The unpredictability of everyday life and the calamity that often lies just around the bend pervade the events that unfold in Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, the third novel in his epic trilogy on the life and times of an upper-middle-class New Jersey Everyman, Frank Bascombe.
The first novel in the trilogy, The Sportswriter (1986), was Ford's breakout book and certified him as a major contemporary talent. The second, Independence Day (1995), won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner the same year, and was an American masterpiece.
The Lay of the Land takes place over three days around Thanksgiving 2000, and a good part of the novel consists of Bascombe's observations on just about everything that crosses his vision: people, houses (Bascombe is a successful real estate agent), social trends, his two children, friends and wives, bartenders, policemen, and more. Much of this is by turns wry, insightful, amusing, profound, mundane, or poignant, but there is a lot of it and in placesit verges on excess. That is, until the realization sinks in that what is parading before the reader's eyes is not just a snapshot of suburban America at the dawn of a new century, but an x-ray into the heart and soul of a man whose observations reveal his own anxieties, hopes, and disappointments, including his awareness that he is an under-achiever and not terribly upset about it.
To outward appearances, Frank Bascombe has an enviable life. He is the owner of a profitable two-man real estate business on the New Jersey shore, a locale that enables Ford to explore class distinctions; ethnic, racial, and genderidentities and tensions; and generational and cultural differences. Frank isdecent, intelligent, easy going, and tolerant, but also acute about things and people who annoy him. He has two grown children by his first marriage: the lovely Clarissa, whom he adores, and who entered a lesbian relationship after graduating from Harvard; and Paul, a resentful writer of greeting-card verses for Hallmark who lives in Kansas City. Both turn up for Thanksgiving, and the encounter is one of many revealing incidents that in their unique ways remind Frank of unfulfilled ambitions and regrets as, over the three days, he picks his way through the various strands of his life.
Frank's seemingly comfortable, unchallenging life turns out to be far more complicated than it first seems, and many of his observations and musings might be grouped under a single thematic thread: how to cope. Since the entire novel is written in the first person, all the characters and events—and there are many of them—are filtered solely through Frank's perceptions. But such is Ford's mastery of detail and unerring eye that the New Jersey locale and the colorful array of characters that inhabit it seem as familiar as the reader's own neighbors, friends, and family.
In one of many marvelous passages, Frank ponders the impossibility of bringing about life changes through a change of scene: "…in the end old concerns are only transported to a new venue, where they go back to worrying the same as before…. Change the water in the bowl and you become a different fish. But that's not so…not a bit…"
Hours pile on hours in the three days, chronicling seemingly unimportant events, but we learn that Frank's wife has left him for a former husband presumed dead, and his ex-wife has made an overture at reconciliation. His treatment for prostate cancer dogs his thoughts at every turn, as well as his problematic and regretful relationships with his now grown children, wives, former and potential girlfriends, colleagues, and friends.
Nothing out of the mundane seems to happen, but in short order there is a hospital bombing in Frank's former hometown, street thugs break his car window while he's watching a building demolition, he attends a friend's funeral, gets into a fight in a bar, and clashes with neighbors.
This is not to say that the novel is punctuated by a series of jarring, melodramatic incidents. Ford's genius is in portraying the significance of the prosaic, weaving the ordinary occurrences as they unfold into a far richer whole that plumbs the essence of a complex but sympathetic human being. Readers will find echoes here of John Updike's Rabbit tetralogy, but Ford's voice is original and fresh with its own insights.
It's easy to identify with Frank Bascombe and the world he inhabits; there's probably something of him in many American males of hisgenre: fiftyish, suburban, college-educated, financially comfortable, likable but troubled by aspects of his comfortable life and his place in his world.
What Bascombe's ruminations and the incidents of his life artfully convey is that life is uncertain, disaster lurks when least expected, disappointments accompany us at every turn. We want to do things right, but often they don't turn out that way, and for no clear reason.
In the course of the novel, Frank learns many things, but never as the result of a sudden epiphany. It's more "a practical acceptance of what's what, in real time and down to earth…" What the novel offers is a series of powerful insights on facing the realities and uncertainties of middle age. And in the end, in a profound and moving final passage, Ford suggests that our destiny is to "to live, to live, to live it out," and in the process leave "our human scale upon the land."
Bill Lenderking is a retired career foreign service officer who is now afreelance writer.