Richard Ford is an established, skilled, and prestigious writer who has won everything up to and including a Pulitzer, so I probably don’t have any business complaining about him. However, I’d like to kvetch a little anyway before I launch into my highly positive assessment of The Lay of the Land.
Ford is one of those writers (like, for example, McEwen and Ishiguro) who turns out books that modern literati love to dub “voice-driven” or “character-driven.” To me, out of step as I am, that often spells frustration because it means much text will be devoted to self-indulgent (by the author) internal musings that will do nothing to move the action of the book. I tend to like things tighter and more focused. Here’s an example from early in Lay of the Land.
Merchants on the square–the Old Irishman’s Kilt, Rizzutto’s Spirits, Sherm’s Tobacconist–have taken a more tolerant view of the Pilgrim shenanigans than they have of the battle re-enactors, who whoop and carry weapons, and stay out at the actual battlefield in Winnebagos and bring their own food and beer and never by anything in town. The Pilgrims, on the other hand–which is probably how they were always viewed–are seen as a kind of peculiar but potentially attractive business nuisance. It’s hoped that passing citizens who pause to hear the overweight paraplegic girl give her canned speech about piss-poor medical facilities in seventeenth-century New Jersey, and how someone in her state of body wouldn’t have lasted a weekend will then be moved by an urge to buy a Donegal plaid vest or a box of toffees or Macanudos or half a case of Johnnie Walker Red.
I suppose local color would be one excuse for much of this paragraph, and the Pilgrims help set the scene for the atmosphere of Thanksgiving week, during which the novel is set. However, to my mind, Ford could have cut half the paragraph and achieved as good an effect or better.
Then there’s the matter of the voice. What if the reader of the voice-driven novel gets weary of the voice? The above paragraph is a good sample of the wry, sarcastic tone that the protagonist Frank Bascombe uses throughout. And it wore on me. It was a great relief when things got so bad that his smartass world-view broke down and we got a look at the vulnerability it covers up. To my mind, it should have happened more often.
All right, though, take this passage:
Some force in my life was bringing me hard up against what felt like my self … presenting me, if I chose to accept it, with an imperative that all my choices in recent memory–volitions, discretions, extra beats, time spend offshore–hadn’t presented me, though I might’ve said they had and argued you to the dirt about it. Here, for a man with no calculable character, was a hunger for necessity. for something solid, the thing “character” stands in for. This hunger could, of course, … result from a recognition that you’d never done one damn substantial thing in your life, good or otherwise, and never would, and if you did, it wouldn’t matter a mouse fart–a recognition that could leave you in the doldrums’ own doldrum, i.e., despair that knows it’s despair.
Here we have at once backstory, foreshadowing, character description, a chance to empathize, some seminar-worthy philosophy, and more than a bit of language qua language. If there’d been more of these paragraphs and fewer of the first, Lay of the Land would have been a hundred pages shorter and measureably better.
But let’s quite quibbling. Ford, as several reviews have stated, has created a character in Frank Bascombe who embodies huge chunks of the dilemmas and themes of our times. I haven’t read the earlier incarnations of Bascombe in The Sportswriter and Independence Day but it’s easy to see pain and suffering we’ve created as we developed our society of constant change–the transience of love, profession, domicile, and surroundings. By setting the novels amid traditional holidays–Easter, July Fourth, and Thanksgiving, respectively–Ford contrasts fluid human lives set against established rituals. The characters’ attempt to achieve the stability the holidays represent in the midst of constant uncertainty of their relationships is a source of agony and comedy.
Though no one would call this an action-driven book, it’s nevertheless full of plot and subplot, and it isn’t trivial stuff–pointing out once again the doubtful utility of these terms. There are fights and murders. Stuff you’d never expect to erupt in affluent New Jersey suburbs. There’s plenty of death, too–past, present, and threatened. And suspense. And not a few laughs.
Despite my objections, Lay of the Land is quite a package, and it deserves a read.