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Civilization scrunched down to theme-park size

Frank Bascombe is back and he is ditzier than ever. (Sure, that's a bit blurby, but imagine Frank Bascombe played by Bill Murray and you'll get the idea.) He may think his stripped gearbox is a sign of age -- he is now 56 -- but he's been short on traction for decades. This prince of pratfalls who first schlepped his way through Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter" in 1986 and "Independence Day" in 1995 is alive and sulking in "The Lay of the Land." He may be a whiz at real estate and snug in his New Jersey seaside villa, but in matters of the heart he has all the finesse of a tornado in a trailer park.

Moreover, his chronic misery has now become acute -- now being the book's brink-of-Y2K setting -- since he has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and is walking around with a "sixty radioactive iodine seeds encased in titanium BBs and smart-bombed into [his] prostate at the Mayo Clinic."

That on top of the recent collapse of his second marriage, after his wife had run off with a first husband who had been declared legally dead, the alienation of his son Paul, who uses a Thanksgiving visit to bury a time capsule in his dad's lawn, and a daughter who has gone from lesbianism to dating men and has just bagged a forty-six-year-old equestrian instructor with dreads down to his shoulders. Hardly the least affliction, Bascombe is a Democrat and George Bush has just won the election. And to top even that, Bascombe has himself to deal with, and there is no titanium BB treatment for being a complete jerk.

It is the start of Thanksgiving weekend 2000, and Bascombe drags his bolus of grief with him wherever he goes: to the office, Realty-Wise in Sea Clift, New Jersey, which he shares with a Tibetan named Mike Mahoney, to the gourmet food shop, "Eat No Evil," where he orders an ethical meal of organic turkey with tofu dressing for Thanksgiving dinner; to a "Sponsor" stop at the home of a grieving woman who wants to confess to someone her overwhelming need to confess to everyone; to a hospital that has been bombed; to the implosion of the old Queen Regent Hotel in Asbury Park, which he attends with an elderly friend who uses demolition videos to seduce seventy somethings into bed; to a lesbian bar (or "alternative night spot") where the bartender has the word "TERMITE" spelled out in Gothic letters on her neck; to the showing of a house that is up on blocks, where a fox comes leaping out of the woodwork. Oh, there is also a meeting with his first wife, Ann, now widowed, who avows that she still loves, him, but later takes it back.

Do you get the picture that New Jersey is not for sissies?

Bascombe, who worked as a sportswriter in the first book and turned real estate agent in the second, has made his escape from exurban Haddam, New Jersey, which had gone from sleepy village to catch-all for urban nastiness: violence, death-by-strip mall, sticker-price bloat. A house could appreciate ten percent between the offer and the closing. He has done well enough flogging beachfront property in "seasonal, insular, commuter-less [and] stable" Sea Clift to take in Mike Mahoney, the only realtor on the East coast whose screen saver is a picture of himself posing with the Dalai Lama. I'm not sure if this is Ford's homage to multiculturalism or his way of saying that real estate has its own freakish Tao.

"Mike is not very different from most real estate agents who turn out to be exotics in their own right: ex-Concorde pilots, ex-NFL linebackers, ex-Jack Kerouac scholars, ex-wives whose husbands ran off with Vietnamese au pairs, then wish to god they could come back, but aren't allowed to."

Frank Bascombe measures his life by periods, and in Independence Day he was in his "Existence Period" a time of putting one foot in front of the other and slogging his way toward whatever. In "The Lay of the Land" he has graduated to the "Permanent Period," the time when you have achieved your whatever and can sit back and contemplate the struggle below.

"'The Permanent Period' tries to reconcile irreconcilables in your favor by making the congested, entangling past fade to beige, and the present brighten with its present-ness. This is the very deep water my Daughter, Clarissa, is at present wading through and knows it: how to keep afloat in the populous hazardous mainstream (the yakety-yak and worse) without drowning; versus being pleasantly safe in your own little eddy."

If you are expecting a neatly packaged story, fuggedaboudit, though every chapter leaves you wondering how Bascombe is going to get out of the traps he sets for himself. If you are content to see a life run through all its gears -- and Bascombe's has about 5 forward and 10 backward -- and can take pleasure from the sharpest eyes this side of the Hubble telescope, then Ford is your man.

"The Lay of the Land" is a rambling survey of the landmines a man can set off on the way to chowing down to his free-range turkey and mock pumpkin pie, with Richard Ford peering over poor Bascombe's shoulder and supplying a sardonic voiceover.

But that voiceover is the heartbeat of the novel. Because Frank Bascombe comes off as a man with ADD, with overlays of OCD, the reader -- this reader, anyway -- treats him as warily as do his ex-wives and children, not to say Mike Mahoney, who grows weary of his partner's antics. (Insisting, for example, that a prospective buyer tour a house when the buyer is clearly just interested in the lot. Thus a deal-breaking encounter with the fox.) You wouldn't believe this guy if he told you that fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly.

The book really belongs to Richard Ford, who overcomes Bascombe's sodden self-reflection with his own endlessly funky observations.

Among my favorites is the Pilgrim Village Interpretive Center that has dedicated a part of Haddam Township to "Sharing Our Village past," including "a replica Pilgrim town with three windowless, dirt-floor Pilgrim houses, trucked-in period barnyard animals, and lots of authentic but unhandy Pilgrim implements . . . ."

Inside the village they've installed a collection of young Pilgrims -- a Negro Pilgrim, a Jewish Female Pilgrim, a wheelchair-bound Pilgrim, a Japanese Pilgrim with a learning disability, plus two or three ordinary white kids -- all of whom spend their days doing toilsome Pilgrim chores in drab, ill-fitting garments, chattering to themselves about rock videos while they hew logs, boil clothes, rip up sod, make soap in iron caldrons and spin more coarse cloth, but now and then pausing to step forth, just like soap-opera characters on Christmas Day, to deliver loud declarations about "the first hard days of 1620 . . . ."

Is this satire or precise social notation? A little of both, I think, as well as one of the book's many time capsules. But then, "The Lay of the Land" itself IS the time capsule, a place where our civilization is scrunched down to theme park size and its oddities placed on permanent display. Y2K Land.

What was life like in seaside New Jersey at the end of the last millennium? Here it is -- schlep right up, folks, -- with Richard Ford as the curator and Frank Bascombe as your dopey docent. "The Lay of the Land" is Richard Ford's best work, and the best American novel you will read this year.

Mark Shechner is a University at Buffalo English professor.

***

The Lay of the Land

By Richard Ford

Knopf, 485 pages, $26.95

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