Richard Ford's latest novel represents the long-awaited completion of the trilogy he began with The Sportswriter (1986) and continued with the Pulitzer Prize- and PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Independence Day (1995). Fans of Ford's writing and of his protagonist, Frank Bascombe, will find their patience amply rewarded by this rich and mature work.
Like its predecessors, The Lay of the Land unfolds in the days leading up to a holiday, in this case Thanksgiving 2000. Al Gore and George Bush battle over electoral votes and the dotcom bubble has burst, yet these events are little more than background noise in the busy mind of Frank Bascombe. Deep into his successful second career in real estate sales, he's moved from the leafy suburb of Haddam, New Jersey, to the small town of Sea-Clift, on the Jersey Shore. At age 55, he's entered what he calls his Permanent Period, though his life is anything but. He's recently been treated for prostate cancer and he's had to deal with the return of his wife's first husband, who had disappeared more than 30 years earlier. During this eventful Thanksgiving week, he loses one of his friends to cancer, witnesses the aftermath of a bombing at a Haddam hospital and tussles with an old acquaintance in a bar. In the midst of these events, he's forced to confront his prickly relationships with his adult children and fend off a suggestion from his first wife that she might be interested in rekindling their relationship.
Apart from the humor and pathos revealed in these sometimes bizarre and inexplicable incidents, what makes this such a compelling read is Ford's skillful channeling of the voice of the narrator he's shaped over the course of three books and 20 years. The novel is studded with beautifully wrought passages filtered through the prism of Bascombe's introspective and keenly observant mind. By the time the novel reaches its resonant climax, readers will be forgiven if they conclude the life they've shared in these pages is every bit as real as their own.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Copyright 2006 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2006 September #2
The third and most eventful novel in the Frank Bascombe series takes a whiplash turn from comedy (occasionally slapstick) toward tragedy.Every ten years or so, Ford returns to Bascombe, whose debut in The Sportswriter (1986) provided the author's popular breakthrough and whose encore in Independence Day (1995) merited the Pulitzer. Where there were considerable differences between the first novel and the follow-up-in which the once-promising writer and aspiring novelist settles for a comfortable living as a real-estate agent-the third sticks closer to the second's template. Once again, Frank ruminates on his existence over an extended holiday, in this case Thanksgiving 2000, when the country is in the midst of millennial tremors and a contested presidential election. It seems that neither death nor divorce may be permanent in Bascombe's life. He is now separated from his second wife, who had presumably been a widow, but whose first husband returns to the scene, while Frank's first wife (now widowed by her second husband) gives signs that she wants to reconcile with him. His son and daughter are now adults, with complicated adult problems and relations with their parents. Frank has moved from Haddam, N.J., a suburb much changed by gentrification and cultural diversity, to a resort community on the shore, where he now sells homes and cottages with a Tibetan refugee, a Buddhist who has Americanized his name as Mike Mahoney. At the age of 55, Frank also suffers from prostate cancer, which has brought him to the autumn of his years (hence, Thanksgiving) earlier than most. As always, Frank prefers to react than act, to roll with the punches thrown by those who wish he were someone other than who he is. Over the course of three days culminating in a holiday dinner, he absorbs more punches than at any other time in his life.Though not as consistently compelling as Independence Day (too many chickens coming home to roost), this reaffirms that Frank Bascombe is for Ford what Rabbit Angstrom is for Updike.First printing of 150,000. Agent: Amanda Urban/International Creative Management (ICM) Copyright Kirkus 2006 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 June #1
With his first novel in more than a decade, Ford picks up the story of Frank Bascombe, begun in The Sportswriter in 1985. With a 15-city tour. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2006 October #2
In 1985, Ford published The Sportswriter and with protagonist Frank Bascombe began an epic story of the everyman. Ten years later, Bascombe returned in Fordâ€™s Independence Day , winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, a feat never before accomplished by a single work of fiction. Here, Ford revisits the story in 2000, as Bascombe deals with prostate cancer, his second divorce, and the controversial presidential election fiasco. He has moved to the Jersey shore, where he sells real estate and, over the course of 500 pages, does nothing particularly important except host a postnuclear family Thanksgiving get-together to which, against his better judgment, he has invited his ex-wife and emotionally explosive son. But, as in many literary classics, the beauty of this novel is in its presentationâ€"the word choice and perfect phrasesâ€"and in Bascombeâ€™s unwaveringly honest and humorous narration. Ford manages to become his character and remove authorial boundaries, transforming his novel into a story told to us by an old friend. A fitting way to complete the Frank Bascombe legacy; recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/06.]â€"Stephen Morrow, Columbus, OH[Page 51]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Frank Bascombe meticulously maps New Jersey with a realtor's rapacious eye, and he is an equally intense topographer of his teeming inner landscape. In the first of Ford's magisterial Bascombe novels (The Sportswriter , 1986), Frank staved off feelings of loss and regret with a dissociated "dreaminess." He graduated to a more conventional detachment during what he calls the "Existence Period" of the Pen/Faulkner and Pulitzer Prize winning Independence Day (1995). Now we find the 55-year-old former fiction writer and sports journalist in a "Permanent Period," a time of being, not becoming. He's long adjusted to the dissolution of his first marriage to women's golf instructor Ann Dykstra (which foundered 17 years earlier after the death of their nine-year-old, firstborn son, Ralph) and settled for eight years with second wife Sally Caldwell in Sea-Clift, N.J. Permanence has proven turbulent: Sally has abandoned Frank for her thought-to-be-dead first husband, and Frank's undergone treatment for prostate cancer.
The novel's action unfolds in 2000 over the week before Thanksgiving, as Frank bemoans the contested election, mourns the imminent departure of Clinton ("My President," he says) and anticipates with measured ambivalence the impending holiday meal: his guests will include his 27-year-old son, Paul, a once-troubled adolescent grown into an abrasive "mainstreamer," who writes for Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo., and his 25-year-old daughter, Clarissa, a glamorous bisexual Harvard grad who's unfailingly loyal to her dad. Frank's quotidian routines are punctuated by weird but subtly depicted events: he happens on the scene of a bombing at the hospital in his former hometown of Haddam, N.J., clenches his jaw through an awkward meeting with Ann, provokes a bar fight and observes the demolition of an old building.
But the real dramatic arc occurs in Frank's emotional life until the climax takes him out of his head. Ford summons a remarkable voice for his protagonist ruminant, jaunty, merciless, generous and painfully observant building a dense narrative from Frank's improvisations, epiphanies and revisions. His reluctance to "fully occupy " his real estate career ("it's really about arriving and destinations, and all the prospects that await you or might await you in some place you never thought about") illuminates the preoccupations of the boomer generation; for Frank, an unwritten novel and broken relationships combine with the dwindling fantasy of endless possibility in work and in love to breed doubt: "Is this it?" and "Am I good?" Frank wonders. The answers don't come easy. 150,000 announced first printing. (Nov.)[Page 41]. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.