The details of daily life - maybe to excess

Review Novel

November 05, 2006|By David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin,Los Angeles Times

The Lay of the Land

Richard Ford

Alfred A. Knopf / 488 pages / $26.95

Let me be completely honest: I can't make up my mind about The Lay of the Land. For the last few weeks, I've wrestled with it and have been alternately indifferent and enthralled. It's a big novel, nearly 500 pages, the third volume in Richard Ford's Sportswriter cycle, which revolves around a middle-aged suburban New Jerseyite named Frank Bascombe, a former sportswriter turned real estate agent, a decent man, a man who thinks before he acts, who seeks the calmer surfaces as he navigates the shoals and narrows of contemporary life.

We first met Frank in The Sportswriter, published in 1986, where, during a difficult Easter week, he reflects on the collapse of his marriage and the death of his 9-year-old son, Ralph. Nine years later, Ford brought Frank back in Independence Day, the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Here, Frank sought to connect with his surviving son, Paul (he also has a daughter named Clarissa), over a Fourth of July weekend, while struggling to emerge from the static stillness of his "Existence Period."

With The Lay of the Land, Ford continues the saga, giving us a Frank who is older if not wiser, a 55-year-old recovering from prostate cancer and trying to account for the failure of a second marriage as he enters what he calls the "Permanent Period." This, he explains, is a time in which "we try to be what we are in the present - good or not so good - this, so that accepting final credit for ourselves won't be such a shock later on."

The Lay of the Land unfolds in the days leading up to Thanksgiving 2000, a period of transition not just for Frank but for the country, mired in a presidential election that will not dissipate. Yet if politics provides a backdrop to the narrative - much as the 1988 election informed Independence Day - this is a political novel on only the most personal terms. As he has been always, Frank is detached, the same man who described himself in The Sportswriter as wanting only "to participate briefly in the lives of others at a low level; to speak in a plain, truth-telling voice; to not take myself too seriously; and then to have done with it."

The trouble, though, is that circumstance won't leave him alone. His daughter, 25 and on the rebound from a lesbian relationship, is staying with him, sorting out the loose ends of her existence while sleeping with a man Frank can't stand. His son dislikes him but cannot stay away. His first wife keeps reappearing also, destabilizing him in a way that only those with whom we have shared great loss can do. Even the real estate business is shifting, no longer about "having a decent house on a safe street" as much as it is about making a score.

For Frank, it's all highly problematic; he is someone for whom change is to be resisted, if not feared, as an intimation of chaos, of the abyss. In that regard, he is like the nation in which he lives, familiar yet at the same time unfamiliar, filled with a vague anxiety about what the future holds. "Who'dju waste your vote on?" a bartender asks him in the middle of the novel, before launching into a venomous tirade. This is America at the millennium, Ford means to tell us, a country most united by dis- union, by the sense that everything is for the taking, by consumerism and rapid growth, a place where the old rules, the eternal verities, no longer apply.

That's an important notion, and it echoes through the other Bascombe novels, each of which aspires to its own epic, and American, sense of moment. As The Lay of the Land progresses, however, such a perspective grows diffuse, dissociated, as if Frank (or Ford) is having difficulty understanding what it means. Part of the problem is that, like Independence Day before it, the book meanders, taking pages to describe the simplest interactions, with an eye to detail that can be overwhelming, numbing, far too full. The main story opens with an extended "drive across the coastal incline" of New Jersey between Toms River and the fictional town of Haddam, but if this allows Ford to ease us back into Frank's existence - it's been 12 years since the action of Independence Day - it also lays out the essential, if not entirely intended, tension of the book. Frank goes on at length, after all, about everything: real estate, traffic, the economy, a constant buzzing monologue that lulls us into inattention. "[T]here're too many ways to say everything," he admits, which is, of course, precisely the point.

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