Tournament of Books 2015

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006
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The Lay of the Land: A Novel

by Richard Ford

One Too Many

A review by Scott Raab

With The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford has finished a Frank Bascombe trilogy, which must be a relief, since by his own modest account he never intended to write three versions of what essentially is the same novel. He started the cycle in the mid-1980s with The Sportswriter, followed in 1995 by Independence Day, a Pulitzer-prize winner sometimes listed as one of the best American novels of the 20th century. Bascombe -- rootless, passive, and numbly solipsistic -- has gained critical stature as a newish Willy Loman or Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, an avatar of modern American manhood, while Ford himself has been proclaimed by no lesser a god of fiction than his late pal Ray Carver to be the land's best writer, "sentence for sentence."

Nonsense. The Sportswriter is an undeniably great and peculiar novel, a minor-key fugue about a man concussed by the death of his oldest child and disconnected from his marriage -- his estranged wife is named "X" -- and his surviving kids. Independence Day reaches for more and grasps not quite as much. The Lay of the Land is longer and weaker than both. 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.

Part of the problem is Frank Bascombe as a first-person narrator, the author of his life and times. Ford (and Bascombe) has been praised for a lack of irony, but that's sheer bullshit: Bascombe -- who once abandoned a promising literary career to become a sportswriter, then abandoned that job to become a New Jersey real estate agent, and who constantly reminds us that literature tells lies about the things that truly matter in our lives -- has now served as a center of consciousness for a total of 1,333 pages of literary fiction about the things that truly matter in our lives. So when the big, novelistic, epiphanic moments do arrive and Ford's diction rises, Bascombe, who spends an awful lot of space naming stores and shops and talking real estate -- The Lay of the Land is both messy and underedited -- winds up sounding more silly than solemn: "Deep in my heart-space a breaking is. And as in our private moments of sexual longing when the touch we want is far away, a groan comes out of me....Breath loss clenches my belly into a rope-knot, clenching, clenching in....Yes, yes and yes. No more no's. No more no's. No more no's." The effect is not moving as much as muddled, Molly Bloom channeled through Joe Piscopo.

Worse, Ford has failed, however nobly, to convince at least one reader that Frank Bascombe has ever buried a child. Frank is so glib, so full of fortune-cookie wisdom, that when he breaks down in fresh grief over a son dead 18 years and is somehow surprised ("Years ago I knew that mourning could be long. But so long?"), it's far too easy to dismiss his loss -- and too hard to forget that Richard Ford has never been a dad. I know, I know: Gus Flaubert said, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." I'll go with Charlie Parker: "If you haven't lived it, it won't come out your horn."

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