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The Lay of the Land

Some of the Best Property You Can Buy

With the exception of John Updike’s work, you rarely see sequels in literary fiction. You really have to like a character well enough to ask yourself at the bookstore, “Wow, What is he up to now?” This is a big commitment when you know that this character won’t be dodging any boulders, saving himself from a snake pit, or battling Stormtroopers. Actually, Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe is that guy. He is the man you hope to see at the end of the crowded bar precisely because you and he don’t really like anyone else there.

The Lay of the Land is Ford’s third introduction to Frank Bascombe, now a 55-year-old New Jersey realtor. We first met Frank in 1986 with Ford’s novel, The Sportswriter. In that book we were introduced to his ex-wife Ann (in The Sportswriter only referred to as “X”), his children, and his latest loves. Frank’s only real socialization in his hometown of Haddam, New Jersey is with a “divorced men’s club” in which he shows up, but participates minimally at best. He doesn’t know any of his neighbors. He doesn’t try to act perky. He spends most of the book trying to go forward by simulatenously moving backward in his head: Why did my marriage fail? Why do my kids live with a guy I hate?

With The Lay of the Land, these themes are revisited -- best expressed by Frank’s musings in the second book, Independence Day, “…when you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent is the past.” He calls this period of his life, “The Permanent Age”, a time spent “staying offshore.” But Frank has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, a condition that can only be remedied by “hot Bbs in your gearbox” and he realizes he can no longer bob in the waves. He realizes that “I could die and no one would remember me for anything.”

With this, he considers the people in his life and where he sits with them. He has a real estate associate, a Tibetan Buddhist named Mike, symbolic of the new money infiltration in his area. There are the other members of his “men’s group”: Lloyd an undertaker, and Bud, a lamp salesman, for whom Frank has a quiet disdain, perhaps because they all live in Haddam, which houses a claque of “crypto-Southerners.” Ironically, Frank is also a “sponsor”, someone who doesn’t claim to be an expert in anything, but simply helps a person in need to answer something they’ve been wrestling with that prevents them from going forward. As a sponsor, you show up, listen to the problem, talk, and then leave without a sound. It seems that Frank is not really misanthropic so much as he likes to control people’s expectations of him.

Frank has now experienced 17 years of divorced life, the last eight of them spent in the seaside town of Sea Clift, New Jersey with his new wife, Sally. Sally has just left Frank for her first husband because she feels that she is “not needed.” Then Frank’s ex-wife asks to meet Frank just to tell him that she loves him and that he is a kind man (pay no mind that this is the same woman who told him 20 years before that he was “awful.”) His daughter Clarissa has moved back home, trying to slough off her lesbian identity. Frank’s son also plans a return, a blacksheep simply because he wants to write greeting cards, live in the mid-west, and weigh more than anyone else in his family.

It is everyday life with a fifty-something man in a condensed period of time. The time arc in The Sportswriter was an Easter Break, Independence Day a single Fourth of July. Here, the holiday is Thanksgiving. The holiday doesn’t matter. You could spend Yom Kippur or Tet with him and enjoy it, only to share what he thinks and feels. Frank is the best kind of friend you will never have because he won’t let you be his.

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
Knopf
October 24, 2006
Hardcover, $26.95
ISBN: 0-679-45468-3
485 pages