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:

‘The players all seem to like him, from what I hear.’

‘What the hell do they know? Look. The means don’t always justify the end to me, Frank. That’s what’s wrong with this country. You ought to write about that. The abasement of life’s intrinsic qualities. That’s a story.’

‘You’re probably right, Henry.’

‘I feel hot about this whole issue, Frank. Sports is just a paradigm of life, right? Otherwise who’d care a goddamn thing about it?’

‘I know people can see it that way.’ (I try to avoid that idea myself.) ‘But it’s pretty reductive. Life doesn’t need a metaphor in my opinion.’

‘Whatever that means. Just get rid of that guy, Frank. He’s a Nazi.’ Henry says this word to rhyme with ‘snazzy’ in the old-fashioned way . . . In fact, the coach in question is quite a good coach and will probably end up in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He and Henry are almost exactly alike as human beings.

It’s not unusual for people to talk this way to Frank. After all, he used to be a writer, and it sometimes seems that almost everyone he meets thinks that that makes it OK for them to discourse on their bafflement at the human condition on the assumption that he’s got everything worked out. He hasn’t, of course, which can lead them to denounce him as a phoney or an asshole, but as long as there’s enough going on in his life for ‘small mystery and hope and anticipation to flicker on’, he doesn’t really care. And if he notices that the weekend occasionally resembles a series of encounters with spokesmen for male confusion and regret, he isn’t letting on.

In Independence Day (1995), on the other hand, he’s happier to consider the symbolic aspects of his life as an ‘arch-ordinary American’. Now a lively scrutineer of each day’s ‘new commanding metaphor’, he also has more material to contemplate. First, there are the 4 July celebrations, to which he pays more attention than he did to Easter in The Sportswriter, Walter’s death and Frank’s ambiguous rebirth notwithstanding. In 1988, he sets out to mark the holiday by taking Paul, now aged 15, on a father-son road trip culminating in a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. X, whose name is revealed to be Ann Dykstra, has married a Republican architect named Charley O’Dell whom Frank despises, in part because he sees Republicans as ‘barely mentionable dickheads’. Paul has become a troubled adolescent – he’s been arrested for shoplifting and sometimes barks like a dog – and Frank hopes to talk some sense into him as a prelude to extracting him from the O’Dell household in Connecticut and taking him back to Haddam for a year or two. To this end, he packs a copy of Emerson’s Self-Reliance and tries to work up seasonal pep talks ‘under the syllabus topic of “Reconciling Past and Present: From Fragmentation to Unity and Independence”’.

Frank also has a rubric for this stage of his life, ‘a time I think of as the Existence Period’ – a concept that ‘helps create or at least partly stimulates the condition of honest independence’. During the time covered in the previous novel, he now says, he ‘suffered what must’ve been a kind of survivable “psychic detachment”’ – a fugue state he resists by staying busy. ‘I try, in other words, to keep something finite and acceptably do-able on my mind and not disappear . . . So that to the musical question “What’s it all about, Alfie?” I’m not sure I’d know the answer. Although to the old taunt that says, “Get a life,” I can say: “I already have an existence, thanks.”’ Sally Caldwell, his new girlfriend, fits neatly into the Existence Period, being independent, undemanding and, officially, a widow. Frank was at school with Wally, her former husband, whose experiences in Vietnam ‘left him intermittently distracted’, and who, one day, ‘simply disappeared’. Frank doesn’t fret much about the question mark over Wally. He finds it more worrying to be called a sweet man: ‘Only in rock-solid marriages can you hope to hear that you’re a sweet man without a “but” following along afterward like a displeasing goat.’

Finally, he has found a new job, which roots him firmly in Haddam life while allowing him to exercise his capacity for ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact’, as Keats (or, as Frank would say, ‘the poet’) put it. He has become an estate agent, and if 4 July hadn’t offered so many thematic opportunities, the novel could just as aptly have been called The Realtor. Already a kind of pitchman for the suburbs in The Sportswriter, Frank finds selling residential property a lucrative and socially responsible calling. ‘Maybe realty’s not that commanding a metaphor,’ but it has taught him all kinds of valuable lessons. The three essential factors in his performance: ‘Locution, locution, locution.’ Know thyself, homebuyer, is his main commandment. As he sees things, his job is to help people get over their wrongheaded desire to buy into permanence: better for now to make do with what’s on offer. Being a realtor ‘makes you come to grips with contingency and even sell it as a source of strength and father to true self-sufficience’ – another form of independence. The imaginative energies that once went into his writing have found a convenient outlet in his market-trained appraisals of wherever he happens to be:

