The third chapter in the life of Frank Bascombe takes place in November of 1999. It’s Thanksgiving, and the presidential election is dragging on in Florida. Frank is 55, seventeen years older than in The Sportswriter, set in 1983 and published in 1986. Then came Independence Day (1995), set in 1988. Now Frank finds himself at a time in life he labels the Permanent Period, defined by Ford in a television interview as “a period of time which you can live through and never notice. . . . that period in your life when you’ve sort of broken with the past and there’s not enough of the future left to screw it up and maybe it’s time when you should pay attention to your everyday existence, because it’s likely to be a time when, once you are gone, you’ll be remembered for.” In the same interview, Ford reads a passage in which Bascombe “is really talking about trying to find a sense of character for himself,” a “recognizable and persuasive semblance of a character,” as Bascombe puts it.” He has, Ford says, “a history, OK, but not really much of a regular character, at least not an inner essence I or anyone could use as a predictor.” Ford’s challenge in this book is to give Bascombe a stronger sense of character, a deeper sense of himself, communicated to the reader through his voice. Whether he succeeds or not is, I think, the central critical question to ask about this sometimes rambling, dense novel.
The acquiring of an “inner essence” is heavy stuff for anyone, especially Frank who, while verbal, at least when talking to himself, has not previously seemed to put much faith in the value of the examined life. He has had his moments, yes, but on the whole his proclivity, even after the death of his nine-year-old son Ralph in The Sportswriter, has been to get on with life. As he admits in this novel, he tends to “think of life itself of a made-up thing composed of today, maybe tomorrow and probably not the next day, with as little of the past added in as possible.” But now Frank has heard Time’s winged chariot hurrying near, as Andrew Marvell put it, in the shape of prostate cancer, and The Lay of the Land opens with an uncharacteristically introspective short section that is mostly about death, in which Frank ponders a newspaper account he has read about a teacher who was confronted by a “disgruntled student” who, gun to her forehead, asked her if she was “’ready to meet your Maker?’ to which Ms. McCurdy . . . replied, ‘Yes. Yes, I think I am’” and was shot dead. Taking a late-fall plunge into the ocean and pondering the motives of those who deliberately swim to their death or who slip off the transom of a boat, Frank decides that he needs to say “no to it now.” He takes a short dip and turns back to land “and whatever lay waiting for me there.” Death has always been present in Frank’s life, but now it manifests itself, literally, within him, and the question that pervades The Lay of the Land is how to live with it, with the emphasis on live.
This section, then, identifies one meaning of the title as what lies waiting; death, yes, but what else? As it happens, there’s plenty, including a renewed sense of the extent to which Ralph’s untimely death has shaped Frank’s life. As if prostate cancer isn’t enough, let alone the impending burdens of a major family holiday for the classically dysfunctional Bascombes, Frank’s second wife, Sally, has left him for her lugubrious risen-from-the-dead first husband, Wally; his peculiar son Paul, a composer of verses for Hallmark Cards, is coming with a new girl friend who turns out to have only one hand, and his daughter Clarissa is trying to decide if she is truly a lesbian, having temporarily abandoned Cookie, whom Frank likes. First wife Ann is wondering if she loves him again, and he’s being interrogated by the police for having witnessed the aftermath of an act of violence at the hospital cafeteria where he has innocently enough gone to eat lunch.
There is, in fact, so much going on that Ford’s readers may feel as overwhelmed as his protagonist. It helps if they have read the earlier volumes and are familiar with most of the characters, so that meeting them again is like tuning into the next installment of a soap opera. This is not meant in a derogatory sense; those who read for voice, which in this novel, as in its predecessors, drives the plot, will be happy to hear from Frank again because he is unique in contemporary American fiction. Inevitably compared to John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom as a spokesperson for his generation, Frank seems destined to take his place in the pantheon of notable first-person narrators. It is perhaps with this in mind that there are a few somewhat ironic references to The Great Gatsby, one of which refers to “its lapidary certainties disguised as spoiled innocence—something I don’t believe in.”
It’s immediately clear that there are few certainties in Frank’s world, which revolves around Sea Clift, New Jersey, the seaside town where he lives, and Haddam, where he lived with his first wife. Frank is still a realtor and has acquired a colorful partner, Mike Mahoney, whose name belies his Tibetan identity. Mike has strenuously Americanized himself, right down to the “flat, accentless news-anchor delivery” of his speech. One of Ford’s gifts is to make improbable characters like Mike seem anything but bizarre; but without splitting too many hairs, perhaps it’s more accurate to credit Frank in this respect, as it is his observations that make the weird seem normal. As it happens, Mike is the impetus for several of Frank’s verbal riffs, one of the pleasures of reading Ford. Sometimes coming dangerously close to stealing the scene, they are an integral part of Frank’s character, illustrating a whole number of things, his sense of humor, his politics, and most of all, his ironic sense of life. Early on, for example, he expands on the Pilgrim Village Interpretive Center, constructed in the center of Haddam by two “Am. Civ. Professors with Trenton State with time on their hands,” who have constructed “a replica Pilgrim town with three windowless, dirt-floor Pilgrim houses” inhabited by “a collection of young Pilgrims” that includes “a Negro Pilgrim, a Jewish female Pilgrim, a wheelchair-bound Pilgrim,” well, you get the picture.
Frank’s oft-displayed sense of the absurd, however, is not simply a diversion for either him or his listeners. Ford has said that for him, “if nothing’s funny, nothing’s serious. . . . And that’s what I believe, basically.” I expect Frank would agree. A man who does not “credit the epiphanic [so much for you, Henry James and James Joyce], the seeing-through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering detail,” Frank thinks of “life itself as a made-up thing composed of today, maybe tomorrow and probably not the next day.” The comic mixes with the tragic in Frank’s life—it always has—and no more so than in the last chapters of this novel, in which Ford is visibly struggling to tie up some thematic loose ends and to do it fast. To tell the truth, I’m not sure that he succeeds—the ending is a bit too forced, too schematic in terms of both action and theme. But endings are necessary evils, and having tossed a good many balls into the air, Ford has to get control of them one final time.Earlier on I raised the issue of whether Ford succeeds in giving Frank a deeper sense of himself through his voice. For all his verbal pyrotechnics, Frank is not an eloquent man, and the argument can be made that he fails to articulate fully the deeper truths that he senses about life. On the other hand, as the man he is, perhaps the point is that this is irrelevant, that what matters is living life as “the made-up thing” that may have no tomorrow. More reactive than proactive, like most of us, Frank reels from minor to major crisis—Mike’s flirtation with a suspect developer, his first wife’s reappearance, his second’s disappearance—doing the best he can, often better than most. Ford somehow convinced this reader that Frank does possess a deepened understanding of what the permanent period means, of what death means, even if he cannot always express it.