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The holiday in his eye.

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

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in "Manners" in 1844:
 I have seen an individual whose manners,
 though wholly within the conventions of
 elegant society, were never learned there, but
 were original and commanding ... one who
 did not need the aid of a court-suit, but
 carried the holiday in his eye ... who shook
 off the captivity of etiquette, with happy,
 spirited bearing, good-natured and free as
 Robin Hood; yet with the port of an emperor,
 if need be,--calm, serious, and fit to stand the
 gaze of millions.

These words describe Richard Ford's character. That's not to say his temperament: He may be touchy, petulant, egomaniacal, fit to stand nobody's gaze. He did, after all, spit in Colson Whitehead's face in payback for a hostile review. Ford's wife shot up a book by Alice Hoffman after she criticized Ford's Sportswriter in The New York Times. Ford sent the pulped fiction to Hoffman's editor. "I don't read my reviews anymore," he's said.

Dr. Johnson remarked that a writer "places himself uncalled before the tribunal of criticism, and solicits fame at the hazard of disgrace." Ford shouldn't think himself beyond the reach of that tribunal--but let a guy go nuts from time to time. Nobody's perfect, and that's the cliche that comes to mind when thinking about Ford's character: Frank Bascombe, hero of the trilogy comprising The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and, late last year, The Lay of the Land.

Bascombe is a rare achievement in contemporary fiction. He isn't a blueprint for the casting director. He isn't a blameless, easygoing surrogate for his creator, inviting affection and praise even when he does wrong. Much of his life is enviable, but every bit as much of it is a painful and humiliating disaster. Yet he has no patience for pessimistic gloom. He's a complicated man, a piece of work, and most every word out of his mouth rings refreshingly true, whether or not we always like what he has to say--which we don't. Bascombe can be impatient or self-centered or pompous on one page and great-spirited on the next. Ford isn't out to make him merely likeable; to make him real, at once unusual and recognizable, is more difficult and vastly more rewarding.

When Frank introduced himself to readers in 1986, he'd been first a sort-of successful short story writer and then a very successful writer for a magazine like Sports Illustrated (actually, the defunct Inside Sports, but one shouldn't make too much of any similarities between Frank and Ford himself). He'd already endured a lifetime's share of agony: One son, Ralph, dead to Reye's Syndrome, and a wife, known to us only as X, lost to divorce and a host of Frank's moral and emotional failures.

In The Sportswriter, we're anchored to the commonplace by the fact that it's Easter weekend. Each Bascombe book hinges on a holiday--Easter, the Fourth, Thanksgiving--but this is no gimmick. Holidays are times we remember; they're times when family and friends (and pests and enemies) are around, when things happen. Ford's books are stuffed with events, and these take on shape and significance whether they're big or small, violent or subtle.

Ford excels at the small bordering on minutiae. Bascombe's surroundings--New York, New Jersey, Connecticut--are rendered with obsessive thoroughness. This can bog down the narrative, but it can also add a topographical richness that many novels lack. In Independence Day, a stop at the Vince Lombardi Rest Area on the New Jersey Turnpike yields this:
 The "Vince" is a little red-brick Colonial
 Williamsburg-looking pavilion, whose parking
 lot this midnight is hopping with cars,
 tour buses, motor homes, pickups--all my
 adversaries from the turnpike--their passengers
 and drivers trooping dazedly inside
 through a scattering of sea gulls and under the
 woozy orange lights, toting diaper bags, thermoses
 and in-car trash receptacles, their minds
 fixed on sacks of Roy Rogers burgers, Giants
 novelty items, joke condoms, with a quick exit
 peep at the Vince memorabilia collection from
 the great man's glory, days on the "Six Blocks
 of Granite," later as win-or-die Packer headman
 and later still as elder statesman of the
 resurgent Skins (when pride still mattered).

We've been here a dozen times before, but it's different with your eyes open. Sometimes writing what you know works just fine.

To say that the books are like life would be a cliche were it not so easy to say why lesser books are so unlike life. For starters, consider the dialogue. Bad dialogue can be torture, like listening to a Japanese noise-rock album: Do they really expect me to bur this? But when Ford's characters speak, we believe it, and we're engaged:

"Okay, here's the thing," she says, gone totally businesslike. "We need to get him down to Oneonta pretty fast."

"What's wrong with him?" I say this too loudly, terrified she's about to say his brain has been rendered useless.

"Well, what--did he like get hit with a baseball?" She clicks her walkie-talkie trigger, making it produce a scratchy static sound.

"Yes," I say. "He forgot his helmet."

