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.
In the new novel, for the first time, Frank seems fleetingly to acknowledge that his story—the one he is telling us—is not simply a monologue of “doin'” but a fiction of its own. About to embark on the telling of a dream, he frets, “Tell a dream, lose a reader”—an admission which presumes a reader or two to lose. As for the “bein’,” Frank has never been too good at that—that is to say, he’s never been easily able fully to inhabit himself. In The Sportswriter, set a couple of years after the death of his oldest child, his then-nine-year-old son Ralph, Frank still lives in a state of what he calls “dreaminess”:
Sometimes I would wake up in the morning and open my eyes to X lying beside me breathing, and not recognize her! Not even know what town I was in, or how old I was, or what life it was, so dense was I in my particular dreaminess.
In Independence Day, he has become less vague, but still struggles to commit himself to anything, including to his girlfriend Sally Caldwell. The Emersonian advice he longs to offer his son is, indeed, advice for himself as well: “Discontent is the want of self-reliance; it is infirmity of will.” Or, as his younger self might have put it, discontent is the realm of the factualist, and it’s a literalist you want to be:
A literalist is a man who will enjoy an afternoon watching people while stranded in an airport in Chicago, while a factualist can’t stop wondering why his plane was late out of Salt Lake, and gauging whether they’ll still serve dinner or just a snack.
Frank’s hope for himself, in The Lay of the Land (which will be, according to its author, the concluding—and hence defining—volume in Frank Bascombe’s fictional memoir), is that, at the age of fifty-five, in the year 2000, living with prostate cancer and without his second wife, he may attain a certainty, a definiteness, a state of inhabited being that has heretofore eluded him (and of which his all-American Tibetan Buddhist partner Mike Mahoney would approve):
I’d thought Ralph’s finality, my acceptance and succession to the Next Level and general fittedness to meet my Maker were my story, what the audience would know once my curtain closed—my, so-to-speak, character…. This happens when you have cancer, though it’s not a fun happening.
But he discovers, to his chagrin, that “now there’s more?… That this isn’t it? That there’s no it, only is. Hard to know if this is heartening or disheartening news to a man who, as my son says, believes in development.”
Development, of course, is an apt word for Frank. When Paul accuses his father of being “all about development” he is condemning Frank for failing to accept life. The bathetic analogy of psychology or spirituality—of reality, if you will—to realty is at the heart of Paul’s insult. Ford hasn’t chosen Frank Bascombe’s career at random, but rather as a metaphor for both Frank’s interior state and that of the nation at large. As Frank himself observes,
I’ve been a real estate agent for fifteen years, and can see that real estate’s a profession both spawned by and grown cozy with our present and very odd state of human development. In other words, I’m implicated: You have a wish? Wait. I’ll make it come true (or at least show you my inventory). If you’re a Bengali ophthalmologist with your degree from Upstate and have no desire to return to Calcutta to “give back,” and prefer instead to expand life, open doors, let the sun in—well, all you have to do is travel down Mullica Road, let your wishes be known to a big strapping guinea home builder and his smiling, nodding, truth-dispensing, dusky-skinned sidekick, and you and civilization will be on the same page in no time.
But he also allows that “the real estate seller’s role is, after all, never one you fully occupy, no matter how long you do it. You somehow always think of yourself as ‘really’ something else”; and says of himself, when at work showing a client a property, “I am rightly placed here, doing the thing I apparently do best—grounded, my duties conferring a pleasant, self-actualizing invisibility—the self as perfect instrument.”
In light of this, “development” carries echoes, again, of a careful sidestepping of being itself: Frank is someone whose choices have allowed him to avoid responsibility, indeed, reality, and its ineluctable force, either by always thinking of himself as “really” something else, or by effacing himself in the service of others’ desires, “the self as perfect instrument.” It is small wonder, then, that the novel’s chief “epiphany” concerns Ralph’s long-ago death, the finality of which Frank realizes he has never truly accepted. After reading about the death of another realtor’s son in a local magazine, Frank is driven, exceptionally, to a breakdown of grammar: “Your life is founded on a lie, and you know what the lie is and won’t admit it, maybe can’t. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Deep in my heart space a breaking is.” Whatever else, Frank is verbally facile (“armed only with myself and words to make a case”), and we are surely to take this brief syntactical disintegration as the trace of something truer than words: the expression of his genuine self.
