The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford

The Lay of the Land is the third book in a series that chronicles the life of Frank Bascombe, real estate salesman, divorced father, and Ford’s American Everyman.

Ford introduced us to Frank in The Sportswriter. Over an Easter weekend 38-year-old Frank copes with a crumbling marriage, the death of his youngest son, and the crushing realisation that he’ll never be a novelist.

When we next meet Frank, in the Pulitzer-prize winning Independence Day, life’s still tough but holds promise. He’s 44, selling real estate in Haddam, New Jersey, and tentatively dating Sally. Frank spends the Fourth of July holiday with his troubled son Paul touring baseball Halls of Fame, hoping to bond with the boy. We never hold out much hope for them though since it’s clear that Frank is too pained from losing one son to help the other.

Holidays aren’t that kind to Frank. The Lay of the Land is set around Thanksgiving Day 2000 – before the American election has been decided (he voted for Gore) and before 9/11 – and he’s in for another fraught weekend.

Sally’s left him and he has prostate cancer, but while Frank doesn’t like how things have panned out he’s stoic. There is, he says, an upside to being in your fifties. ‘You realise that you really can’t mess up your life, since so much of your life is on the books already. You’ve survived it.’

Frank decides that at 55 he is no longer in a state of becoming. He is at the Permanent Period, when ‘the past seems more generic than specific, when life’s a destination more than a journey.’ The downside of course is that once things are permanent life holds no surprise or possibility.

But Frank’s Permanent Period is not as predictable as he anticipates. Nothing is really fixed, except the death of his son. Presidents, marriages, good health, and aspirations are all impermanent. ‘It’s loony, of course,’ he says, ‘to think that by lowering expectations and keeping ambitions to a minimum we can ever avert the surprising and unwanted.’ Frank’s first wife announces to his shock that she still cares about him, and invites him to Thanksgiving lunch.

And right here, if not before, you make a choice as a reader. Do you care about Frank? A middle-aged American man wrestling with the angst of a fairly pedestrian life: death, divorce, some messy business deals, kids who treat him as a bumbling know-nothing dad. And if you don’t care, maybe it’s worth thinking about why not.

You might not like him. I met a woman in the ABC canteen who couldn’t stand him. She told me she’d started The Sportswriter but ended up throwing it at a wall. She found Frank’s angst self-indulgent and didn’t care what happened to him.

I understand that. Frank has many flaws – he’s emotionally locked-up, he’s patronising about religion, and has a quick temper – but he can be kind, he loves his wife, he cares about his Tibetan-American coworker even as he’s hurling racist comments his way, he just wants life to be simple and still. As he says to his son Paul, ‘What’s so terrible about me? I’m just your old man.’

I worry if we can’t care about people like Frank Bascombe. The world’s grim right now, and our eyes are on big and pressing problems. Frank’s troubles could seem small and irrelevant, but they’re not. Frank’s confusion at the complexity of life, his grief over his son’s death and his wife’s abandonment, his inability to talk with his children, his cancer, all matter because they’re part of our collective experience of what it is to be alive. One man’s pain is still worth our attention – if we have any compassion left for our species at all.

Having said that, it’s a big ask to care about anything for 500 pages and Frank’s not always a model of sympathy himself. He finds it pleasing to hear other people argue, for instance, because ‘for once it’s not your night shot to hell, not your heart crashing in your chest’. And he describes old people as being like pets: ‘You love them…feed them and make them happy, then take solace that you’re probably going to live longer than they will.’

The Lay of the Land is Richard Ford’s sixth novel. It’s a toss of the coin whether would-be writers should read it. If you do, you’re bound to learn something about writing. The book’s a lesson in having confidence in your material. Ford offers up detail after detail slowly, making each one important, expecting to hold your attention. He’s skilled at using sentence length to establish rhythm and mood – long loping sentences for a drive through the suburbs, short sharp ones when Frank is getting het-up. And he has a good ear for dialogue, so slang and swearing don’t jar – he chooses just the right words. The danger in reading something this well crafted is that you might give up on your own work. For the rest of us, Ford’s command of language makes the book a gift.

Mind you, not everybody agrees with me. I know many people were disappointed with this book. Frank was supposed to be the successor to Updike’s Rabbit as a guide to the American burbs, but – critics say – he’s fallen short of expectations. He has nothing to say that wasn’t covered in the last two books. Some people found Ford’s attention to detail mind-numbing and thought the book was flat, directionless, and intolerably long.

But for me, Ford illuminates the good and bad of the obviously misnamed Permanent Period, which I don’t think is only the province of American men of a certain age. We all suffer, become ill, and grow old. But to come at those things off the page, having gone through them with Frank Bascombe must surely soften the blow. At the very least, this book is a reminder that compassion for one another should still be the order of the day. As Frank says, ‘We can all be moved, if we’re lucky.’

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