He turns out to be right about Thom, of course. It is a curious facet of Frank's deep-dyed but healthily modern conventionality that he -- and we -- feel reassured when Clarissa chucks her experiment and reverts to commitment with Cookie.

Another of the book's themes is violence, mostly random, "senseless". Frank's wilful geniality and his upmarket address, out of sight and mind of the poor neighbourhoods of Haddam, are no protection against it. Since the events of Independence Day, which took place before the first Gulf War, violence has been threaded through the fabric of US society in ways no one foresaw. As recently as 1988, Frank would have regarded "Islamic fundamentalism" as a problem peculiar to Iran. The introduction of 9/11 into contemporary American (and to a lesser extent English) fiction runs the danger of becoming commonplace. In The Lay of the Land, it functions as a barely audible murmur. Clare, a prospective house-buyer, asks,

"Do you imagine, Frank, that anything could happen in this country to make normal just not be possible? . . . You know? Drop a bomb, we bounce back. What hurts us makes us stronger. D'you believe that?" . . .
"I don't, Clare."
"No. Course not. Me, either. But I want to believe it. And that's what scares the shit right out of me. And don't think they're not sitting over there in those countries that hate us licking their chops . . . ."

Some readers will detect a smidgen of allegory in the appalling events that conclude this instalment of Frank's story, involving a pair of homicidal foreigners and a neighbour's all-American, twin super-status-symbol auto-mobiles. The brief final part of the novel, doused in the fallout from this atrocity --called, both ironically and not, "Thanksgiving" -- offers the reflection: "Violence, that impostor, foreshortens our expectancies, our logics, our next days, our afternoons, our sweet evenings, our whole story".

Frank, however, is a man of the present moment par excellence; while a good amount of his congested mental traffic concerns his past, it is refracted through immediate observation -- at this stop light, on this third Jack Daniels, in preparation for selling this dodgy bay-front house. It is a style overflowing with detail, yet intact because it is utterly Frank Bascombe. And while readers may admire Richard Ford's skilful wrapping of his tale with contemporary ribbons, they will most of all enjoy once again being in Frank's company, registering his comic bite into life as it comes at him. Among many other treasurable incidentals, The Lay of the Land introduces Mike Mahoney, formerly Lobsang Dhargey, a Tibetan Buddhist who is now Frank's realty associate.

"I've told him that one or the other -- Mike Lobsang or Mike Dhargey -- could be an interesting fillip for business. But Mike's view is that after fifteen years in the country he's adjusted to Mike Mahoney and likes being ‘Irish'."

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's books include This Is the Beat Generation, 1999, and Talking at the Gates: A life of James Baldwin, 1991.

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