Richard Ford's latest novel represents the long-awaited completion of the trilogy he began with The Sportswriter (1986) and continued with the Pulitzer Prize- and PEN/Faulkner Award-winning Independence Day (1995). Fans of Ford's writing and of his protagonist, Frank Bascombe, will find their patience amply rewarded by this rich and mature work.
Like its predecessors, The Lay of the Land unfolds in the days leading up to a holiday, in this case Thanksgiving 2000. Al Gore and George Bush battle over electoral votes and the dotcom bubble has burst, yet these events are little more than background noise in the busy mind of Frank Bascombe. Deep into his successful second career in real estate sales, he's moved from the leafy suburb of Haddam, New Jersey, to the small town of Sea-Clift, on the Jersey Shore. At age 55, he's entered what he calls his Permanent Period, though his life is anything but. He's recently been treated for prostate cancer and he's had to deal with the return of his wife's first husband, who had disappeared more than 30 years earlier. During this eventful Thanksgiving week, he loses one of his friends to cancer, witnesses the aftermath of a bombing at a Haddam hospital and tussles with an old acquaintance in a bar. In the midst of these events, he's forced to confront his prickly relationships with his adult children and fend off a suggestion from his first wife that she might be interested in rekindling their relationship.
Apart from the humor and pathos revealed in these sometimes bizarre and inexplicable incidents, what makes this such a compelling read is Ford's skillful channeling of the voice of the narrator he's shaped over the course of three books and 20 years. The novel is studded with beautifully wrought passages filtered through the prism of Bascombe's introspective and keenly observant mind. By the time the novel reaches its resonant climax, readers will be forgiven if they conclude the life they've shared in these pages is every bit as real as their own.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.