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Richard Ford’s ‘The Lay of the Land’: A Review

The Lay of the Land: A Novel.
By Richard Ford.
Knopf; 496 pages (2006)

Reviewed by Robert Lalasz

(This review first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on Dec. 10, 2006.)

Big writers, big books — who needs ‘em? The question rises early and often in “The Lay of the Land,” which finishes off Richard Ford’s much-acclaimed trilogy about American mores with a couple of bangs and a lot of whimpers.

Ford’s alter-ego, real estate agent Frank Bascombe, is in a mood to muse, ceaselessly limning dead white poets on mortality and the elusive good life while he examines every twitch of his navel. The result is nearly 500 pages that can make selling a tear-down sound like Transcendentalism — at least until Frank does something that really reminds you he’s a jerk.

In the previous books of the series, “The Sportswriter” (published in 1986) and “Independence Day” (published in 1995 but set in 1988), Frank embodied some of the meatier contradictions of Reagan’s America — cheery but punishing, moralizing but predatory, self-flagellating and self-justifying.

But Ford’s real achievement in Frank (who moved from journalism to real estate) was to stand Arthur Miller on his head, to make the salesman the survivor, dissecting everyone else with seductive contempt.

In “Land,” though, Frank’s the one in the slow lane. The book is set just before Thanksgiving 2000, in that political bardo immediately after the Bush/Gore election, a richly metaphoric time betwixt decisive events.

Which goes for Frank, too: At 55, he has prostate cancer (with a treatment of radioactive pellets for his scrotum from the Mayo Clinic). Prognosis and sex are uncertain, but he’s certainly developed a nasty habit of peeing in alleys to relieve his ever-demanding bladder.

Wait, it gets worse. His second wife has left him for her first husband, who just reappeared after 30 years ago as a frumpy hermit gardener in Scotland. Frank’s also suffering from memory lapses and an inability to surf life’s ironies the way he used to, such as the fact that one of his favorite watering holes has been taken over by indifferent lesbians. Speaking of which, “Land” is a Richard Ford book with no sex in it whatsoever — quite an achievement in itself, although Frank still has his hopes.

In the meantime, he starts out “Land” snug in what he calls the Permanent Period — that time of life when we’ve given up the childish illusions of significance and epiphany and settled into the long slide home.

“I am rightly placed here, doing the thing I apparently do best,” he announces at one point about real estate, “grounded, my duties conferring a pleasant, self-actualizing invisibility — the self as perfect instrument.”

The Permanent Period is such transparent poppycock that you grow impatient for Frank to fall through the inevitable trap doors. But that takes a while. The plot is thin and slow, a nearly freeze-frame rendering of Thanksgiving and the two days before in his adopted Jersey shore town of Sea-Clift.

There’s a bit of beachcombing Bloomsday going on here, a metal-detector tour through a roster of savants and lonelyhearts that backfills story and nudges matters forward, such as they are. Let’s be blunt: Reading “Land” is a grind. Nothing seems important, every potentially unpleasant encounter is muted, easily parried — that is, until Frank nearly ends up sleeping in his Chevy Suburban the night before Thanksgiving, and it dawns on you how out of touch he is with himself.

The effect, though, is silly rather than Cheeveresque, given Frank’s preposterous amounts of introspection and Ford’s penchant for overdescription. Sure, much of the pleasure of Frank Bascombe lies in his scornful first impressions of others, which deliver a shock of recognition amidst a spray of cool acid.

“She’s a thick, pie-faced woman who looks forty but is probably twenty-five,” he says about a cop who stops his car. “Her teeth are small and white, and her lips thin and unhabituated to smiling except in official ways.” But in “Land,” these sketches have soured, widened from pinpoint to stereotypical.

Eventually, there’s a breakdown in that lesbian bar and on the floor of that Suburban, a little shame and crying. But those expecting a comeuppance or even a look in the mirror for Frank will need to wait for installment No. 4.

The next morning, Frank is back doing deals and chasing skirt. “Land” eventually funnels down to T-Day dinner, a $2,000 catered affair of organic turkey, tofu and carob pumpkin pie, promising to be as mirthless as it sounds — the kind of extravagant outlay made by people who fully expect to have a bad time and want to put a price tag on the experience for future recrimination.

Frank’s first wife is invited, as is his far-too-articulate daughter and his passive-aggressive son, a card-caption writer for Hallmark who carries his rejected submissions around and hands them out to everybody. But a deus ex machina of stagy weirdness saves everybody from the bother of sitting down, much less dealing at all with familial unpleasantries. As usual, everything clears out of the way for dear old Frank—even loneliness, if just for the moment.

Which perhaps is the point: that the ultimate skill in America is evasion, the talent for slipping away. It’s been the genius of this trilogy to explore today’s Babbitization through the eyes of a real estate agent — the classic cynical optimist who’s always got another horizon to subdivide.

But let’s not crown Ford the Balzac of our time, at least not for this swampy book that couldn’t support a lean-to. Frank Bascombe, real-estate rabbit, seems finally at rest; and I, for one, give thanks.

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