I’ve found Richard Ford a little late in the game. I didn’t read The Sportswriter, nor did I read Independence Day. I also haven’t read any of his widely regarded short stories. I did read an excerpt of The Lay of the Land in The New Yorker though. I was hooked. A few weeks later I went to see Ford read from his book at The Center for Southern Literature (bonus: he’s actually from the South), and I was floored all over again. The book finally came up in my rotation, and I loved it.
You can imagine my surprise when BGB’s Shaft pooh-poohed Independence Day on this very blog just a couple weeks ago. We didn’t read the same book, so it is possible that we are both right. We got together to talk around the subject last Friday over fish tacos. For his part, Shaft offered this analogy, and I’m paraphrasing:
Imagine that 24 is the television show that resulted from the story of Jack Bauer, a recurrent character written into a great writer’s trilogy of well respected novels. Independence Day, then, would be called 72 and would feature Ford’s Frank Bascombe driving his car around town and thinking about stuff for three days.
I can see his point. The Lay of the Land features Frank Bascombe driving his car around coastal New Jersey. A lot. Not much happens in The Lay of the Land that you can point to and call “plot.” The action is internal for the most part as Frank attempts to make sense of recent events in his life. The writing is fantastic, too (read the excerpt and see for yourself).
The book takes place back in 2000 in that wonderful gray period in the fall when the national election was over, and none of us knew who the next president would be. Good times. Frank Bascombe has settled into a seaside town in New Jersey where he’s making a very comfortable living selling real estate. Frank describes this point in his life as the “Permanent Period”:
… the time of life when very little you say comes in quotes, when few contrarian voices mutter doubts in your head, when the past seems more generic than specific, when life’s a destination more than a journey and when who you feel yourself to be is pretty much how people will remember you when you once you’re croaked…
…you realize that you can’t completely fuck everything up anymore, since so much of your life is on the books already. You’ve survived it.
As much as Frank would like to believe that he has reached a point with some permanence, the actual facts of the case suggest that nothing is as permanent as Frank would like to believe. The “dead” husband of Frank’s wife spends a week at his house, before she abandons Frank to be with him. He is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Coastal erosion will soon claim houses on Frank’s street. A cemetery in town is now empty due to some unusual circumstances. Very little in Frank’s life seems to support his stated views that life has become stable and predictable in any real way. He seems to have successfully deluded himself.
However, an explosive event late in the book (it is almost 500 pages) jars the seeming aimlessness of the preceding events in the book into sharp perspective. It drives home that the ideas of permanence and predictability in life are ridiculous. Life is not to be taken lightly. But you knew this.
Simply put, I loved the book. Frank Bascombe may be the most fully realized character I’ve come across in a novel. I liked him, too. Of course, I am likely have spoken well of the book anyway. Ford now lives in New Orleans, my home town. We talked about New Orleans and Mississippi (his home) while he signed my book. And I now have a book signed by a Pulitzer winner. And it needs to be said, that Richard Ford is good looking man.
Anyway, I’ve once again proven myself a master of timing. The National Book Critics Circle has been posting about a new book each day that is nominated for a NBCC award. As I’m writing this, the day’s post is for The Lay of the Land. Their synopsis includes the following nice assessment of Frank Bascombe “the unforeseen continues to destroy the superstructure of each new theory of his adaptation.” And Shaft, they do point out that he spends a lot of time just driving around being melancholic.
If that wasn’t enough, the KCRW Bookworm guy’s interview with Richard Ford can be found here. I recommend giving it a listen if you’re curious about the book and how Ford views his craft.