By Richard FordKnopf
No tricks,” Raymond Carver crisply enjoined the prospective writer. “At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction … I tend to look for cover.” Carver was, as everybody knows, a mentor, friend, and admirer of Richard Ford; yet one can’t help wondering whether Ford’s verbally awesome but, I fear, fundamentally specious new novel would have had the maestro ducking behind a parapet.
The Lay of the Land is the third Frank Bascombe narration—Frank being the dreamy, sadly self-monitoring sportswriter of The Sportswriter,, and thereafter the less dreamy but still sadly self-monitoring real-estate broker of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Independence Day, a man at such a quidditative loss as to prompt his ex-wife to remark, “Everything’s in quotes with you, Frank. Nothing’s really solid.” Book three finds Frank the fifty-five-year-old owner of a Jersey Shore realty business, and grumpier. His second wife, Sally (last seen as his girlfriend), has left him for another man; his prostate contains a slow-growing tumor; the Florida election debacle is going Bush’s way (it’s November 2000, and Frank voted Gore); plus he faces a daunting Thanksgiving family influx. It’s a familiar setup—the first two books centered respectively on Easter and the Fourth of July holiday—and it leaves Frank well placed to ruminate, again, on his most basic conundrum: how to locate an “inner essence” that will enable him to pass off his life (to himself no less than to others) as one of merit and substance.
A ruminative novel necessarily depends on the companionability of the ruminator: we read on because we’re enthralled by the company of, say, Binx Bolling, the moviegoer of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (a novel that’s a huge artistic creditor of Ford’s trilogy), and we happily refrain from pressing the more pragmatic demands we might make of other fiction. Likewise, in the earlier Bascombe installments, we’re swept up by the hero’s dappled, marvelously involving murmurings, in which chronic gloom and alienation are spotted with fleeting rays of real feeling. Those books, however, are anchored by very real familial misfortunes (the death of a child, the disintegration of a marriage, the troubles of an anguished fifteen-year-old son) that Frank, anomie notwithstanding, cannot help but humanly experience and communicate. The Lay of the Land, it transpires, has no comparable anchor—and this is where the trouble starts. Because once the spell of voice breaks, so too the reader’s horribly conditional forbearance.
Thus it struck me, about a third of the way through, that Frank Bascombe repeatedly says, does, and thinks stuff that nobody would, not even Frank Bascombe. I ended up—like Kingsley Amis reading Virginia Woolf—muttering to myself, No he didn’t; no, that isn’t what he thought; no, that’s just what she didnt say. Take the following dialogue between Frank and his daughter (nonspeech excised):
Clarissa: “Einstein said a man doesn’t feel his own weight in free fall. Does that go for women, do you think?”
Frank: “Einstein wasn’t that smart. He sounds serious but isn’t. You’re not in free fall anyway.”
Clarissa: “I don’t like dual ways of thinking. I know you don’t.”
Frank: And and but always seem the same to me. I like it.”
Clarissa: “As much as you think your life is just another life, it is, I guess.”
In isolation, an implausibly pretentious exchange wouldn’t matter much. But there are many conversations like this, and, moreover, they are not drowned into insignificance by an overpowering narrative current. For all of its brilliance—Ford’s sentence-by-sentence resourcefulness is astonishing—The Lay of the Land never pivots, as its predecessors did, on an engaging drama. The kids wash in and out of the story, as do a number of well-observed characters, which would be fine if something else gripped us—say, Frank’s dealings with his estranged wife, Sally. But since he is “no longer so blue about [her] absence,” and since Sally never takes shape as a creature of real longings, we don’t care very much either.