Richard Ford,
The Lay of the Land
(Knopf, 2006)

It's been about 12 years since the events of Independence Day, and Frank Bascombe not only seems to be stuck in about the same place as we last left him, but also is boxing with some pretty tough troubles: he's single again, he has cancer, his ex-wife may have rekindled her feelings for him (about a decade too late), his daughter can't figure out her sexual preferences for the life of her, and his son is a pathetic nobody.

To sum up, life sucks, and certainly is nowhere near what Frankie (or Richard Ford's readers) could have ever expected when we first butted heads with him over two decades ago.

For the first time I sympathized with Frank -- and didn't harbor quasi-hostile feelings towards a middle-aged, too-smart-for-his-own-good prick. And how could I not? The man's aged some, slowed down, got cancer and, even worse (in my opinion), his son Paul is a wreck. He's generally a slob, he works in the greeting card industry and has a girlfriend that Frank can't appreciate. Paul's teenage problems meticulously explored in Independence Day have not only persisted, but worsened. Frank must feel like a terrible parent.

Though I enjoyed viewing Frank from a new angle -- with compassion, and a care for him to be happy -- The Lay of the Land felt like a disappointing end to the series (if it really is Ford's final Sportswriter book). The narrative lazily trots along, with hardly anything actually happening to Frank -- or, unfortunately, being discovered by the reader. Oftentimes I felt generally bored after a few dozen pages and would rejoin the story on a different day. That can't be good.

Like the two previous books in The Sportswriter series, The Lay of the Land occurs over an American holiday. This time it's Thanksgiving, which -- like most people -- Frank uses to get reacquainted with his mess of a family. With everyone (just a son, daughter and perhaps an ex-wife) together again, Frank may be able to erase some of the issues that are wreaking havoc on his well being -- even if Frank is too tired to notice.

But don't confuse the storyline with what this book is really about. Like the previous novels, The Lay of the Land is more an exploration of the human condition and Frank's journey into the Permanent Period. Here, the past is forgotten. All that matters is now.

The Sportswriter series has never been an easy read. It takes patience and a good chunk of time to move through its text. Even so, The Lay of the Land took the most energy to get through, yet failed to deliver the payoff I was hoping for on the other side.

review by
Eric Hughes

15 August 2009

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