LET me be completely honest: I can't make up my mind about "The Lay of the Land." For the last few weeks, I've wrestled with it and have been alternately indifferent and enthralled. It's a big novel, nearly 500 pages, the third volume in Richard Ford's "Sportswriter" cycle, which revolves around a middle-aged suburban New Jerseyite named Frank Bascombe, a former sportswriter turned real estate agent, a decent man, a man who thinks before he acts, who seeks the calmer surfaces as he navigates the shoals and narrows of contemporary life.
We first met Frank in "The Sportswriter," published in 1986, where during a difficult Easter week, he reflects on the collapse of his marriage and the death of his 9-year-old son, Ralph. Nine years later, Ford brought Frank back in "Independence Day," the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Here, Frank sought to connect with his surviving son, Paul (he also has a daughter named Clarissa), over a Fourth of July weekend, while struggling to emerge from the static stillness of his "Existence Period."
With "The Lay of the Land," Ford continues the saga, giving us a Frank who is older if not wiser, a 55-year-old recovering from prostate cancer and trying to account for the failure of a second marriage as he enters what he calls the "Permanent Period." This, he explains, is a time in which "we try to be what we are in the present -- good or not so good -- this, so that accepting final credit for ourselves won't be such a shock later on."
"The Lay of the Land" unfolds in the days leading up to Thanksgiving 2000, a period of transition not just for Frank but also for the country, mired in a presidential election that will not dissipate. Yet if politics provides a backdrop to the narrative -- much as the 1988 election informed "Independence Day" -- this is a political novel on only the most personal terms. As he has been always, Frank is detached, the same man who described himself in "The Sportswriter" as wanting only "to participate briefly in the lives of others at a low level; to speak in a plain, truth-telling voice; to not take myself too seriously; and then to have done with it."
The trouble, though, is that circumstance won't leave him alone. His daughter, 25 and on the rebound from a lesbian relationship, is staying with him, sorting out the loose ends of her existence while sleeping with a man Frank can't stand. His son dislikes him but cannot stay away. His first wife keeps reappearing also, destabilizing him in a way that only those with whom we have shared great loss can do. Even the real estate business is shifting, no longer about "having a decent house on a safe street" as much as it is about making a score.
For Frank, it's all highly problematic; he is someone for whom change is to be resisted, if not feared, as an intimation of chaos, of the abyss. In that regard, he is like the nation in which he lives, familiar yet at the same time unfamiliar, filled with a vague anxiety about what the future holds. "Who'dju waste your vote on?" a bartender asks him in the middle of the novel, before launching into a venomous tirade. This is America at the millennium, Ford means to tell us, a country most united by disunion, by the sense that everything is for the taking, by consumerism and rapid growth, a place where the old rules, the eternal verities, no longer apply.
That's an important notion, and it echoes through the other Bascombe novels, each of which aspires to its own epic, and American, sense of moment. As "The Lay of the Land" progresses, however, such a perspective grows diffuse, dissociated, as if Frank (or Ford) is having difficulty understanding what it means. Part of the problem is that, like "Independence Day" before it, the book meanders, taking pages to describe the simplest interactions, with an eye to detail that can be overwhelming, numbing, far too full. The main story opens with an extended "drive across the coastal incline" of New Jersey between Toms River and the fictional town of Haddam, but if this allows Ford to ease us back into Frank's existence -- it's been 12 years since the action of "Independence Day" -- it also lays out the essential, if not entirely intended, tension of the book. Frank goes on at length, after all, about everything: real estate, traffic, the economy, a constant buzzing monologue that lulls us into inattention. "[T]here're too many ways to say everything," he admits, which is, of course, precisely the point.
To be fair, Ford's got something in mind here, to evoke the way Frank minimizes experience, with its crowded side roads, its accidents, its messy ebb and flow. Yet permanence has its downside also; "Even though it solves the problem of tiresome becoming," Frank reflects, "it can also erode optimism, render possibility small and remote, and make any of us feel ... that down deep inside we've finally become just an organism that for some reason can still make noise, but not much more than that." Still, although Frank may recognize this, he can't get beneath the surface of events. "What is home, then, you might wonder?" he muses, in a telling revelation. "The place you first see daylight, or the place you choose for yourself? ... Home may only be where you've memorized the grid pattern, where you can pay with a check."
Where "The Lay of the Land" excels is when Ford draws us out of Frank's head and into the world. He is, as he has always been, a master of dialogue, and many scenes here -- a building demolition in Asbury Park; a boozy, unexpected moment of connection in a lesbian bar on Thanksgiving eve -- are remarkable in their nuance and their depth. This is particularly true of Frank's encounters with his daughter, a no-nonsense Harvard graduate entertaining one final fling with parental dependence. "It is her last chance," Ford writes, "to have a father experiencing his last chance to have the daughter he loves." Their relationship -- tentative, tough and tender -- is nothing short of heartbreaking, and Ford's ability to inhabit it (he has no children of his own) is as strong an argument as any for not writing what you know.
Yet even this is not enough to sustain the novel. Frank's other child, Paul, now a writer of greeting cards in Kansas City, comes off as doughy, not fully formed, and his presence feels forced, flat, as if he were a cipher rather than a human being. Even more troublesome is the absence of Frank's second wife, Sally Caldwell, who left him to take up with her long-lost first husband; this plotline, which becomes increasingly important as the book develops, never feels believable. It's as if Ford were looking for a structure to make his novel more dramatic, when the very notion of "The Lay of the Land" -- of all three Bascombe novels -- is that the drama is in the details of our non-dramatic lives. This is the idea behind using a holiday as a frame, to comment on the inevitable shape external events bestow upon the formlessness of daily life. As a result, when Ford amps things up, as he does toward the end here, it feels antithetical to the project as a whole.
Ultimately, all that speaks to a larger question, the question of the writer Ford has become. Sixteen years ago, in the wake of his deft yet underrated novel "Wildlife," he seemed poised to do anything, an author of many voices, many sensibilities. Since then, his work has seemed, at times, a matter of retrenchment, more about returning than looking ahead. His last two novels -- "Independence Day" and this one -- circle back to the same character; the stories in "Women With Men" (1997) and "A Multitude of Sins" (2002) track a similarly aimless kind of middle-aged life. Where is the urgency of an earlier novel such as "The Ultimate Good Luck" or the stories in "Rock Springs," with their spare and haunting beauty, their idea of a world just beyond our reach?
Yes, Frank reflects on the big questions, but for him, it's more about accounting than philosophy. Awakened at 3 a.m., he seeks repose "by editing my list of prospective pallbearers, noting a crucial addition or deletion, depending on my mood, followed by a review of who I intend to leave what to when the day comes, then reviewing all the cars I've owned, restaurants I've eaten in and hotels I've slept in during my fifty-five years of ordinary life." Is this what it comes to? Is this the substance of ourselves? "The Lay of the Land" hints that there must be more to the story, but it never quite connects with what that is. *Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times