Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford: A review

This is the final of Richard Ford's three books featuring his character, Frank Bascombe. In the first book, The Sportswriter, the action took place around Easter, and I found Bascombe to be a not very appealing character. In the second book, Independence Day, the action revolved around that eponymous holiday, and I began to understand and have a bit of fellow feeling for the main character. Finally, in this book, my conclusion is that Frank Bascombe, like most of us perhaps, is as good a person as he can be and that he strives to be a good person and to live a moral life. With all his weaknesses and failures (with which I can perfectly empathize!), Bascombe seems a person worthy of our sympathies and his life has some positive lessons for the reader.

We meet Frank here at a crisis in his life. His second wife has left him when her first husband, who was thought to be dead, turned up alive, and she felt that she must return to him. His two children are grown up and launched on their own lives, although not the lives that he would necessarily have wished for them. His real estate business is going great. He's been diagnosed with prostate cancer and has gone to the Mayo Clinic, accompanied by his daughter, to be treated. The treatment seems to be going well. He believes he has come to terms with his condition. He also believes that he has finally accepted the death of his son Ralph at age nine, some two decades earlier. The time is Thanksgiving 2000 and the country is in turmoil as the outcome of the presidential election remains in doubt. Frank, a Democrat, believes he knows how it will all turn out - not happily, for him or the country.

Richard Ford is an amazingly talented and accomplished writer. His characters are so sharply and exquisitely drawn that we feel we know them intimately. They are our neighbors, our sisters, our cranky relatives, ourselves. His dialogues are true to the way people talk. His descriptions of place leave us smelling the very air and feeling the oppressive heat or the icy winds of those vistas. Plus he has a way of tossing out these one or two sentences of philosophical observations ("You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him sing opera!") that just crack me up. He writes with a sly humor that is enormously appealing.

My trip through the life and times of Frank Bascombe has been an enjoyable and enlightening one. Now that it is over, I shall miss him.

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