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.
Frank’s children, Clarissa and Paul, are woven through the narrative as essentially and intermittently as adult children might plausibly be. Clarissa, now twenty-five, staying with Frank during his cancer treatment, has recently split up with her girlfriend, Cookie Lippincott (of whom Frank approves), and brings home, then vanishes with, a man (of whom Frank disapproves) known only as Thom. Paul, meanwhile, ever the odd duck, has settled in Kansas City after university, where he passionately writes card copy for Hallmark; but he makes his way, one-handed fiancée in tow, to Sea Clift for the holiday.
In their honor, Frank has
ordered a “Big Bird et Tout à Fait” Thanksgiving package from Eat No Evil Organic in Mantoloking, where they promise everything’s “so yummy you won’t know it’s not poisoning you.” It 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. Two thousand dollars cheap.
By the time Frank’s ex-wife Ann professes her rekindled love for him and invites herself to the feast, the reader can be assured a disaster is in store; but, as in life, the disasters are not what might have been predicted.
The particular contingencies that shape this latest novel are both new and familiar. In addition to a fizzing, sometimes thrillingly awkward diction and syntax, all three of Ford’s Bascombe books share the picaresque quality alluded to above (and then, and then, and then: much time is spent in Frank’s car, thinking, while driving, upon these incidental but significant encounters; and in every book Frank checks his phone messages a lot). All of them include ruminations on politics and identity (Frank is a southerner in a northern town, and a Democrat in a largely Republican community; a man with few friends, but numerous amiable acquaintances); and all three books grapple, in their different ways, with the shadow of death. Nothing if not eponymous, at least in intention, Frank strives always to strike the balance between an acknowledgment of the inevitable future, i.e., death, and an embrace of the present, of life. It is a tension more naked in The Lay of the Land than ever before:
Getting out on the short end of the branch leaves you (has me, anyway) more interested in life—any life—not less. Since it makes the life you’re precariously living, and that may be headed for the precipice, feel fuller, dearer, more worthy of living—just the way you always hoped would happen when you thought you were well.
In fact, it did happen, at least periodically, when Frank was well; when he came up against the mortality of others—whether that of his nine-year-old son Ralph, whose death shadows all three novels, but The Sportswriterin particular; or the death of an old flame, such as the murdered real estate agent Clair Devane, in Independence Day; or those of strangers, such as the motel patron slain by teenage thieves, also in that novel—an incident upon which Frank reflects:
Death, veteran of death that I am, seems so near now, so plentiful, so oh-so-drastic and significant, that it scares me witless. Though in a few hours I’ll embark with my son upon the other tack, the hopeful, life-affirming, anti-nullity one, armed only with words and myself to build a case, and nothing half as dramatic and persuasive as a black body bag, or memories of lost love.
This embarkation might describe Frank Bascombe’s enterprise in all three books: armed only with words and his self—a sardonic, often funny, sometimes cantankerous, always skeptical self who would frequently deny he has a self at all—Richard Ford’s creation sets out, within strict parameters of realism and moral fiction, to deliver as powerfully “anti-nullity” a narrative as can be imagined. Ford cleaves closely to what is and might, without exaggeration, be, but he is capable of magnificent evocations that capture our current society’s absurdity and, in their intensity, rival any more fantastical literary take upon the world. This novel is proof that realist fiction is every bit as exhilarating as the work of David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon. It is a vitality apparent in the figure of Mike Mahoney, embodiment of so many contradictions—
Today he’s shown up for his meeting in fawn-colored flared trousers that look like they’re made of rubber and cover up his growing little belly, a sleeveless cashmere sweater in a pink ice-cream hue, mirror-glass Brancusi tassel-loafers, yellow silk socks, tinted aviators, and a mustard-colored camel hair blazer currently in the backseat—none of which really makes sense on a Tibetan, but that he thinks makes him credible as an agent.
—or in the vision of Ernie McAuliffe’s funeral cortege interrupted by “a squad of Battle of Haddam re-enactors (Continentals) [coming] higgledy-piggledy, hot-footing it around the corner at the bottom end of Willow Street.”
That said, Ford does not allow improbable pyrotechnics to enliven his plots, and to complicate matters further, in these novels that are manifestly, albeit delicately, novels of ideas, his protagonist rails against reflection from the start: Frank Bascombe is the thinking man’s anti-intellectual. In The Sportswriter, he openly deplores the critical impulse:
Teachers, let me tell you, are born deceivers of the lowest sort, since what they want from life is impossible—time-freed, existential youth forever…. Real mystery—the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book—was to them a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations…. Explaining is where we all get into trouble…. Some things can’t be explained.
For these inexplicable things, of course, we have storytelling, fiction. Ford/Frank excels at descriptions of suburbia: “as I watch [a housing development] drift by below me, its low, boxy, brown-shake buildings set in what was once a farmer’s field, now abutting a strip of pastel medical arts plazas and a half-built Chi-Chi’s, it seems so plainly the native architecture of lost promise and early death”; of minor characters: “Bob Butts is wearing a disreputably dirty brown shawl-collar car coat made of a polymer-based material worn by Michigan frosh in the early sixties but not since, and looks like hell warmed over”; and of major ones, also:
And then I see my son Paul again, wading out of the surf in his soaked cargo shorts, his pasty belly slack for age twenty-seven. He is shoeless, shirtless, his skull—visible through his mullet—rounder than I remember, his beard-stached mouth distorted in a smile, hands dangling, palms turned back like a percy man, his feet splayed and awkward as when he was a kid. He does not look the way you’d like your son to look. Plus, he must be frozen.
And yet Frank Bascombe, we are to believe, has long ago turned his back on the fictional form. When first we encounter him in The Sportswriter, he is a twelve-year veteran of sportswriting who fled to sports from fiction, after publishing a critically acclaimed book of short stories, Blue Autumn. In the course of the novel, this collection turns up in the apartment of a friend who commits suicide; in Independence Day, it surfaces in the library of a rural inn, where Frank spends a night with his son Paul. Only in The Lay of the Land has his literary ghost apparently been laid to rest: Blue Autumn remains unmentioned, like much of Frank’s history, in a time when he has “generalized the past in behalf of a sleek second-act mentality that stressed the leading edge of life to be all life was.” This bravado of late middle age he refers to as “the Permanent Period,” and like all of Frank’s efforts at meditation, it is designed to do away with the need for itself, an invention, or appellation,
specifically commissioned to make you quit worrying about your own existence and how everything devolves on your self…and get you busy doin’ and bein’—the Greek ideal.