Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, must be the most eloquent real estate agent on God’s green earth. Indeed, he once was a writer, as those who have read the other two Bascombe books, The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995), will recall. The latter garnered Ford some impressive hardware, both the Pulitzer and Pen/Faulkner awards, and put Frank Bascombe on the literary map. So, The Lay of the Land is like a delicate piece of urban planning, with Ford endeavoring to expand on the Bascombe legacy while avoiding the pitfalls of largess and sprawl.
What is the Bascombe legacy, after all? It’s a question that Bascombe himself is forced to confront from the first pages of The Lay of the Land, because he is now 55 years old and has recently had radioactive BBs fired into his cancerous prostate. The prospect of death from within is all the more troubling because it is from within, exclusively, that Frank Bascombe’s life on the page has been recounted, with solipsistic alacrity. A great part of the Bascombe legacy, then, is his voice, honed to near perfection over the course of three books: funny with a sardonic edge, searching and unsure, eschewing lapidary truths, reveling in life’s persistent ambiguities. Wives, ex-wives, and other women have passed before his eyes, children, too, both dead and living; great professional successes and profound failures have been endured, all recounted by this voice, which in the end (and it is probably the end: Ford has said that this is the last of the Bascombe books), and like many great literary voices, is both unique, and, somehow, universal.
What emerges is a struggle to separate the permanent from the protean. Frank Bascombe has now entered into what he calls life’s “permanent period,” where the forks in the road have all been taken, and what’s left is to sort out what it all means, and, simply, how, or even if, he will be remembered: “But very little about me, I realized – except what I’d already done, said, eaten, etc. – seemed written in stone, and all of that meant almost nothing about what I might do. I had my history, okay, but not really much of a regular character, at least not an inner essence I or anyone could use as a predictor. And something, I felt, needed to be done about that.”
It’s soulful stuff, with a definite Eastern orientation – the enduring quality of the soul – hinted at during Frank’s often humorous interactions with his business partner, a Tibetan with the unlikely name Mike Mahoney (make money?), who has given Frank a book on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, but who also displays a framed picture of Ronald Reagan above his desk.
Frank has fled the formerly idyllic township of Haddam, New Jersey, now a phantasmagoria of suburban development gone awry, for the seaside calm of the Shore. His house faces East to the open ocean, from whence he, and all others, came. Haddam is a not so shining example of change, as it’s now devoid of the less-spoiled innocence of the Shore, bloated, a mockery (The place where his ex-wife lives. In his own, old house no less.) And Frank, as a purveyor of land, is in as good a position as any to make observations about Haddam, though he sometimes sounds like he’s dictating a real estate primer. The implication is that, unlike that of the human character once it has reached the permanent period, the lay of the land, that which is observable, ownable, is in a constant state of flux. Uncertainty reigns over the American landscape. It is, finally, The Year 2000, and, after the great millennial let-down, the country must now watch the disputed presidential election play out (Frank voted for Gore, the apparent loser.)
And perhaps the economic boom of the last decade is ready to go bust? And perhaps other storm clouds are brewing, misfortune of a different sort set to make landfall in the not-too-distant future? It is a deep source of interest, setting the book at this pivotal time in American history, and Ford evokes the turmoil skillfully, the problems inherent to “progress” as described by an older and undeniably crankier Frank Bascombe, with just enough veiled reference to future events to make the narrative seem retroactively prescient without being (too) smug.
But, with a nod to almost every aspect of modern American life that you can name, the book is ultimately about death. And one cannot discuss America and death without discussing violence, too. Surprisingly, violence plays an important part in the narrative. As a device, its presence seems meant to allow Frank to cross that last hurdle, to allow the lay of the land around him, so troubling at times, fraught with worry and doubt and misfortune, to fall away, his body just an ephemeral shell, his essence, his greater consciousness, which is all that the reader has had all along, taking finally its proper place as all that is permanent.
Frank Bascombe has always been obsessed with the notion of “disappearing into your life.” It is a condition borne in on an existential riptide that sucks men into obscurity, nothing to show for themselves at the End save for the mundane details: the family, the career, the political affiliations, the kind of car you drove (a Chevy Suburban, in Frank’s case, one of many little ironies from the sometimes impish Ford). These contours in life’s landscape, this glorious topography, is not mundane when lived, of course, only when surveyed from a distance, a process for which Frank Bascombe has a singular talent. He recognizes that this territory has been negotiated before in past American lives, where second acts are hard to come by, if for no other reason than because it is damn near impossible to lower the curtain on the first.