Friday, January 05, 2007

“Think, think, thinky, think”

On Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land

Discussed below:

The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford, Knopf, 2006

Richard Ford may be the contemporary true inheritor of Henry James. Ford’s hero-voice -protagonist, Frank Bascombe, fills this novel nearly to overbrimming, and as a narrator, Bascombe cannot help but connect dots – as many as possible. Despite multiple digressions and a jump forward in the final chapter, The Lay of the Land mostly covers a short time span centering around Thanksgiving in the year 2000 in Bascombe’s part of the world, the "mid-line Jersey shore." Bascombe sells real estate for a living, which in some vaguely perverse way might explain why he’s interested in attending any building implosion that might be scheduled nearby. Bascombe also knows almost everyone, some by name, some merely by what their address says about them, and some because they have at some point or other become part of his personal life. Here’s an example of Bascombe’s thinking. The occasion is a meeting with an elderly guy, Wade, with whom he frequently views building implosions and whose daughter Frank once pursued:

“For these weeks, traveling to the odd implosion here, another there, a cup of chowder or a piece of icebox pie in a Greek diner, I’ve all but expunged from my thoughts the truth that Wade is father to Vicki (now Ricki), my long-gone dream of a lifetime from when I, as a divorced man, wrote for a glossy New York sports magazine, horsed around with women, suffered dreaminess both night and day and had yet to list my first house.” (p. 317)

If this isn’t quite Jamesian in sentence structure, it nevertheless begins to suggest the almost baroque quality of Frank Bascombe’s narration. Reading along, you either warm to this and come to relish it, or you don’t.

Bascombe is nothing if not candid (whether he’s entirely reliable as a narrator is another matter--but then, who is?). He’s divorced from Ann. He’s married a woman named Sally. But Sally’s first husband, who came home deeply troubled from Viet Nam, simply walked out of the house one day and never returned. After several years, she had him declared legally dead. And several years after that, Sally met Frank and they later married. However, by Thanksgiving time in the year 2000, Sally’s first husband (legally dead) has returned from the island of Mull, in Scotland, where he has been living since walking out decades earlier. And Sally, in trying to reconcile and understand her responses to this series of events, has left Frank in New Jersey and moved – temporarily or permanently Frank does not know – to Mull.

In addition, Frank has prostate cancer, for which he’s received treatment in the form of radioactive BBs carefully and precisely implanted. One of Frank’s and Ann’s children, Ralph, died while still a boy (part of the reason for their later divorce). His surviving two children are, by Thanksgiving in 2000, adults: Clarissa, bisexual, has rallied to Frank’s side once the cancer was diagnosed. Paul, who was diagnosed in gradeschool as "unsystematically oppositional, " writes greeting card verse in Kansas but is due to visit, with his significant other, at Thanksgiving. If this all sounds sort of messy and faintly over the top, it is. Add in a Tibetan business colleague, some random vandalism of Frank’s car, a real estate deal that Frank perversely sours, an explosion at a hospital (the same one where Frank’s son died years earlier), a set of nasty neighbors, some gun shots at close range, and Thanksgiving begins to look like a holiday from hell.

The Lay of the Land becomes as much about perseverance – Frank’s perseverance – as about anything else. Despite his inveterately garrulous nature, Frank believes in a humane and American sense of home. This partly explains his happiness at selling real estate (not commercial buildings but single-family dwellings): he genuinely wishes people would live in places that might offer the prospect of making them happier. Similarly, Frank also believes deeply in a sense of family, which to the extent that he’s able to understand it means connection, concern for, and a genuine if rarely achieved effort to see things from the point of view of others.

Ford’s novel also serves as a useful example of the differences between novels and movies. How, for instance, does one capture on film this tone of voice: “I haven’t seen, spoken to or thought much about Vicki/Ricki, who I guarantee was a yeasty package, since ’84, and wouldn’t recognize her if she shot out of Fuddruckers on a pair of roller skates” (p. 317). Parts of this novel would easily enough translate to video. But the core of it, including Frank's sense of humor, would likely be lost to caricature. The trouble with Frank Bascombe is that you come to know him pretty well – at least as well as more than half your relatives. Finish the book, and he’s still there. You remember he said once that "Americans are hardwired for something to be thankful for" (p. 26) You remember his offhand way of making up place names like "Ruckusville, Alabama" or "Lake Laconic," or that he said once "the devil is in the details, of course, even the details of our affections" (p. 89) You wonder if he might call. You wonder what he’s doing now.