Curmudgeons are no fun when they’re in a good mood, especially a prolonged good mood. After all, they’re not here to spread sunshine. Unfortunately, Frank Bascombe—now 55, suffering prostate cancer and newly abandoned by his second wife—has somehow mellowed by the beginning of The Lay of the Land, the third installment of Richard Ford’s New Jersey trilogy. God knows there’s plenty for Frank to be ticked off about, but there he is, happy as a clam, making his way leisurely through Jersey’s bumper-to-bumper traffic in his Suburban with a dopey smile and a kind word for just about everyone. Frank, what’s become of your sharp tongue? Where’s your middle finger?
It helps that Frank’s now stinkin’ rich, justifiably confident and wise enough to have reasoned his way to a ceasefire with the mother of his children and with his own conscience. The younger Frank of The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995) would have none, or very little, of this bonhomie but that’s mainly because, of the traits listed above, he was only confident—and not justifiably so. In the first book, which takes place Easter weekend, we meet a 38-year-old Bascombe who’s traded a promising career as a novelist to write about sports, a subject that interests him only in passing. His wife, to whom Frank refers as “X,” has recently divorced him because shortly after the death of their firstborn, she finds evidence of an affair. Set seven years later, over the Fourth of July holiday, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day picks up with Frank and his teenaged son Paul on a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Frank has switched from sports to real estate. Continuing with the holiday motif, The Lay of the Land takes place during Thanksgiving of 2000, with no significant vocational change except that Frank is now self-employed and making a killing.
Though it’s a rare good thing when a human grows less bitter with age, characters in fiction are more interesting when they maintain their acerbic selves. Reading the first 150 pages—during which Frank runs typical errands, “some sobering, some fearsome, one purely hopeful,” on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving—are like unknowingly drinking good decaf. What you have is satisfying enough to keep swallowing, but after a few refills you begin to notice there’s no kick. For its first third, The Lay of the Land, despite all appearances, is less a novel than an essay on contemporary America, the characters and events merely giving rise to Frank’s commentary. This was largely the case with the first two books, but then Frank was overwhelmed, confused, self-destructive and very much in need of our empathy. Sure, he’s going through a crisis now, but it’s not one of his own making. Essentially, he’s blameless. And, what’s worse, he’s no longer hardwired to do anything colossally stupid.
Kindness and clear-headedness aside, Frank is still bitingly funny and charismatically smart, and this may be enough to carry Fordophiles through to the more exciting parts of the book. For example, when explaining how “the Sponsors,” a group of adults who mentor their existentially stumped wealthy peers, first evaluated prospective members, Frank says, “Callers themselves were screened by psych grad students and a profile was worked up using a series of five innocuous questions that ferreted out lurkers, stalkers, weenie wavers, bondage aficionados, self-published poets, etc.” Later Frank shows how comfortable he’s become when, prior to meeting his ex-wife, he reflects, “A lot of life is just plain wrong. And the older I get, the more clearly and often wrong it seems. And all you can do about it is just start getting used to it, start selecting amazement over bewilderment…My bet is that 80 percent of divorced people feel this—bewildered yet possibly also amazed by life—and go on feeling it until the heavy draperies close.” It’s only after the ensuing encounter, when Ann dumps a surprise in his lap, that the old Frank begins to reemerge.
Oddly enough, the reader’s greatest challenge then becomes suspension of disbelief. Quite a lot happens to Bascombe from this point forward, a bit more than is likely to befall even the unluckiest suburbanite. In fact, by the book’s final third Ford is chronicling the suburban nightmare in much the same way that it plays out on the screens at the Carmike 10—Action! Action! Action!—with one implausible turn after another hastening the plot to its conclusion. Ford’s conceit seems to be that modern life imitates entertainment. Perhaps he’s right. But the hullabaloo at the end of The Lay of the Land amounts to little more than revving the engine too high and burning rubber in a gated community. It’s unwelcome noise and has no place in a book with a better story to tell.
What’s barely audible beneath the racket is a more sensible, intelligent conversation (between Frank and himself) about what keeps people together—among other things: necessity, sympathy and betrayal. Frank’s point is that in our intimate lives the best that’s available to us is the shaky peace we make with the past and the people we’ve let down. For Ford, this truce is no small gift, because, as his work never fails to remind us, life can always get worse. Life can always get better, too. And Frank has plenty to say about that as well, all of it worth listening to. Even if the wisdom does come from a misanthrope gone soft in a plot gone wild.