Richard Ford cemented his reputation and his popularity with the publication of The Sportswriter in 1986. Before this point he was known for his darker, bleaker fiction such as A Piece of My Heart (1976), but when his wife Kristina encouraged him to write a novel about a character who wants to be happy, Ford created Frank Bascombe, a thirty-eight-year-old former author who works as a sportswriter in New Jersey. With its meditative tone and existential themes, The Sportswriter carries a clear debt to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961). Both novels depict their main character suffering a kind of midlife crisis. In Frank’s case, his extended period of dreaminess and distraction, in part due to the loss of his son Ralph to Reye’s syndrome at age nine, causes him to lose his wife and then his girlfriend, Vicki Arsenault. Alternating between periods of despair and affirmation, The Sportswriter immerses the reader in Frank’s self-evasions, philosophical reflections, and hard-won realization of the need to take responsibility for his middle-aged drift.
By the time Ford published the sequel to The Sportswriter, titled Independence Day, Frank Bascombe had moved on to selling real estate in the fictional town of Haddam, New Jersey. While The Sportswriter revolved thematically around the Easter holiday, Independence Day focused on the Fourth of July, as Frank deals with various characters’ bids for freedom. Thus, he has a hard time with some rude baby boomer clients having difficulty relocating from Vermont. Frank also takes his estranged teenage son Paul on a trip to visit sports halls of fame. Frank tries to teach his son about the Declaration of Independence until his son stands in front of a batting machine, perversely injuring his eye in the process. In part due to a belated appreciation for The Sportswriter, Independence Day won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the first novel to win both prizes in the same year.
The Lay of the Land is the third, and according to Ford, last of the Frank Bascombe novels. Frank has now moved his real estate firm to the New Jersey shore of Sea-Clift. Again, Frank meets with various clients who look over prospective properties. This time, the novel circles around the Thanksgiving holiday of the year 2000, in the midst of the aftermath of the uncertain presidential election. In terms of character development and descriptive detail, The Lay of the Land attains the multileveled density of John Updike’s Rabbit novels, specifically Rabbit Is Rich (1981), since both novels concern the financial success and later middle age of their respective main characters. Ford also shares with Updike a narrative style that tends to foreground description over plot. Ford has been known to intensely research his novel’s locations and background information, and The Lay of the Land is full of urban sprawl. As Frank’s partner points out at one point, “Half the U.S. population lives within fifty miles of the ocean,” and Ford uses the setting to explore the pleasures and dissatisfactions of those wealthy enough to own beachside property.
Even as Frank settles into the routines of his fifties, The Lay of the Land is markedly more violent than its predecessors. The novel begins with a meditation on a news item where a disgruntled and armed student confronts a nursing instructor with the question: “Are you ready to meet your Maker?” When the instructor replies, “Yes. Yes, I think I am,” and then is shot and killed, Frank is struck by how he could not answer as she did. Compared to her equanimity with the prospect of immediate death, Frank finds his attempts at serenity undermined by recent surgery for prostate cancer where “sixty radioactive iodine seeds” were implanted inside him. As in the first novel, Frank still seeks to find...
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