Zoning Out and In

Christopher Tayler

  • The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
    Bloomsbury, 485 pp, £17.99, October 2006, ISBN 0 7475 8188 6

It takes me so long to read the ’paper,
said to me one day a novelist hot as a firecracker,
because I have to identify myself with everyone in it,
including the corpses, pal.

John Berryman, Dream Song

When we first meet him in The Sportswriter (1986), Frank Bascombe is 38 and trying to fend off the ‘dreaminess’ that has afflicted him since Ralph, his first son, died of Reye’s syndrome four years earlier. Now divorced from ‘X’, Ralph’s mother, Frank spends the Easter weekend of 1983 researching a human interest story for the upmarket sports magazine he works for, listening to unsolicited confessions from a fellow member of his informal Divorced Men’s Club, and trying to get his relationship with Vicki Arcenault, his new girlfriend, onto a more solid footing. None of this works out particularly well. His ‘inspirational’ interviewee, a disabled former athlete, is bitterly depressed and ‘as dreamy as a barn owl’. Walter from the Divorced Men’s Club turns up at Frank’s house, becomes agitated while detailing a one-night stand with a man, grabs him, tries to kiss him, then goes home and shoots himself. Frank learns about Walter’s suicide during an Easter meal with the Arcenaults, and his decision to leave in order to identify the body enrages Vicki. She rejects his impromptu offer of marriage. When he tries to embrace her, ‘she busts me full in the mouth with a mean little itchy fist that catches me midstride and sends me to the turf.’

In the course of the weekend, Frank also fills us in on his personal history in long reveries embedded in his present-tense narration. Born in 1945 in Biloxi, Mississippi, he was educated at a military school near Gulfport, studied liberal arts at the University of Michigan, then dropped out and joined the Marines in 1965. Discharged within months after being laid low by an inflamed pancreas, he went back to university and developed writerly ambitions. Blue Autumn, a short story collection, made him some money in 1968 when a producer thought he saw a movie in it. Frank set up shop in Greenwich Village and started working on a novel. In 1970 he married X, sensed that it was time to get out of Manhattan, and bought a large house in leafy Haddam, New Jersey. There he stopped working on his novel, ‘Tangier (first line: ‘Autumn came later that year to the rif of the Low Atlas, and Carson was having an embarrassing time staying publicly sober’), wrote some magazine pieces, accepted a job as a sportswriter, broke the news to X, who ‘thought it all sounded just fine’, and settled down to raise a family. Ralph (b. 1970) was followed by Paul (b. 1973) and Clarissa (b. 1975).

After Ralph’s death, Frank’s dreaminess began to manifest itself in various ways. In the two years between the death and his divorce, he explains, ‘I must’ve slept with 18 different women – a number I don’t consider high, or especially scandalous or surprising in the circumstances.’ He also bought a Harley-Davidson, became obsessed by the good life depicted in mail-order catalogues, and decamped alone to Massachusetts, ignoring X’s objections, to take up a job in a small college’s English department. More recently, he has started visiting a palm reader: ‘Where else, on a windy day in January, can you drive out beset by blue devils and in five minutes be semi-reliably assured by a relative stranger that you are who you think you are, and that things aren’t going to turn out so crappy after all?’ He behaves oddly – for example, inveigling X into accompanying him on a visit to the dismal apartment where Walter killed himself, then, when they get there, suggesting they make love. In the novel’s last section, he impulsively high-tails it out of Haddam and ends up in a rented condo in Florida, all plans on hold. Will he be a sportswriter again? ‘I haven’t the slightest idea.’

Yet Frank is not gloomy. Despite his acknowledged efforts ‘to deflect the pain of terrible regret’ through improbable actions, he makes the most of things. He loves living in Haddam, a town ‘as straightforward and plumb-literal as a fire hydrant’, where ‘tall, white-haired, razor-jawed old galoots from Yale with moist blue eyes and aromatic OSS backgrounds’ run the local show. ‘If you lose all hope,’ he says, ‘you can always find it again.’ And you sense that both he and Richard Ford would shake their heads if you were to read the novel as the dramatic monologue of a character whose optimism is merely an inversion of Richard Yates-style pessimism or a quality he’s been given to emphasise the pathos of his son’s death and his subsequent suburban isolation. As a reader, Frank would look on such portrayals as ‘minor but pernicious’ lies of literature. A failed writer, he still subscribes to Raymond Carver’s ‘No tricks’ as stubbornly as an alumnus of Granta’s ‘Dirty Realism’ issue. In his view, even ‘Joyce’s epiphanies’ are ‘a good example of falsehood’: ‘The world is a more engaging and less dramatic place than writers ever give it credit for being.’

In other words, Frank’s ‘no-frills voice that hopes to uncover simple truth by a straight-on application of the facts’, as he puts it, is a more complicated instrument than he’d have us believe. The ex-writer persona lets Ford combine a distrust of obvious artifice, shared with his friends Tobias Wolff and Carver, with the garrulousness and wide range of reference of the grand old postwar American novelists. Big chunks of plot are dealt with briskly in flashback, as compressed as 1980s short stories, while drives to the turnpike or brief conversations can take up many pages. Ruminative yet plain-spoken in his day-to-day life, Frank spends a lot of time telling the reader his thoughts on the ancient Greeks or on the all-important distinction between ‘literalists’ and ‘factualists’. (By ‘factualists’, he means ‘anti-mystery types’ lacking negative capability. He’s against them.) Though keen to share the lessons of the sportswriter’s trade, he rejects the idea that his job might be symbolic, as when discussing a college football coach with X’s father on the phone:

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