The Lay of the Land
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007
Alfred A Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
488 Pages; $26.95
Publication Date: 10-24-2006
Date Reviewed: 01-23-2007
Richard Ford's 'The Lay of the Land' is a remarkable joy for readers, a feast of language and humor and life lived at its fullest and most unregrettably normal. Bringing back Frank Bascombe and his sort-of functional family, it's the kind of series novel that will make you go back and appreciate the previous entries, 'The Sportswriter' and 'Independence Day'. But mostly this is the kind of novel that you can stretch out and live in, a novel that creates places and people within the reader that you can visit again and again. Ford displays the kind of skill that makes you forget about skill to create a poignant and powerful snapshot of who we are and what we do.
As 'The Lay of the Land' opens, it's Fall 2000, a troubled time for our nation and our narrator, Frank Bascombe. He's settled down as well as can be expected for a mid-fifties divorcee with a realty business and a reality problem. "The Permanent Period" as he calls it is proving to be less permanent than he might have hoped. Sally, his second wife, has taken off to live with her previous husband in Scotland. His employee at the Realty, Mike Mahoney Lobsang Dhargey, is a Buddhist Republican. Paul, his surviving son, is a weirdo who writes greeting cards for a living, and Clarissa, his daughter is in a rocky relationship with her lesbian lover. Frank's smart guy, though and he realizes that things can get worse. So he decides to throw a Thanksgiving dinner party.
Ford's Bascombe books generally take place over family-gathering type holidays, and this is clearly no exception. It's Thanksgiving, and you can bet that it will not go well. But like the other Bascombe novels, this book is both confined to a tight timeline and yet freed from it as well. From the get-go, we're inside the first person narrative tunnel created by Ford's rich and very funny prose. While we follow Frank through his quotidian daily life, we also follow him through his meandering daydreams, his self-serving and self-lacerating memories. We're privy to his darkest desires (which are not too dark) and his lightest insights (never too light). Reading the prose here is the primary and almost primal reason to read this book. Ford is a hilarious comedian, and you'll find yourself laughing out loud early and often. He's also a master at using the word "Fuck" for comedic effect. Those of us who love meticulously composed curses will find this novel to a compendium of delight.
But if language is Ford's strongest tool, then he deploys with great skill all aspects of this novel. Each character who looms up in the narrative tunnel seems like someone we know, or want to know or are glad we don’t know, really. Ford has a lot of fun with the on-gong characters here. Paul has, as noted above, turned out to be the kind of guy you look at, talk top and think: weirdo. Geek. Dork. But as is often the case with men answering that description, he gets a nicer girlfriend than you might expect. Ann Dykstra, Frank's Ex, is still alluring and off-putting, still come-hither and go yon. Ford conveys the complicated mechanics of the continuing relationships between the divorced with utter conviction in a manner most enjoyable. Let me make special mention and pitch for Mike Mahoney, who is just a total hoot. He's every bit as complicated and simplistic as the phrase Buddhist Republican suggests, and a hell of a lot of fun to be around. And finally, in a great turn in the role of best supporting character, there's Wade, the father of one of Frank's previous girlfriends who still hangs out with Frank. They attend the demotion of a building together in a scene that is unforgettable and hilarious, as powerful as the explosives used to destroy the edifice.
There's another character in the Bascombe books. That would be our blighted, benighted nation. America is never going to get a Permanent Period, not even the illusion of a Permanent Period. No, the America of Richard Ford's novel is a land in the process of being handed over to the bland and the incompetent. It's a land of strip malls and dyke bars, of shady characters and selfless do-gooders. It is a land where the recent past and the near future are all mixed up, one colliding with the other while those around must simply sit and watch with despair, or at least get drunk enough to get past the despair and wring some humor out of the brightly lit disaster that is unfolding. And yes it is a disaster, but it is our disaster, and Frank Bascombe is our man on the spot. He's our guide, the man who creates a narrative tunnel of words that we can feed our minds via Ford's novel. This is a mental subway journey through the heart of a brightly lit world that is humorously tragic or tragically humorous, depending on your perspective. These are our lives, rendered with the best skill that language can provide. Step inside your life. Look out through these eyes. The life you see may be your own.