Monday, October 30, 2006

The Shore Thing; Richard Ford's 'The Lay of the Land'

Richard Ford's 'The Lay of the Land'

By Edward Nawotka
Sunday, October 29, 2006

ichard Ford's "The Lay of the Land," his third novel to feature the New Jersey real estate agent Frank Bascombe, should come with a warning attached: "For Mature Audiences Only." No, this is not a book filled with perverse sex or gag-inducing gore. Instead, this is an autumnal book, a late-middle aged bildungsroman, in which a man confronts the end of his options. The book opens with Bascombe mulling over a newspaper story describing a murder-suicide at a Texas nursing school in which a disgruntled student asks his teacher, "Are you ready to meet your maker?" The remainder of the novel is Ford's attempt to answer that question on Bascombe's behalf.

When Bascombe was introduced in 1986's "The Sportswriter," it was Easter weekend 1983, and he was 38 years old, divorced and living in the bland middle-class enclave of Haddam, N.J. His life as a modestly successful writer unraveled after the death of his teenage son Ralph, a subsequent divorce and a flight to Florida. The book, along with his book of short stories, "Rock Springs," published a year later, established Ford's national reputation.

It's ironic that Ford's writing about New Jersey has made him famous. The locale with which Ford is most often associated is New Orleans, where he and his wife lived for many years. (The couple now live in a post-Katrina exile in Maine.) Ford's Southern connection is evident in his writing style, which is as laconic as the muddy Mississippi, and similar to that of his Gulf Coast compatriots Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. In Ford's books the action arrives only intermittently, between extensive bouts of self-reflection, and is delivered in long, meandering internal monologues — a style he's employed in all three Bascombe novels.

By the time "Independence Day" appeared in 1995, Bascombe was back in Haddam, selling real estate and trying to connect with his son Paul, a surly 15-year-old, by taking him to visit the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame over the 1988 Fourth of July weekend. Bascombe had started dating Sally (who will become his second wife) and entered what he calls his "Existence Period," characterized by his efforts to make good on the present and amend for the past, without risking too much. That novel's emotional pragmatism resonated with readers and critics alike, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, the first novel to take both prizes in the same year.

Over three decades, Bascombe has evolved into Ford's American Everyman, the equivalent of John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom. Through him readers experience the travails of the striving, emotionally befuddled American middle class. He could easily be mistaken for a doppelganger of Ford himself: Like Ford, Bascombe hails from Mississippi, was educated in Michigan (Bascombe graduated from the University of Michigan, Ford from Michigan State), is a fiction writer (Bascombe has published a book of short stories) and is a former sportswriter. The major difference is that Bascombe traded writing for real estate after interviewing a crippled football player (a pivotal event in "The Sportswriter"), while Ford has gone on to publish six novels, two collections of novellas and a story collection.

Bascombe's choice of occupation is not as radical as you might think. In "The Lay of the Land," he makes a connection between these two professions: "Realtors share a basic industry with novelists, who make up important stuff from life-run rampant just by choosing, changing and telling." He adds, "Realtors make importance by selling, which is better-paying than the novelist's deal and probably not as hard to do well."

In the new book, Bascombe has relocated to Sea-Clift, a new-money enclave on the Jersey shore, where his real-estate business is booming. The year is 2000 and Bascombe, 55, has literally become radioactive — he's walking around with 100 irradiated titanium pellets embedded in his prostate to treat cancer. It's the week before Thanksgiving, which he intends to celebrate with "the usual holiday morbidities" and a $2,000 Thanksgiving feast catered by Eat No Evil, an organic, cruelty-free food company. Joining him are his daughter Clarissa, a Harvard grad and part-time lesbian living with him as a surrogate nurse and spiritual counselor, and Paul, who sports a mullet and a "beardstash," writes greeting cards for Hallmark in Kansas City and plans to bury a time capsule in Bascombe's yard. In lieu of his second wife Sally, who has abandoned him to be with her first husband, Bascombe is considering inviting his first wife, Ann, who is seeking reconciliation.

Meanwhile, in the background is the hanging chad controversy that subsumed the 2000 presidential election. Bascombe, who has always been good company as a narrator and is adept at evoking a person's entire character in a few words, sums up the candidates as follows: Bush is the "knucklehead," Al Gore is the "stiff" and Ralph Nader is simply dubbed "Nadir."

Materially speaking, this guy should probably be a Republican, but emotionally, he remains a Democrat — that is to say, he's a mess (at least under the current administration). The cause of his consternation is not just cancer or politics, but what Frank calls the transition into his "Permanent Period." This is marked by the constant feeling of being "off-shore, waiting for the extra beat" — the realization that he could die — and the lingering sense that if you "never did one damn substantial thing in your life, good or otherwise, and never would, and if you did, it wouldn't matter a mouse fart."

As in the previous novels, Bascombe's tart voice allows Ford to illuminate Bascombe's thoughts on family, women, aging and work — the plainspoken stuff of life — in an entertaining way. When his Americanized Tibetan partner, who has taken the unlikely name of Mike Mahoney, offers to buy out Bascombe's half of the business to give him time to travel, Bascombe dismisses this proposal as "Buddhist crappolio."

Elsewhere, pondering his legacy, his "Forever Concept," he thinks:

I realized I could die and no one would remember me for anything. "Oh, that guy. Frank, uh. Yeah. Hmm. . . ." That was me. Not that I wanted to blaze my initials forever into history's oak. I just wanted that when I was no more, someone would say my name (my children, my ex-wife?) and someone else could then say, "Right. That Bascombe, he was always damn blank;" or, "Ole Frank, he really liked to blank." Or, worst case, "Jesus Christ, that Bascombe, I'm glad to see the end of his sorry blank." These blanks would all be human traits I knew about and others did too, and that I got credit for, even if they weren't heroic or particularly essential.

These existential, stream-of-consciousness musings are a welcome return to his previous form. But all too often in "The Lay of the Land," Ford turns Bascombe's attention to real estate issues, treating the reader to pointless disquisitions on mortgages, demographic shifts and New Jersey shoreline property valuations. It may be an accurate reflection of a real estate agent's daydreams, but it's ultimately a bore, bereft of much metaphorical power.

Ford has attempted to temper the book's dark undertone by punctuating the plot with a quirky series of spectacular events, including a terrorist hospital bombing for which Frank becomes a suspect and the unexpected appearance of Revolutionary War re-enactors at an elderly friend's funeral. He also burdens the book with oddball, unexplainable characters, such as Paul's girlfriend, an Amazon who lost her hand in a land mine accident in Texas. To top it off, the novel's denouement features machine guns.

In the previous Bascombe novels, the lack of external drama felt like the authentic day-to-day stupor of white, middle class suburbia. By contrast, "The Lay of the Land" feels more like a Janet Evanovich novel. Bascombe is left gaping at the random weirdness around him with little more comment than "Life's interesting."

It's as if Ford was trying too hard to be simultaneously profound and entertaining. The result is an overstuffed book that could have benefited from more of the "choosing, changing and telling" that even the failed writer Frank Bascombe realizes is essential to the novelist's job.

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