February 9, 2009

He Had it with Haddam

The third of Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels, The Lay of the Land (most likely not a double entendre complimenting his enduring marriage), brings Frank into his fifties, or what he calls the Permanent Period, the time of life when goals are mostly achieved. In the previous two novels Frank professed not to think about the past, living steadily forward; by now he drags the trail of the human serpent hehind him. His past is, of course, one Ford has built for Frank in two previous novels, but Frank now looks back, as if Ford has finally admitted that experience is more than things we can just walk away from. The mid-fifties bring changes in perspective, in particular mortality. Where Frank was facing life in the other books, he's now also facing death. Prior to the opening of this volume, he's developed prostate cancer. As one friend of mine put it, all men will get it if only they live long enough.

The Lay of the Land reads very slowly, to the point of slowing time down, despite Ford’s attempt to—literally—map Frank’s progress. Ford has said that he cares about the language of his books, and it is true that Frank has a lot of good language here. Yet this book, by far the longest of the three, is also the least interesting, because we've heard it before, and Frank is not an interesting character as such. His interests are in things outside him, as a “white lab-coated researcher.” The surface interest is present, even the surface interest of the written page, but at times Frank's passage through what feel like all the highways of the south Jersey shore is like a traffic jam.

Ford has a mapping fixation. Being a literalist like his main character Ford takes "storyline" literally. The narrative thread is a series of map trails back and forth shuttling around southern New Jersey, through the desolate shuttered housing developments in the Pine Barrens to the Toms River Parkway and, you begin to think, every secondary highway on the map. For fun, I checked. The area where the novel takes place appears to be a section of Jersey now mostly state park land or national seashore preserve, undeveloped real estate between Atlantic City on the North and a densely populated region of streets on little manmade inlets, like large-scale marinas. Some of the towns are real but the Toms River Parkway and Route 27 do not exist: Ford must have cut his own routes through some of that empty parkland. Hard as it is to believe for anyone who has driven through it, southeast Jersey still has enough empty space in it for an ambitious novelist or visionary real estate developer to build a Yoknapataphaw County of his own. (I would’ve enjoyed it if the book had come with a fold-out map.)

The use of the map as the backbone for the "strong central story" allows Ford to move back and forth in time more than in the earlier novels. Having built up Frank's history, Ford now can't get rid of it, and of necessity Frank, on his various errands as a realtor, advice-giver, would-be lover, barfly, funeral-goer, and demolition freak passes through many places he's been through before. Much has changed. A second advantage of this string-you-along design is that it liberates Ford to indulge himself as a social commentator and essayist. It is built into Frank's character that he's an observer; life passes by him, if it doesn't pass him by. As Ford’s confidence has grown, so has his ambition; he gives increasingly free rein both to the essayist in him and the sociologist or scientific observer. The essayist is Richard Ford. A novel is a shapeless baggy monster that has something wrong with it; this novel too often turns into opinion pieces.

Ford, as is his by now his habit, sets the novel around a holiday, Thanksgiving this time, so he has to bring much of Frank's baggage home. His daughter Clarissa, who has joined him to manage his cancer cure, is already present; his son Paul is on the way from K. C., where he works as a greeting card writer; his ex-wife, once called just X but now named Ann Dykstra, now widowed, has moved back into her old house in Haddam, which Frank bought from her in Independence Day and then sold back to her on her return from Deepwater Mooring, Connecticut or wherever she'd moved away to, somewhere near Essex. By a clumsy deus ex machina Ford has cleared the boards of Frank's current wife, so he remains free to be a completely detached observer.

If there's a flaw in the design of this novel, it’s the flaw always latent in the picaresque. The connection between incidents is only incidental. Further, Ford has been long committed to avoiding major significance. For all his sharp observation of and commentary on minor absurdities in American life, Ford has strenuously refused to seek The Meaning of LIfe. His position is that The Novel has Nothing to Say about that. This strategy (which is actually a rhetorical one) has served Ford well. Frank is everyman, not Everyman: an ordinary guy, a fellow no different from dozens of guys you might meet, aside from his increasing verbal dexterity, which really is something. Ford's challenge now, given his design, is to maintain interest sentence to sentence and page to page.

One of the stranger scenes in these novels is Frank's meeting with his ex. Divorced from the beginning of the series, Frank can't shake off his former wife. Her "asshole" husband (per Frank's son) dutifully got Alzheimer's and died, so she has returned to Haddam. She is a golf coach at the local private school, the de Tocqueville Academy. She asks Frank to come out to the school for a meeting--the kind of FiloFax appointment familiar to many amicable divorces--and then she tells him that she loves him and would like to live with him again if he is willing. But Frank too has remarried and is still married, as Ann perfectly well knows, although the wife has taken off for reasons not yet clear. Ford never comes up with a convincing response from Frank to his ex-wife's effort to connect. It may be that Ford's narrative requires Frank to be uninvolved, but after so long his detachment begins to seem distinctly odd. Frank's avoidances accumulate so persistently they become a theme, but a theme that undercuts his oft-stated positivism and turns him into a pretty cold fish. Ann and Frank have been divorced for seventeen years, and Frank has repeatedly expressed his love and longing for reconciliation.

