The Great American Novel, Part 3
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Frank Bascombe, the Jersey sportswriter turned real estate agent, is back, still as perplexed, aimless and lovable as ever.
Twenty years ago in The Sportswriter, Richard Ford introduced us to this young sports journalist with a philosophical bent intent on staving off the malaise of the quotidian American suburban life as best he can. On Easter weekend in Haddam, New Jersey, while many Americans are rejoicing in the resurrection of new life, Bascombe simply celebrates “the only truth that can never tell a lie . . . life itself—the thing that happens.” Having lived through the death of his first son, his divorce and the end of his sportswriting career, Bascombe revels momentarily in a euphoric feeling that he knows may never come again but that makes life worth living for him.
When we meet Frank again ten years later, in Independence Day, he has traded in his pen for a real estate license. Still living in Haddam, he meanders through life with a new girlfriend, Sally Caldwell, and tries to repair a broken relationship with his son, Paul, by visiting as many sports halls of fame as they can in two days over a July Fourth weekend. Bascombe ambles through what he calls his “Existence Period,” a condition of “honest independence” in which he screws up his courage and reason to achieve his goals, even though he may not be as passionate about them as he once was. By the end of Independence Day, Frank moves toward his “Permanent Period.” “This would be that long, stretching-out time when whatever I say or do, who I marry, how my kids turn out, becomes what the world . . . knows of me, how I’m seen, understood, even how I think of myself before whatever there is that’s wild and unassuagable rises and cheerlessly hauls me off to oblivion.”
Now, in The Lay of the Land (Knopf; $26.95) this crackerjack of a final installment in Ford’s trilogy, Frank Bascombe is well into his “Permanent Period,” holding off as best he can a move into the “Next Level” of death. Now ensconced in the Jersey shore village of Sea-Clift, Bascombe shuffles through the many and busy little details of his life, trying to sort out some kind of hopeful pattern that makes life more than the sum of its parts.
On yet another holiday—this time Thanksgiving—Frank Bascombe faces up to his dysfunctional family life, his own mortality (he now suffers from prostate cancer), and his loneliness. “In other words, all the ways that life feels like at age fifty-five were strewn around me like poppies.”
Peeking through this veneer of the mundane is death. As the novel opens, Bascombe happens upon a newspaper article describing a murder. When the murderer asks his victim if she is ready to meet her maker, she replies that she is. Her reply shakes the thin walls of the comfortable house of life that Bascombe has built around him. His realization that his answer to the same question is “not yet” spurs him—in his dawdling and awkward way—to somehow gather the pieces of his life around him at his Thanksgiving table.
In a somewhat predictable fashion, all the characters from Frank’s past parade through his life during this week. Ann Dykstra, his ex-wife, declares that she still loves him and wants to marry him again, an offer he declines. Sally Caldwell’s first husband, Wally, whom everyone thought was dead, returns and Sally runs off with him, leaving Frank puzzled and angry about the ways of love. Frank’s children, Paul and Clarissa, return with their own partners, seeking reconciliation with Frank in their own peculiar ways. Meanwhile, Frank, as he has always done, goes off to work—he now owns his own real estate agency—to hold off the inevitable meetings with his “primary care-givers, their pales gloves already pulled on and snugged.”
In spite of doing his best to avoid it, Frank’s Thanksgiving Day gathering arrives, but it turns out in surprising ways not to be as he had planned. In a rather unconvincing scene, Frank momentarily confronts his own mortality and demonstrates that he is not ready to meet his Maker. Reflective as ever, Frank ponders acceptance and self-improvement. “All these years and modes of accommodation, of coping, of living with, of negotiating the world in order to fit into it . . . these now seem not to be forms of acceptance but forms of fearful nonacceptance.”
Much like Binx Bolling (Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer), Rabbit Angstrom and Nathan Zuckerman before him, Frank Bascombe lopes across a cluttered and sometimes enigmatic American suburban landscape searching for some glimmers of redemption from the dull repetition of the mundane.
The Lay of the Land is filled with Ford’s typical humor and pathos. Like Faulkner, Ford has created elegantly his own postage-stamp world—Haddam and the Jersey shore—inhabited by a myriad variety of denizens who live life on the surface, never bothering to wonder about hope, regret or love. Frank Bascombe strides into that world and makes a place for himself there and in our memories. We’ll miss Frank.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as publisher of T&T Clark and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at