Deep River, as I drive hurriedly through, is the epitome of dozing, summery, southern New England ambivalence . . . Endowed law profs from New Haven, moneyed shysters from Hartford and Springfield, moneyed pensioners from Gotham, all cruise sunnily in to shop at Greta’s Green Grocer, The Flower Basket, Edible Kingdom Meats and Liquid Time Liquors (less often to visit Body Artistry Tattoo, Adult Newz-and-Video or the Friendly Loaner pawn), then cruise sunnily back out, their Rovers heaped with good dog food, pancetta, mesquite, chard, fresh tulips and gin – all primed for evening cocktails, lamb shanks on the grill, an hour of happy schmoozing, then off to bed in the cool, fog-enticed river breeze.

Frank can go on like this more or less indefinitely. He can also get pretty serious about his philosophy of real estate, Wittgenstein’s views on living in the present and so on, which can test the reader’s patience over long stretches. As well as writing, or thinking, in longer sentences, however, he shows more of a talent for fantasy and humour in Independence Day than he does in the earlier novel. Screwed-up men still round on him and accuse him of being screwed up: ‘I figured it out this morning while I was taking a dump. You don’t get it, do you?’ He consoles himself with the thought that ‘on any day I can rise and go about all my normal duties in a normal way; or I could drive down to Trenton, pull off a convenience-store stick-up or a contract hit, then fly off to Caribou, Alberta, walk off naked into the muskeg and no one would notice much of anything out of the ordinary about my life, or even register I was gone.’ Riffling ominously through a paperback of Democracy in America, he remarks that it’s ‘a book I defy anyone to read who is not on some form of life support’. Paul, not to be outdone, later tears out and eats a page from Self-Reliance.

Not surprisingly, Frank’s trip to Cooperstown with his son does not go off as planned. He has something much like an epiphany during which ‘Ann, and the end of Ann and me and everything associated with us, comes fuming up in my nostrils suddenly like a thick poison.’ Events come thick and fast after this climactic moment of unhappiness, and he decides to revise the tenets of the Existence Period, ‘leaving out the physical isolation and emotional disengagement parts’. Always disinclined to dwell on the past for fear of becoming ‘captained by his probs’, he begins to sense that you can’t just jettison it, however strongly you believe in impermanence and starting over. A big part of him would still like to, though. Early in the novel, he admits that he sometimes misses being a writer, if only because

if you were a writer, even a half-baked short-story writer, you’d have someplace to put that fact build-up so you wouldn’t have to think about it all the time . . . Not that you ever truly lose anything, of course – as Paul is finding out with pain and difficulty – no matter how careless you are or how skilled at forgetting, or even if you’re a writer as good as Saul Bellow. Though you do have to teach yourself not to cart it all around inside until you rot or explode. (The Existence Period, let me say, is made special for this sort of adjusting.)

Bellow, the likely model for Berryman’s ‘novelist hot as a firecracker’, is clearly more of a model than John Updike for Ford. Despite the proximity of Frank Bascombe’s New Jersey to Rabbit Angstrom’s stomping grounds, an angstrom, to Frank, is a unit you might use to measure tooth erosion, though Frank’s unappealing sexual euphemisms (‘boink the daylights out of each other’, ‘woogling around in each other’s businesses’) almost make you long for such Rabbit aperçus as ‘cunt would be a good flavour of ice cream.’ The intermittently lyrical style that Ford has worked up for his narrator is very different from Updike’s perma-mellifluousness, too. Frank’s Southern origins are sometimes apparent (he uses words like ‘lagniappe’), and he’s keen on unexpected abbreviations (‘a storm began dumping every manner of precip on us’). ‘Ole Frank’ likes sounding folksy, tinkers with clichés, gives pronunciations (‘she prolly knew about it’), and often reaches for a nicely calculated awkwardness, as when the fly of someone’s shorts starts inching ‘down from the top button due to ungoverned belly force’. At the same time, he loves brackets, multiple subclauses and homemade life-philosophical jargon. A client who changes her mind in Independence Day is described as ‘reverting to a previous personality matrix’.

