Frank Bascombe's story resumes, in the fall of 2000, with the presidential election still hanging in the balance and Thanksgiving looming before him with all the perils of a post-nuclear family get-together. He's now plying his trade as a realtor on the Jersey shore and contending with health, marital and familial issues that have his full attention: "all the ways that life seems like life at age fifty-five strewn around me like poppies."
Frank is estranged from his first wife. His second wife, Sally, has been gone for nearly a year, having followed her former husband (who had been presumed dead) to the Scottish island of Mull. He cannot survive even a brief conversation with his son, Paul, without nearly coming to blows. His daughter, Clarissa, is pursuing her own transformations. His Tibetan colleague in Realty-Wise is itching to climb another rung on the great ladder of being. And Frank is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Anxious might be too modest a word to describe Frank’s state of mind.
Once again, Richard Ford paints a masterly picture of the modern condition in this gripping conclusion to his Frank Bascombe trilogy. The prose is dense with hesitant metaphor and promiscuous symbolism as Frank asserts, contradicts, and reasserts himself, more acted upon than acting, and incapable, seemingly, of transacting the smallest bit of business without disaster—physical, emotional, spiritual—rearing up and biting him. It’s hard to imagine a character more in need of our sympathy, or less able or likely to accept it.
Of course, endings are very much the theme of The Lay of the Land. One way or another, it’s the end for Frank. Eschatology breeds an intemperate clamouring for teleology. But whether Frank can piece together his life as a whole is an open question. And the end, when it comes, is always a surprise, however much we prepare ourselves.
Recommended without reservation.
In a nutshell, that's why I love (and, for the plot twists, a bit dislike) about this series. Ford's commentary on American society, on family, on love, on the mundaneness of eventful life, is spot on. His writing is exceptional. Having read his earlier book, it felt like I was visiting an old friend and his nutty family.
In real time Frank does some smart and caring things, and some stupid things. Like most people, Frank’s life has been a mix of good and bad. He’s been touched by tragedy, but also known love. He’s a proud if sometimes frustrated father. Several plot threads spin out over the three days both with his business and his family, culminating in a dramatic sequence that I didn’t see coming and, truth to tell, was a bit over the top.
I’ve enjoyed the style and structure of these novels as well as Frank’s character, but The Lay of the Land was the weakest of the trilogy. It’s long (over 500 pages), and is rambling in spots. Richard Ford has since published a fourth Bascombe novel but I think I’ll stop for now while my opinion of Frank Bascombe is still positive.