For twenty years, Frank Bascombe has wandered his way through the prosperous suburbs of New Jersey and the American literary landscape, reflecting, reacting, and simply getting on with his life. He first appeared in Richard Ford’s 1986 novel The Sportswriter, set in 1983: a divorced thirty-eight-year-old with a quietly held tragedy, an eye for the ladies, and an affable engagement with his late-century anomie. In Independence Day, published ten years later but set in 1988, he had switched professions—from sportswriter to realtor—and although he dithered, still, in matters romantic, he was at pains, albeit haplessly, to show his engaged love for his adolescent children, Clarissa and, primarily, his troubled son Paul.
This time around, in The Lay of the Land, it is November of the millennium year, and Frank Bascombe is a ripe fifty-five, caught in a new sort of limbo: he is battling prostate cancer, uncertain of whether treatment has been successful; his second wife, Sally, has abandoned him for her first husband, Wally, long presumed dead but suddenly revealed to have been living in Scotland all these years; and the entire nation is on tenterhooks, awaiting the verdict of the infamous 2000 national election. All life, it seems, is up in the air.
The novel is set over several days around Thanksgiving (just as The Sportswriter is set at Easter-time, and Independence Day around the Fourth of July), and the course of its action is mundane even by Bascombian standards. Whereas in the earlier books Frank ventured afield—to Detroit for the weekend with his girlfriend, or to Springfield, Massachusetts, with young Paul—this time, he confines himself to the familiar, beetling between his shoreside hometown of eight years, Sea Clift, and his former stomping ground, Haddam, where his ex-wife has returned to live.
His days are marked out by a variety of small encounters, both deliberate and random. He meets several times and in various places with his exuberant younger colleague, Mike Mahoney, aka Lobsang Dhargey, a nattily dressed diminutive Tibetan who has zealously embraced America’s capitalist dream; in the course of his volunteer counseling work as a “Sponsor,” he meets with a stranger named Marguerite Purcell, who strangely resembles, and may indeed be, a former lover; he meets with his ex-wife, “Ann Dykstra-Bascombe-Dykstra-O’Dell-Dykstra,” at the wonderfully named De Tocqueville Academy in Haddam, where she teaches golf; he meets with his elderly friend Wade Arcenault, the father of his long-ago girlfriend Vicki, to attend the implosion of an abandoned hotel, the Queen Regent in Asbury Park; and so on. There are also those meetings, equally important, which are incidental: he runs across his dentist in the street; he scuffles with the horrid and horridly named Bob Butts in the Johnny Appleseed Bar of the August Inn; he chats at length with a bartender he nicknames “Termite” in a lesbian bar he frequented, in its former incarnation, with his divorced men’s group; and he converses with Chris, a Gatsby-reading car mechanic …