For a time in the early 1980s, Richard Ford gave up writing fiction. His first two novels, A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck, had sold poorly and been remaindered. After starting a new project an editor told him to abandon the manuscript, a quietly lyrical account of a failed novelist writing for a national sports magazine, recently divorced, mourning the death of his firstborn and striving vainly, in the aftermath of these events, to recover a coherent sense of himself. That book was The Sportswriter, which won wide praise when it appeared in 1986, sold many thousands of copies and established its narrator, Frank Bascombe, as one of the more distinctive voices in contemporary American fiction. Since that success Ford has proved to be a fitful writer. His nine books, published during the past thirty years, are set in a variety of locales–there doesn’t seem to be a state in the union he has missed–and concerned with a variety of predicaments, such as murder, theft and pettier crimes, adultery and adolescence. Each decade, though, he has faithfully returned to Bascombe, writing a pair of sequels to The Sportswriter: Independence Day (1995), the first book to be awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and, most recently, The Lay of the Land.
When the trilogy begins, Bascombe, who is nearing his thirty-ninth birthday, announces that he has “avoided ruin” in spite of being separated from his wife and losing his son Ralph to Reye’s syndrome. If he has survived, he doesn’t seem much the better for it. The only live faculties in Bascombe, it is clear, are the defensive ones, and in The Sportswriter he is prone to what he terms “seeing around,” a method of deflecting grief by willing every emotion mutable. “If I was mad or ecstatic, I always realized I could just as easily feel or act another way if I wanted to,” he says. This apathy makes Bascombe at times a volatile figure, vulnerable to sudden shifts of emotion; far more often, though, he is simply arrested, having no reason to act on feelings he does not view as genuine or lasting.
Independence Day presents a Bascombe who in some respects is different. He has become a wealthy realtor and is further removed from his divorce and Ralph’s death; he no longer speaks in the subdued voice of The Sportswriter but bellows forth in long exhalations. (“Writing sports, as anyone can tell you who’s ever done it or read it, is at best offering a harmless way to burn up a few unpromising brain cells while someone eats breakfast cereal, waits nervously in the doctor’s office for CAT-scan results or mulls away dreamy, solitary minutes in the can.”) Yet he still shuns risk and attachment, and will not commit himself in a significant way to anything or anyone. His attitude toward pain and turbulence is no longer to “see around” them but to remove himself from their path. “The worst thing about regret,” he admits in Independence Day, “is that it makes you duck the chance of suffering new regret just as you get a glimmer that nothing’s worth doing unless it has the potential to fuck up your whole life.”
So for two decades Bascombe preserves a tidy, circumspect bachelorhood, keeping himself resolutely partitioned from the flux and gust of life. Children, his ex-wife, girlfriends, a Divorced Men’s Club to which he once belonged: The question asked by every one of his botched dalliances and affiliations–whether or not he can authentically connect with another human being–is answered, over and over and over. No, he cannot. His story is one of permanent recoil, and this intransigence seems to bother even Ford, who said he hoped the close of Independence Day would signal a reversal of sorts. Ideally, that is, when Bascombe returned from a Fourth of July vacation during which his son Paul was violently injured, he would realize that he could no longer live according to so strenuous a code of guardedness and isolation. The book’s title and doctrine, Ford explained in interviews, were ironic: True independence brings not self-sufficient exile, as the American tenet of individualism holds, but its opposite, and entails a willingness to love and be depended on by others.
This is quite moving, yet no reader of Independence Day would say that such a change occurs. Bascombe is too slippery; he wiggles free of Ford’s hand. Only eight pages before the novel’s end, in fact, he claims his best friend to be an old neighbor named Carter, with whom he shares an “unspoken rule never to exchange dinner invitations or to meet for drinks or lunch, since neither of us would have the least interest in what the other was up to and would both get bored and depressed and end up ruining our relationship.”
Given such a confusion, such an unwitting rejection of his own purposes, Ford might see in his new book an occasion for correction, and locate the resolution to his trilogy by at last giving Bascombe his Independence Day. Much has happened in the interim; The Lay of the Land, which Ford has said will be the last Bascombe book, takes place twelve years after the close of its predecessor, during Thanksgiving of 2000, amid the protracted, contentious presidential election of that November. Bascombe has moved away from Haddam, New Jersey, to a town on the shore named Sea-Clift, and his second marriage, to Sally Caldwell, has ended: Five months before The Lay of the Land opens, she ran off with her ex-husband, Wally, long presumed dead but actually thriving as an estate gardener on an island off the western coast of Scotland. Soon afterward Bascombe was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Although his initial treatment was successful, he is less confident about a forthcoming checkup. His two children have grown up and left home, and relations with his first wife, Ann, are, as ever, strained and ambivalent.
