California Literary Review

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

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June 10th, 2007 at 6:04 pm

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The Lay of the Land
by Richard Ford
Knopf, 485 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Lay of the Land Appears a Bit Flat

I admit to the following fact: that in many ways, all too often, I’m a boorish swine. While the two words may appear to have nearly identical meanings, such is not truly the case. It’s quite possible to be rude and insensitive without being contemptible. Ask my family and friends. But back to the initial sentence. When it comes to what is generally considered by serious readers to be top-shelf, quality literature, I frequently disagree. I’ve read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse a number of times. The book does nothing for me, but I’ll continue to look. Much of Vollmann puts me to sleep and not merely because it’s excessively wordy. Long books don’t scare me. I’ve actually read each volume of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization, some of which was most tedious. I’m not a fan of John Updike or Ken Follet and their books are not voluminous most of the time.

So when I say that Richard Ford’s latest novel The Lay of the Land failed to hold my attention, excite me or engage my interest, I fully expect to be criticized for perceived intellectual limitations. Let ‘em fly. I started this one with high hopes that Ford had rediscovered himself and returned to the tough writing of earlier years.

Ever since I read Ford’s tremendous collection of short stories, Rock Springs, I’ve been an admirer of his talent and his honesty. “Children” from this collection nailed so many things perfectly with such vision and power that few short stories ever written compare to it. In The Sportswriter Ford came so close to revealing esoteric truths, handing out the keys to the castle, before suddenly and inexplicably turning away and moving off in another direction. He dedicated the remainder of the novel to psychological vivisection that bordered on ponderous and painful to experience. Like watching Dr. Phil annihilate some poor sap through the skillful use of his personal shortcomings transferred upon the hapless victim caught in the glare of television stage lights much like a deer on a nighttime highway. Still the book was overall a solid effort. In Independence Day I noticed this trend towards long-winded narrative examining the psyche gathering momentum. Instead of revealing secrets that zing and whistle invisibly through the air, he chose to examine the inner self, often laboriously. I find these examinations boring (please refer to lead graph for clarity and impetus).

With the publication of The Lay of the Land Ford has taken this momentum and turned it into an avalanche of stultifying prose that is remarkable to me. The words are strung together competently, sometimes brilliantly. The characters are well-drawn, clear, as are locations, thought processes and motivations but all the time I’m thinking that the lead character, Frank Bascombe, is one pretentious, self-absorbed guy. Want to have an unsuccessful party? Invite this guy. Have trouble sleeping? Call up Frank.

As the book cover notes inform us, the life and times of Frank Bascombe have now trudged into autumn 2000 where his occupation as realtor on the Jersey Shore is highly successful. But as a Presidential election tightens, and a post nuclear-family Thanksgiving closes in on him along with both marital and health crises, Frank discovers that what he terms the Permanent Period is fraught with unforeseen perils: “All the ways that life feels like life at age fifty-five were strewn around me like poppies.”

I don’t thinks that Ford and I would get along. His tone seems to be carefully concealed elitism and smugness all couched in a feigned appearance of a worldly, self-consciously funny man whose been through much of it all as in this riff:

And yet, Thanksgiving won’t be ignored. Americans are hardwired for something to be thankful for. Our National spirit thrives on invented gratitude. Even if Aunt Bella’s flat-line and in custodial care down in Rucksville, Alabama, we still “need” her to have some white meat and gravy and be thankful, thankful, thankful. After all, we are – if only because we’re not in her bedroom slippers.

If the two of us began a road trip together, for what reason I have no idea, I think that I could handle one, two maybe even three of these pithy observations given a pint of Beam (refer to swinishness), but that would be it. At the start of another toothsome bit of wisdom I’d rip open the door and leap to freedom.

To see just how far gone I was I checked a number of reader reviews of Ford’s book at various websites and these represent the majority of those I read.

Somebody also compares “The Lay of the Land” to McCarthy’s “The Road” which I just finished a couple of hours ago. Two hundred and some pages of riveting horror and beauty. There is no comparison. I’m sad I finished The Road whereas I was happy to be done with Frank Bascombe.

And this one:

I’m not sorry I purchased “The Lay of the Land”, but I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly, and I certainly shake my head at the thought that it is making a lot of “Top 10” lists for 2006. Methinks it is Ford’s reputation, and not the novel itself, that has critics crowing.

Well I take slight heart in the fact that I’m not alone in my assessment.

Ford’s just about done it all in terms of writing, winning the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction. Some other of his titles include A Piece of My Heart, Wildlife and The Ultimate Good Luck.

To be fair I agree with this comment also by the person commenting just above: …there are passages where Ford captures his voice and the lyrical quality of his prose is second to none.

Passages like this one:

Needless to say, I loathed him (warm feelings aside), couldn’t comprehend how anybody who could love me could ever have loved Wally, and wanted him out of the house the second he was in it. We shook hands limply, in the manner of a cold prisoner exchange on the Potsdam Bridge.

There’s not enough of this to make me recommend The Lay of the Land. For diehard fans of Ford’s this is probably five star stuff. For the rest of us, three stars seems just.

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