The Lay of the Land
Frank Bascombe meticulously maps New Jersey with a realtor's rapacious eye, and he is an equally intense topographer of his teeming inner landscape. In the first of Ford's magisterial Bascombe novels (The Sportswriter , 1986), Frank staved off feelings of loss and regret with a dissociated "dreaminess." He graduated to a more conventional detachment during what he calls the "Existence Period" of the Pen/Faulkner and Pulitzer Prize–winning Independence Day (1995). Now we find the 55-year-old former fiction writer and sports journalist in a "Permanent Period," a time of being, not becoming. He's long adjusted to the dissolution of his first marriage to women's golf instructor Ann Dykstra (which foundered 17 years earlier after the death of their nine-year-old, firstborn son, Ralph) and settled for eight years with second wife Sally Caldwell in Sea-Clift, N.J. Permanence has proven turbulent: Sally has abandoned Frank for her thought-to-be-dead first husband, and Frank's undergone treatment for prostate cancer.
The novel's action unfolds in 2000 over the week before Thanksgiving, as Frank bemoans the contested election, mourns the imminent departure of Clinton ("My President," he says) and anticipates with measured ambivalence the impending holiday meal: his guests will include his 27-year-old son, Paul, a once-troubled adolescent grown into an abrasive "mainstreamer," who writes for Hallmark in Kansas City, Mo., and his 25-year-old daughter, Clarissa, a glamorous bisexual Harvard grad who's unfailingly loyal to her dad. Frank's quotidian routines are punctuated by weird but subtly depicted events: he happens on the scene of a bombing at the hospital in his former hometown of Haddam, N.J., clenches his jaw through an awkward meeting with Ann, provokes a bar fight and observes the demolition of an old building.
But the real dramatic arc occurs in Frank's emotional life—until the climax takes him out of his head. Ford summons a remarkable voice for his protagonist—ruminant, jaunty, merciless, generous and painfully observant—building a dense narrative from Frank's improvisations, epiphanies and revisions. His reluctance to "fully occupy " his real estate career ("it's really about arriving and destinations, and all the prospects that await you or might await you in some place you never thought about") illuminates the preoccupations of the boomer generation; for Frank, an unwritten novel and broken relationships combine with the dwindling fantasy of endless possibility—in work and in love—to breed doubt: "Is this it?" and "Am I good?" Frank wonders. The answers don't come easy. 150,000 announced first printing. (Nov.)