The Lay of the Land

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1621

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.

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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 happiness, but the opening scene emphasizes how much his new sense of impending mortality colors his search.

For much of the first two hundred pages of the novel, there is not much narrative momentum as Frank has a series of appointments in Haddam, his former town. The reader learns that Frank now has a new partner in his real estate dealings, a Tibetan immigrant named Mike Mahoney who combines Buddhist leanings with a cutthroat will to succeed in business. After meeting to talk business with Mike, Frank visits a funeral parlor, tries to eat lunch at a hospital, chats with his dentist by the curbside, finds places to urinate, and visits with his former wife, Ann Dykstra, where she works at the De Tocqueville Academy. Things happen in an incidental, seemingly disconnected way. For instance, when Frank sees a hearse try to leave the funeral home, it gets held up by a Haddam Revolutionary War battle reenactment on the street. He gets into a fight in a bar because he cannot keep from making cracks at a fellow drunken customer. When he meets with Ann, she surprisingly brings up the possibility of the two of them being reunited. Still, aside from the graceful style, there is not much to involve the reader until Frank outlines how his second wife, Sally Caldwell, left him after her first husband Wally, long believed lost and missing in action in Vietnam, suddenly resurfaced in Scotland.

What the novel lacks in narrative momentum, however, is made up for with moments of humor and a growing thematic complexity. For instance, when visiting the funeral home just before the burial of his friend Ernie McAuliffe, Frank remembers how his friends tried to comfort Ernie during the terminal stages of his lymphoma by spending the day with him out on the Atlantic coastline. Eventually, they decide to lift up Ernie and immerse themselves and him in the cold surf while chanting, “We’re with you, my brother.” Ernie yells out obscenities as he pleads to get out of the freezing water. In its funny way, this male bonding scene resonates as one of many awkward moments when people try to respond to old age and illness in the novel. Frank would like to imagine that he has reached a plateau of contentment and success in life, something he calls the Permanent Period: “the time of life when very little you say comes in quotes, when few contrarian voices mutter doubts in your head, when the past seems more generic than specific, when life’s a destination more than a journey and when who you feel yourself to be is pretty much how people will remember you once you’ve croaked.” However, the more Frank discusses the Permanent Period, the more he finds himself undermined by circumstances. Trying to be reasonable, Frank invites his wife’s former husband, Wally, to their home, so she can get reacquainted with him; he never expected her to leave him as a result. As Frank finds himself unaccountably crying in a lesbian bar, or hunts around for a place to urinate in downtown nighttime Haddam without getting busted by the police, he has increasing trouble maintaining his dignity. This tension between the sense of security brought on by his philosophical musings and the disruptive, sometimes anarchic, events in the novel give it its peculiar tone.

Perhaps the quintessential scene of the novel involves Frank’s visit to a house on the beach with Clare Suddruth, a sixty-five-year-old Vietnam veteran who has recently abandoned his wife for a younger woman and then abruptly returns to her side once he learns that she has contracted multiple sclerosis. Clare would like to find a house for his wife’s last days, but once he sees the building, he quickly discovers that it has dangerous cracks in the foundation. Ford describes the scene carefully, including such minutiae as the shouts of teenagers in the distance and his thoughts about cell phone conversations. Gradually as the men get to know each other, their talk takes on metaphysical overtones. Clare mentions his dread of being destroyed by a bomb, saying, “We’ve got foundation problems.” Frank in turn reflects on how he cannot write agreements claiming, “Sale contingent on there being no disaster rendering all real estate worthless as tits on a rain barrel.” Just as soon as their client/realtor conversations hint at the fears of loss that underlie their lives, the scene shifts back to light easygoing banter, and Clare drives away happy not to buy the house.

As the reader grows used to Ford’s meandering narrative pace, the reader realizes that, just as one might expect from the title The Lay of the Land, Ford’s novel is extremely well grounded. Like a land surveyor, Ford has, like Updike before him, measured out a character’s life in all of its inconsequence and banality, but with moments of redemption and patterns that hint at something more. Whenever the novel leans toward the portentous, Ford quickly reaffirms the primacy of the individual moment in the everyday. Frank claims that he does not believe in epiphanies, preferring instead “a practical acceptance of what’s what, in real time and down-to-earth,” which he characterizes “as good as spiritual if you can finagle it.” Thus, even as a fox jumps out of one prospective home, ruining a potential sale, or as his daughter Clarissa gets thrown into jail for supposedly stealing her boyfriend’s car, or as Frank gets shot in the chest when he intercedes in an armed robbery taking place at his next door neighbor’s home, the novel still takes pleasure in its ability to encompass everything in Frank’s consciousness and even finds some Thanksgiving gratitude in the process. As Frank wonders, “Is that not the final wish of all of us on earth? To testify of our witness to wonders?”


Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59

The Atlantic Monthly 298, no. 5 (December, 2006): 134.

Booklist 103, no. 5 (November 1, 2006): 4.

Entertainment Weekly, no. 904 (October 27, 2006): 74.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 18 (September 15, 2006): 922.

Library Journal 131, no. 17 (October 15, 2006): 51.

The Nation 283, no. 19 (December 4, 2006): 28-32.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 1 (January 11, 2007): 25-27.

The New York Times 156 (October 24, 2006): E1-E7.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (October 29, 2006): 1-13.

Newsweek 148, no. 17 (October 23, 2006): 71.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 36 (September 11, 2006): 34.

Time 168, no. 17 (October 23, 2006): 82.

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