In The Lay of the Land, Frank finds himself starting a mad letter to the president. And in the intervening years – the book is set in 2000 during the run-up to Thanksgiving – he seems to have been preparing to give Moses Herzog a run for his money when it comes to erudition, mentioning as he does not only Keats and Emerson but also, directly or indirectly, Virginia Woolf, Socrates, Diogenes, Spinoza, Aldous Huxley, Kierkegaard, Scott Fitzgerald, Proust, Kafka, Theodore Roethke and, repeatedly, Henry James. By coincidence, the theme that holds the novel together is introduced on the opening page through Frank’s powerful identification with a murder victim in a newspaper. The victim in question, ‘Professor Sandra McCurdy, was staring out the window, thinking about who knows what – a pedicure, a fishing trip she would be taking with her husband of 21 years, her health’ – when a disgruntled student entered, stuck a Glock in her face, and said: ‘“Are you ready to meet your Maker?” To which Ms McCurdy, who was 46 and a better than average teacher and canasta player, and who’d been a flight nurse in Desert Storm, replied, blinking her periwinkle eyes in curiosity only twice, “Yes. Yes, I think I am.”’ Whereupon the student shot her, then himself.

Frank, when he read about this in the Asbury Press, ‘just stood right up out of my chair, my heart suddenly whonking, my hands, fingers, cold and atingle, my scalp tightened down against my cranium’. What he wants to know, of course, is ‘Would I ever say that?’ And while ‘it’s not a question, let’s face it, that suburban life regularly poses to us,’ Frank at 55 has good reasons to give it some thought. He’s now married to Sally and has until recently lived with her in the coastal New Jersey town of Sea-Clift in a big house purchased with his mushrooming realty loot. A few months ago, however, Wally returned from the dead, or rather from Mull, where he’d been working as a gardener. Sally left with her ex-husband for Scotland, leaving her wedding ring behind. Shortly after that, Frank was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Clarissa, his daughter, 25, came down to chivvy him through the treatment which has left him with a prostate filled with radioactive buckshot. Now, at Thanksgiving, he has houses to show and a funeral to attend in Haddam. Ex-wife Ann wants a word with him, and Paul, still troublesome, will also be staging an appearance.

So begins another public holiday during which we slowly catch up on events in Frank’s minutely detailed life. He’s been operating on a new principle, that of ‘the Permanent Period’, although his cancer has seen off ‘the Forever Concept’ and his ‘long state of real estate boosterism’ seems to be coming to an end. He spends an amazing number of pages pounding the roads in his Suburban – what else? – and his eye for socio-economic ‘signage’ is as sharp as ever. Even ragged noticeboards with ‘cards for kittens lost, dinette sets to sell’, give him a sense of an area’s ‘inner shifts and seismic fidgets’. (In this respect, realty is ‘better-paying than the novelist’s deal and probably not as hard to do well’.) But while the landscape is instantly legible to him, current events are not. ‘These things are never easy to read,’ he says of the garbled scrolling headlines on display in Haddam, where he witnesses the aftermath of a mysterious bombing. In Florida, meanwhile, Gore and Bush are going at it over the hanging chads. Frank sees the despised Republican candidate on TV ‘talking soundlessly, arms held away from his sides as if he was hiding tennis balls in his armpits’.

One of the big worries about the new Bascombe novel is that Ford might feel obliged to insert proleptic references to 11 September and thereby come a cropper. In the event, there’s one mention of the World Trade Center, where Clarissa’s ex-girlfriend – whom Frank would gladly move in with – has an office, though it’s impossible to say if she’ll still be working there in ten months’ time. There’s also a brilliantly modulated scene in which Frank shows a house with buckling foundations to an ex-Marine named Clare Suddruth, who jangles the reader’s expectations by creasing his eyes at the sea and saying: ‘Do you imagine, Frank, that anything could happen in this country to make normal just not be possible?’ ‘Don’t think they’re not sitting over there,’ he continues,

‘in those other countries that hate us licking their chops at what they see us doing over here, fucking around trying to decide which of these dopes to make president. You think these people here’ – a toss of the Clare Suddruth head toward crumbling 61 Surf Road – ‘have foundation problems? We’ve got foundation problems . . . I think a house on the ocean’s the right thing. Then I start thinking about New Jersey being a prime target for some nut with a dirty bomb or whatever . . . And it shocks me. Really. Makes me feel paralysed.’

Frank asks what shocks him. Clare gets down to brass tacks, shaking his head ‘in self-wonder. “I’m sitting up in bed, Frank – honest to God – up in Parsippany. Estelle’s asleep beside me. And what I go cold thinking about is: if something happens – you know, a bomb – can I ever sell my fucking house? . . . Will property values even mean anything anymore?”’

