A fortnight after I finished it, Richard Ford’s trilogy-ending novel The Lay of the Land was still with me. And yet, I cannot tell you what happens in the book, what plot developments drive the last chapter in the saga of Frank Bascombe, what the story really is. There are some bits about a funeral, cancer treatment, real estate sales, and broken marriages. A lot of driving around New Jersey. And there’s a violent ending that doesn’t fit at all. But like a good cover of an old blues song, the latest Ford does not get by on what happens in its 800-plus pages, but how it makes you feel. Here’s how: thoughtful. Even more mortal. A little sad. But ultimately less cynical. A strange combination, and that’s the book’s brilliance.
It’s been a long road for the failed sportswriter turned real estate agent, Frank Bascombe, a native of the south who finds himself in suburban New Jersey with two failed marriages, two wayward children and the memories of a third who died in childhood. He’s old, has prostate cancer, and is aware that the country is going to hell. The time of the book is the Thanksgiving weekend of 2000 as the Florida recount saga drags on and Bush gets closer to his illegitimate Presidency. Bascombe leaves beach-front in a fictional Jersey shore town north of Barnegat Light and south of Asbury. He sells house and owns his own small agency.
And he faces the existential crisis of late middle age, which, in typical fashion, Ford dubs the Permanent Period. Age-wise, I’m always a period behind – I’m still in the Existence years. But the Permanent Period looms. For most of the book, Ford’s inner voice tries to claim that it’s not that bad, really. A lack of drive, the surrender of ambition, the acceptance of mortality are all good things – or so the protagonist thinks.
Then the crisis – first emotional, than physical (in a wacky Miami Vice sequence involving the Russian mob) and it’s not all right. And Ford settles in the accept one thing and one thing only, to place it above all others: human love.
That will disappoint some of Ford’s followers, who see him as the successor to the hopelessness of writers like Richard Yates, who is clearly a major influence. Yates found mainly hopelessness in modern American suburbia, an empty landscape. His followers may feel that leaving Frank Bascombe a happy man is like grafting a Disney ending onto Citizen Kane. But I think at the end of this major work – which included The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995) – Ford follows the other major influence, fellow southerner William Faulkner, who found light in august and hope against the odds.
Ford’s Bascombe has never seemed to care, until he does. I’m not sure this is the novel Ford could have written at a younger age. But it’s the one we have now. And with its 2000 mindset and foreshadowing of 9/11, it’s most welcome indeed.