"Well, he got hit in the eve. Okay? And I can't really tell you if he's got much vision in it, because it's swollen already and got blood all in it, and he won't open it. But he needs to see somebody pretty, quick. We take eye injuries down to Oneonta. They've got the staff."

"I'll drive him." My heart makes a bump-abump. Cooperstown: not a real town for real injuries.

"I'd have to get you to sign a form if you take him now," she says.

That's Independence Day: Frank Bascombe with an EMT. His disturbed son, Paul, has just been clocked in a batting cage at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Ford conveys urgency, even panic, without stooping to melodrama. Anyone who's had a day begin normal, become trying, and then collapse through the floor into the sub-basement of oh shit, will find this scene as accurate and indisputable as a medical chart. (Paul, by the way, is the most convincingly rendered "troubled teen" you're likely to encounter in fiction, and a miracle of empathy on Ford's part.)

Ford's books, also like life, aren't always fun or smooth sailing. They're probably too long--no, they could definitely be cut by a third or so. One suspects his editor was too smitten with his vivid prose to slice and dice anything at all. And though Frank Bascombe can be "good-natured and free as Robin Hood," this is often what gets him into trouble. In The Sportswriter he refers to his "dreaminess," a tendency to keep too many possibilities in mind at once. In simpler terms, he thinks too much, and so the pages multiply.

In The Lay of the Land, Frank has quieted down. He's older. He's got prostate cancer, and he's lost a second wife, Sally, though this time through no fault of his own: She's returned to her previous husband, Wally, who'd disappeared, been presumed dead, but has resurfaced:
 Wally's trauma, fear, resentment and elective
 amnesia had carried him as far away from the
 Chicago suburbs, from wife and two kids, as
 Glasgow, in Scotland, where for a time he became
 "caught up" in "the subculture" that
 lived communally, practiced good feeling for
 everything, experimented with cannabis and
 other mind-rousing drugs, fucked like bunny
 rabbits, made jewelry by hand and sold it on
 damp streets.... In other words, the Manson
 Family, led by Ozzie and Harriet.

Frank has matured, put aside his dreaminess, and wants nothing more than to lead a reasonable life as a husband and real estate broker. (It's to Ford's credit that he did a great deal of research to get inside of Frank's career. One finishes The Lay of the Land feeling ready to sell a termite-bitten tool shed to a shipping magnate.) He's tormented by Wally's presence, and grapples with the jilted lover's most insistent question: "I loathed him ... couldn't comprehend how anybody who could love me could ever have loved Wally." And: "I wanted to slit Wally open like a lumpy feed sack."

Nor is that all. His daughter, until recently a lesbian, has brought home a nightmare to Thanksgiving dinner. Here's a look at Ford's comic talents, which are cause enough for celebration in the grave, gray climate of contemporary fiction:
 Tall, rangy, long-muscled, large-eyed, smooth-olive-skinned
 Amherst or Wesleyan grad--read
 Sanskrit, history of science and genocide
 studies, swam or rowed till books got in
 the way; born "abroad" of mixed parentage
 (Jewish-Navajo, French, Berber--whatever
 gives you charcoal gray eyes, silky black hair
 on the back of your hands and forearms);
 deep honeyed voice that seems made of expensive
 felt; intensely "serious" yet surprisingly
 funny, also touchingly awkward at the
 most unexpected moments (not during intercourse);
 plays a medieval stringed instrument,
 of which there are only ten in existence; has
 mastered Go, was once married to a Chilean
 woman and has a teenage child in Montreal
 he's deeply committed to but rarely sees.

It goes on, but why spoil it? Suffice to say that Bascombe is an expert at the size-up, and it's a blast. Not for him, naturally. His holiday is going to be miserable, complete with a barroom brawl, a bizarre meet-up with the ex, and a few awkward encounters with the cops and his madly punning, Hallmark-card-writing son, the grown-up Paul. Oh, and almost getting himself killed--though not by prostate cancer.

These are the sorts of situations that, in the hands of the naive, would be leered at as the shameful secrets of the white picket fence blah, blah, blah. That anything happens in the suburbs apart from mowing the lawn and eating Toaster Strudel is an inexhaustible vein of shock for fools, as the popularity of films like American Beauty can attest. But The Lay of the Land tells us, without being the least bit heavy-handed, that all kinds of things befall all of us, whether we're the Prince of Denmark or a whale-hunter or just a guy selling real estate. It's nothing especially strange, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a long look. Ford's character has a lot of good in him. That isn't the whole story, but it's more than enough to reassure readers that any life, however modestly it's lived, can be its own reward.
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Title Annotation:The Lay of the Land
Publication:New Criterion
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2007
Previous Article:Vale, Vidal.
Next Article:Finding his way.

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