Classic review: The Lay of the Land

A Thanksgiving story that offers a dark view of America at the close of the 20th century.

The Lay of the Land By Richard Ford Knopf 496 pp., $26.95

[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Nov. 14, 2006.] It's in the days leading up to – and following – Thanksgiving in the year of the 2000 presidential election that we once again meet up with Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of Richard Ford's earlier two novels, "The Sportswriter" (1986) and "Independence Day" (1995). If you liked Bascombe in those earlier novels, you'll enjoy him again – older, battered by life's vicissitudes, perhaps a bit wiser, with a deeper understanding of his own and other folks' inner journeys.

But Bascombe is certainly not mellow: This is a man in his mid-50s who can still get into a bar fight and come out the winner! What has made him so mad? It's the 2000 election, which is creeping inexorably and, to Frank, rebarbatively, toward its inevitable conclusion as Ford's narrative winds along its nearly five hundred pages. Fans of George W. Bush are not likely to enjoy The Lay of the Land, which is filled with references to the "frat boy" and assorted other epithets which boil up out of its hero's outrage. On the other hand, readers who share Bascombe's – and, one assumes, Ford's – white-hot anguish at every development between Election Day 2000 and the handing down of the judgment in Bush v. Gore will likely adore this passionate, heartfelt novel.

There are, of course, other reasons to like "The Lay of the Land," which is as vibrant a book as any that Richard Ford has written. It bristles with energy, with a natural assurance on the part of its writer. The novel is so full of good writing that it's hard to pick a passage that could serve as the prime example, but here Mississippi-born Ford has Bascombe meditate fruitfully on a particularly loaded and meaningful word:

"What is home then, you might wonder? The place you first see daylight, or the place you choose for yourself? Or is it the someplace you just can't keep from going back to, though the air there's grown less breathable, the future's over, where they really don't want you back, and where you once left on a breeze without a rearward glance? Home? Home's a musable concept if you're born to one place, as I was (the syrup-aired southern coast), educated to another (the glaciated mid-continent), come full stop in a third – then spend years finding suitable 'homes' for others."

Always a joy to read, Ford has such a sense of the basics of good fiction: not only place, but also time, and, perhaps most important of all, character. In Frank Bascombe he has clearly created a true alter-ego, like John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, but warmer, closer to himself under the skin. Perhaps that is why Ford cannot resist giving you so much of him! Like James Joyce in "Ulysses," this contemporary American master wants to plumb the depths of a man's day from bedroom to bathroom to office. The trouble is he doesn't respect the classical unities, doesn't stop at one day: If one is good, surely several are better. Well, perhaps, but even a die-hard Richard Ford fan might think that a few trims would have made an undeniably good book a bit better. Making Bascombe a realtor, however, seems more than ever here to be a stroke of genius. Can a realtor really stand in for a writer? The answer is yes, when they share a sharp wit and boatloads of spirit and integrity.

And what a slice of life at the turn of the century and millennium this novel is. There is so much trenchant criticism of what is wrong with American society: the economic royalism, the greed, the lack of common decency and civility in so many walks of life, and above all perspective. Bascombe is one realtor who does not let his desire to make a buck blind him to what he recognizes as the insanity of a real estate market which boosts house prices beyond the reach of too many hardworking Americans.

As people today read Theodore Dreiser for his acute portraits of industrialized America in its gilded age and Sinclair Lewis for his insights into his nation's struggles to come to terms with 20th-century changes in its social structures, one day readers will turn to Richard Ford to discover just what the United States was like on the homefront during his particular fin de siècle.

Merle Rubin regularly reviewed books for the Monitor.

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