Fundamentally, though, Bascombe is more or less as we left him in Independence Day–taking road trips, describing houses and foreclosing at once on whomever he meets, like this land developer, Tom Benivalle:
My guess is Montclair State, marketing B.A., a tour with Uncle Sam, then home to work for the old man in the wholesale nursery bidnus in West Amwell. Married, then kids, then out on his own, tearing up turf and looking around for new business opportunities. He’s probably forty, drives his Caddy to mass, drinks a little Amarone and a little schnapps, plays racquetball, pumps minor iron, puts out the odd chimney fire and voted for Bush but wouldn’t actually hurt a centipede.
This passage, funny as it is, alerts us that Bascombe, and Ford, have no use for the novelist’s traditional task of particularization. A laundry list of trivial or generic attributes is substituted for an exploration of a character’s tics and individual habits.
Indeed, the riff is the novel’s lone idiom, fit not only for a minor iron-pumper but for Bascombe’s daughter, too: “Since college, she’s started a master’s at Columbia Teachers, intending to do work with severely disabled teens (her brother’s mental age), volunteered in a teen-moms shelter in Brooklyn, trained for the marathon, taken some acting lessons, campaigned for local liberals in Gotham and generally lived the rich, well-appointed girl-life.” This kind of writing has, alas, earned Ford much praise for his swift character sketches and social analysis. But it is really the glibbest prose, a breezy shorthand that wagers a character can be bullied into life–the complacent list-making of a man who sees everyone as a type, just one more excuse for easy irony. Bascombe might brag about his voting record, about being a rich Democrat and disdaining both Bush the younger and elder, yet in his isolation, in the way he restricts and narrows his worldview, he is the perfect conservative–especially by the definition of conservatives he cited in Independence Day: “people who won’t quit making the same mistakes over and over.”
These mistakes all cleave toward alienation, the only state Bascombe’s acid wariness allows. His inability to make new mistakes saps the vitality from Ford’s fiction, for every scene is an echo of an earlier one. John Updike has commented that the inevitable sameness of the Rabbit books was one of the reasons he killed him off so early, when the character was not yet 60. In The Lay of the Land Ford faces a similar struggle: the aesthetic laxity of a 1,000-page-plus endeavor whose subject is not war or anything else of a typically heroic scale but rather the mild, ultimately redundant vicissitudes and domestic entanglements of a New Jersey realtor.
Ford meets the difficulty in his normal fashion, by resorting to a moment of great violence. He is a consistently violent writer, appealing to violence to resolve or energize both the major and minor incidents in a story. The reason for this is less a love of spectacle or an interest in violence in a historical or metaphysical sense than Ford’s belief that literary characters are defined by action as opposed to consciousness. As he told The Paris Review in 1996, “I’ve always been of the belief that physical action is of higher importance than meditation and cogitation.” (In Independence Day Bascombe confesses to the same conviction.) “When I had Vicki smack Frank in the chops,” Ford continued, “and knock him down in The Sportswriter, that’s the purest example of what I find interesting in a book–not simply that she loves him or he loves her, but that it eventuates in her acting.” This is a strange credo for a novelist to maintain, since the drama of privacy, “meditation and cogitation,” is exactly what a form so intensely psychological favors. In any case, the spectrum of physical acts to be found in Ford’s books is sadly narrow. They are always injurious (murder, gunfight, bar brawl), never sexual, never subtle. It is odd for a writer who insists on the unavoidability of physical action to portray only those acts that are a species of brutality. His fiction refuses to acknowledge that love and reflection and fury may result in not acting, or that immobility and repose can be dramatically rich and affecting.
Given the Bascombe books’ length, the acclaim they have received and the expectations they raise, the stakes are high, and these novelistic failings are all the more noticeable. The violent coda to The Lay of the Land is a mostly arbitrary robbery and shooting, and what Ford hopes to accomplish with the scene is hard to discern. He could be obeying his rule that characters must always be engaged physically. Or, considering how often Bascombe alludes to crime that passes through the suburban barrier–a “wild world being just beyond our perimeter”–maybe Ford deemed it logical that the wildness would reach Bascombe’s own feet. But the randomness of the episode, its melodramatic hastiness, make it seem as if the bulk and repetitiveness of the Bascombe epic had finally exhausted Ford, and he had tried to graft some suspense and terror onto a story veering toward the boundless.
And so the book’s valedictory finale rings artificial, since it is achieved by a device and not the evolution of its characters. Bascombe is shot in the chest, though he heals quickly from the wound and leaves for the Mayo Clinic to visit a prostate specialist. Sally accompanies him–providence, you see, is on their side, for she has chosen to return from Scotland the day after the shooting–though, strangely, we do not witness their reunion. Sally simply, improbably appears, and Bascombe declares that, after having to “learn some things about necessity–and quick” and deciding “to live, to live, to live it out,” he has entered what he calls The Next Level. It is not clear if his cancer has remitted, or if he can ever truly reconcile with Sally, yet no reader of the trilogy can have any doubt as to the real outcome that awaits Bascombe: He will die, when he dies, alone.