And this seriocomic set-piece is one of many. Frank is very funny on the subject of Clarissa’s current boyfriend, ‘a treacherous Walloon’, and Wally, whom he’d gladly have ‘big-K killed and his body Hoffa’d out for birdseed’. He also has an enjoyable new colleague in the person of Lobsang Dhargey, aka Mike Mahoney, a Tibetan immigrant and registered libertarian whose views on the real estate business have been shaped by Reagan and the Dalai Lama: ‘Apparently, the smiling-though-exiled precious protector and the great communicating Gipper line up well on this, as on many issues. (I knew nothing about Tibet or Buddhists and have had to read up on it at night.)’ In the main, though, when Frank isn’t ‘shifting serious thoughts to the outer reaches of my brain – a trick I’ve gotten good at’, his reflections drift to ‘the terminus-tending aspects of things’. Signs of decay are everywhere, leading him to suffer ‘strange enervated zonings out and in’. There’s violence in the air, too, not all of it caused by Haddam’s bloated real estate prices, and, as has become traditional, Ford uses a sudden bodily trauma to bring the novel to a focus point.

Before that happens, though, Frank has a full-blown revelation after reading about another bereaved realtor in a small-town freesheet. ‘I’ve said it before,’ he says. ‘I do not credit the epiphanic, the seeing-through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering detail. These are lies of the liberal arts . . . And yet.’ ‘What the hell more do I need to accept that I haven’t already’: his ‘unexemplary’ record as a parent, the possibility of imminent death, the fact that he’s ‘chosen a life smaller than my “talents”’ because it made him happier? ‘Check, check, double check.’ Most of all, it’s Ralph’s death, ‘the great pain I couldn’t fathom’: ‘my post-divorce dreaminess, the long period of existence in the early middle passage . . . even the Permanent Period itself – these now seem not to be forms of acceptance the way I thought, but forms of fearful non-acceptance’. Then he’s swept away by a flurry of incidents involving Paul, Clarissa, Sally, and, this being Thanksgiving, comes up sort-of smiling. He imagines an audience: ‘He made peace with things, finally, old Frank.’ ‘He was kind of a douche bag, but he got it sorted out pretty good just before . . .’ But naturally there are further intimations to chew over before the curtain drops.

So has Frank been kidding us all along about not being a Jack-in-the-box character rigged up to explode with epiphanies at the touch of a button? Maybe not. Ford, when asked about him, tends to describe him as a ‘piece of artifice made of words’, a ‘speaking voice on the page’ designed ‘to transact the culture for the reader’. And even without Ford’s saying that in each book he ‘made up a character more or less anew and called him Frank’, it’s always been obvious that the character is more of a voice than a permanently realised figure. Frank is chiefly a means of writing about the suburbs, marriage, New Jersey and quotidian happiness, the last of which is captured with remarkable success. But while Ford is good at animating static, talky scenes by keeping an eye on some shifting detail in the background, the large-scale character development is a bit effortful in these novels. Similarly, his principled lack of interest in cheap narrative devices, such as conflict and the slow release of plot points, can result in a boringness problem. The flashbacks, which make more use of his short story-writing skills, are more consistently compelling than the present-tense scenes.

Nonetheless, Frank’s hypnotic voice makes him seem very real on the page. And so too, paradoxically, does his constant awareness of being a man without qualities as well as a suburban dude moyen sensuel. Particularised down to his favourite shoes (Weejuns), he still speaks often of having ‘not really much of a regular character, at least not an inner essence I or anyone else could use as a predictor’. ‘Anyone could be anyone else in most ways,’ he insists. ‘Face the facts.’ He spends much of Independence Day trying to communicate this obvious truth to his real estate clients because, once you’ve accepted it, you’re less likely to hold out for a dream home. Yet he believes it, as people often sense. ‘You need a new connection, mister,’ a decrepit acquaintance tells him. ‘There’s something hollow under you, you know that?’ ‘Everything’s in quotes with you,’ Ann says during one of their many fraught conversations. ‘Nothing’s really solid. Every time I talk to you I feel like everything’s being written by you. Even my lines. That’s awful. Isn’t it?’ Locution, locution, locution: for Frank, as Vicki Arcenault puts it in The Sportswriter, ‘Sailor-Vee’.