It is a measure of Ford's talent that these characters seem like real people to the reader, people who matter, but this is a weird moment in Frank's life. Much of what Frank goes through will feel familiar to anyone who has lived through and gone on after divorce. There is a kind of life after divorce that only the divorced know, and Ford is very good on it, even though he has been married to the same woman for most of his adult life. While it's true that Frank is married now to another woman, his current wife has flown the coop because she, bizarrely, is still married to a man she has believed to be dead for thirty years. Suddenly the dead husband just shows up, and she leaves Frank to resume her earlier marriage--or, to be as charitable as possible, to finish it; the poor sap ends up face down in the ocean off the Island of Mull, a suicide (which is what he should have been in the first place). None of this is plausible, either while you read it or when you think about it later. Indeed, the book breaks apart when she leaves, like a tanker on a reef; an impatient reader might put it down and fail to pick it up again.

For the first time in these novels, Frank does any number of things that don't make sense for such a seemingly sensible man. But he has been incapable all along of forming a lasting attachment or making a real emotional connection to another person, and whenever one of the other characters attempts to connect to him, he recoils and portrays the attempt as repellent. Ordinary real estate customers became obnoxious assholes in the second book, Independence Day. In that book, Ford really succeeds in making a couple who keep trying, and failing, to buy a house into obnoxious jerks. Frank's failure to convince them to buy a house culminates in one of the funniest moments in the three books, when an attractive woman who's a potential new neighbor, parades naked behind her picture window. Only Frank sees her do it; the man who should be buying the house across the street from her doesn't notice what's on offer, and Ford wants us to feel that it's truly his loss. The naked woman across the street represents life's random possibilities, on the plus side, but the poor, grumbling, fucked-up would-be buyer just can't see where his opportunities for pleasure lie, and he fails to option the house for various dumb believable reasons.

When I finished reading Independence Day, soon after it was published, I thought, "He's had it with Haddam." That implication was in the name of the place all along. In The Lay of the Land, Frank too has had it, and has moved to a beach community to the east, Sea Clift, on an island just offshore, which waits to be washed away in the next major hurricane. Although he calls this the Permanent Period, there’s no permanence in life, and what comes next is the Next Level. In the end, Frank comes back to earth, his wandering second wife happily restored, but between the first pages of the book, in which Frank decides that he’s not ready to meet his maker, and the last, when a plane touches ground, he is seeking his level without finding it.

Apparently Ford has succumbed to the American novelist's chief midlife problem. He's created a convincing world that seems to be a good snapshot of late 20th century American middle-class, middlebrow life, an entirely praiseworthy achievement. But along the way, Ford has come to believe not only that he has a lot to say, but to believe what he says. This may be what an ambitious novel does, but it's not what a good novel does. The Lay of the Land could have done with a severe edit from the likes of stern but loving Ann Dykstra; it's a good hundred pages too long.

Nevertheless, I'm not ready to write Ford or Frank off. Ford has said he thinks this is the last novel in this sequence, but even though Frank (needlessly) gets in the way of a bullet at the end, he's not dead yet, and life in the republic has gone in such a direction that I hope Ford takes Frank through 9/11, the real estate bubble, and the meltdown of the financial system, which will sweep away the prosperity that the earlier novels lovingly chronicled: the hurricane that will send Frank's calm beach community crashing into the ocean some day soon. If I were Ford, I'd be writing that fourth book, and it would confront the disaster that we now all must face. No other novelist now writing in America knows as much about real life as Ford has absorbed in whatever backwater he actually lives in.

He is perhaps the most gifted writer of the boomer generation. This sequence of novels is the only thing a contemporary novelist has written that compares with the scope and detail of Updike's Rabbit novels. Ford has clearly thought long and hard about what a novel can do and what to do to make a novel worth reading in our age of publicity and mass entertainment. Once itself a form of mass entertainment, the novel now occupies a dim corner niche in the culture. Ford brightens that corner with searchlight intensity and focus, and for a common rather than a specialist reader. Even men might read these books as pleasurably as they suck in nonfiction. Ford shouldn't resist bringing Frank back for the end of the world as we knew it. He won't have to invent half-baked scrapes for Frank to get into. The next decade will provide plenty of them.

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