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  • The Lay of the Land
  • Speer Morgan
The Lay of the Land By Richard FordKnopf, 2006, 496 pp., $26.95

Richard Ford's new novel shares several things with his two other Frank Bascombe novels. The three have been published about ten years apart, beginning in 1986 with The Sportswriter, a novel about Frank Bascombe in a state of despair after the death of his son, followed in 1995 by Independence Day, in which the failed writer has taken up a new career in real estate, and now The Lay of the Land, in which Bascombe is holding on to that career, despite his Tibetan Buddhist émigré business partner's earnest attempts to take over the business. While the protagonist having a Tibetan Buddhist real estate partner may sound almost like a gag, the book makes it as believable as the other implausibilities of real life. However, the central event of the novel is a more challenging implausibility: the rediscovery of his second wife's long-"dead" husband Wally, who has been living in Britain for many years and comes for a visit, leading to an even more amazing decision on the wife's part.

All of the Bascombe novels occur on holidays, The Sportswriter on Easter, Independence Day on the Fourth of July and this one on Thanksgiving. Ford says in an interview (New Yorker Online Q & A) that holidays are a common location in time with which readers can identify, whether for positive or negative emotional reasons. The books of this trilogy also share the paradox of being strongly based in their New Jersey settings while at the same time being unapologetically mental narratives. The Sportswriter magnifies the paradox of setting and mentality to the point of making the book a tour de force, as the protagonist falls into a deepening state of despair while suburban New Jersey is described as an unbelievably beautiful utopia. In Independence Day and now The Lay of the Land, Ford's protagonist has become more seasoned and practical, despite an ongoing tendency to at times slip into a glumness approaching depression. However, mature now, he recognizes moods for what they are. Recently treated for prostate cancer, he has achieved that paradoxical openness that can accompany a true sense of mortality.

Aside from the reanimated "dead" husband, this third of the Bascombe trilogy is a compelling portrait of a man approaching old age, still fighting, and in some ways even better company than in the earlier books.



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