The Lay of the Land, then, ought to be a novel about Frank Bascombe finally growing up, about his learning, in spite of his ambivalence and his waywardness, to confront the reality of death and the concomitant, unchangeable reality of his self. But it is, instead, a novel in which the philosophical position of Mike Mahoney, with his unlikely marriage of Tibetan Buddhism and American capitalism, emerges as almost heroic: before the novel is done, Frank will confront death on other, unexpected fronts, and will return, at last, to an acceptance of what is—this strange, surreal American present—rather than to any understanding of it. The book’s final pages find Frank on an airplane descending into Rochester, Minnesota, surrounded entirely by other patients of the Mayo Clinic:
The big brassy stewardess, whose name tag says Birgit, stands up like a friendly stalag matron and begins talking into a telephone receiver turned upside down, working her dark mannish eyebrows at the comedy of knowing none of us can understand anything she says.
As they land at the airport, “we resume our human scale upon the land,” and this is where Frank leaves us, no longer examining himself, or others, from above, but necessarily in his life, on its small scale, aware, like the stewardess, of the comedy of it all, the comedy of not understanding anything.
The Lay of the Land may be simultaneously the messiest and the finest of Richard Ford’s three Bascombe books. In retrospect, the tight, almost tough obliquity of The Sportswriter, remarkable as it is, can seem slightly mannered, in the way of youth, as if the character and his creator are both uneasy about saying outright what they really mean (after all, what is Frank’s “dreaminess,” exactly?). There are elisions that bespeak Frank’s emotional state; but they seem sometimes at odds with what Frank excoriates as “a minor but pernicious lie of literature,” which is that
after significant or disappointing divulgences, at arrivals or departures of obvious importance, when touchdowns are scored, knock-outs recorded, loved ones buried, orgasms notched, that at such times we are any of us in an emotion, that we are within ourselves and not able to detect other emotions we might also be feeling, or be about to feel, or prefer to feel.
For Frank at thirty-eight, ambivalence is often manifested as a genial neutrality, a complexity that, in proving ineffable, comes to seem like a lack of complexity altogether. The Frank of Independence Day, more mature than his predecessor, though no less verbally acute, is capable of more expansive sentences, and with them, of more fully articulated emotion. That said, for all its strengths, Independence Day does not attain the urgency of this new book: Frank’s forty-four-year-old’s fear of death is placated by being in the middle of life, and by a firm belief, in spite of random, lurking dangers, that that life will continue. When he reads in the Trenton Times about the motel murder to which he was practically a witness, he records:
The vacationers were from Utah; they were bound for the Cape; the husband was stabbed; the alleged assailants were fifteen—the age of my son—and from Bridgeport. No names are given, so that all seems insulated from me now, only the relatives left to bear the brunt.
Death, when rendered nameless, loses its sting; and Frank, with the appearance of the news report—the mediation of the story by the press—finds himself “insulated” from the facts of his experience, and safe.
Frank at fifty-five, however, is up against his losses, against the finality of life, and against the questions of what makes it all worth living. All insulation has worn away. The novel’s first chapter is entitled “Are You Ready to Meet Your Maker?” and it is the book’s first question; to which Frank replies that
there was still something I needed to know and didn’t, something which the shock of the ocean’s burly heft and draw made me feel was still there to be found out and that could make me happy.
If an answer is to be found, it will be already there, in his life, in Sea Clift, or in Haddam, or on the highways or back roads in between: it’s worth it to him to take the time to look.
Hailed in reviews as an Everyman, the successor to Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, a representative of his American generation, Frank Bascombe is all and none of these things. For all that he endorses the life lived over the life observed, he’s a sight more introspective than most people, and considerably more articulate about his introspection, too. He is less at ease in his skin than Rabbit Angstrom, and more likable for it. On top of which, he’s an optimist with a sense of irony. He’s a pleasure to read. He deems himself “a man with no calculable character” but with “a hunger for necessity,” and if this were so, he might resemble many of us more closely than he does. But in fact, Ford’s masterful creation, as fully embedded in the New Jersey soil as any native tree, has a character wholly calculable by his relationships to the mundane—to his lovers, his children, his associates, his houses, his landscapes. Frank Bascombe is rife with paradox, diffident about his assertions, equally compelled by life and by loss; and in part on account of this rigorous honesty—an honesty advocated in The Sportswriter, and fully enacted in The Lay of the Land—he is a more nearly complete and present man than many who actually walk the earth.
This novel takes no tidying short cuts, and might seem, to those who prefer the neat, a relentless meandering. But as Frank says—and Ford, perhaps, through his voice—
I’ve said it before. I do not credit the epiphanic, the seeing-through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering detail…. Life’s moments truly come at us heedless, not at the bidding of a gilded fragrance.
It is a philosophy that this novel bears out, insofar as art possibly can without ceasing to be art: the result is as scrupulous, and as true, as realist fiction can be.
January 11, 2007