Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Lay of the Land (II)

Not too many posts ago I was wishing for a book to come along that would Grab Me By The Lapels And Not Let Go. Well, I'm 100+ pages into Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land, and while it's not exactly a page-turner, it is turning out to be a terrifically satisfying read. It's certainly not plot-driven: I'm a quarter of the way through the book and it's still Day One, and it has been a pretty ordinary day. Most of what goes on in the book is what goes on in the mind of Frank Bascombe as he goes through the everyday events of his life. And it turns out that Frank Bascombe is very good company. (I have not read either of Ford's two novels featuring the same character (The Sportswriter and Independence Day), but I'm going to have to do some backtracking when I get done with this one.) Bascombe is a very good observer, alert and smart and often funny as hell. In course of the novel there are any number of set pieces, little one- or two-paragraph digressions, jazz-like riffs on whatever crosses his field of vision:

The other distraction making movement into the Square near-impossible is that the Historical Society, in a fit of Thanksgiving spirit and under the rubric of "Sharing Our Village Past," has converted the entire Square in front of the August Inn and the Post Office into a Pilgrim Village Interpretive Center. Two Am. Civ. professors from Trenton State with time on their hands have constructed a replica Pilgrim town with three windowless, dirt-floor pilgrim houses, trucked-in period barnyard animals, and lots of authentic but unhandy Pilgrim implements, built a hand-adzed paled fence, laid in a subsistence garden and produced old-timey clothes and authentically inadequate footwear for the Pilgrims themselves. Inside the village they've installed a collection of young Pilgrims—a Negro Pilgrim, a Jewish female Pilgrim, a wheelchair-bound Pilgrim, a Japanese Pilgrim with a learning disability, plus two or three ordinary white kids—all of whom spend their days doing toilsome Pilgrim chores in drab, ill-fitting garments, chattering to themselves about rock videos while they hew logs, boil clothes, rip up sod, make soap in iron cauldrons, and spin more coarse cloth, but now and then pausing to step forth, just like soap-opera characters on Christmas Day, to deliver loud declarations about the "first hard days of 1620" and how it's impossible to imagine the character and dedication of the first people and how our American stock was cured by tough times, blab, blab, blab, blab—all this to whoever might be idle enough to stop on the way to the liquor store to listen. Every night the young Pilgrims disappear to a motel out on Route 1, fill their bellies with pizza and smoke dope till their heads explode, and who'd blame them? (49-50)
This passage captures fairly well the overall tone of fastidiously detailed reportorial bemusement. But the description, despite its humor and syntactical playfulness, consistently gestures at what I take to be Ford's real subject, which is American culture itself, particularly the manifest and multitudinous discrepancies between how we attempt to represent ourselves to ourselves and how—or who—we really are. The increasingly sophisticated comforts and securities of suburban life have not brought us any closer to a sense of satisfaction or fulfillment; rather, the opposite. Bascombe has been a realtor in the town of Haddam for long enough to see a lot of changes which give him pause:

Back in the days when I got into the realty business, we used to laugh about homogeneity: buying it, selling it, promoting it, eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It seemed good—in the way that everyone in the state having the same color license plate was good (though now that's different, too). And since the benefits of fitting in were manifest and densely woven through, homogenizing seemed like a sort of inverse pioneering. But by 1992, even homogeneity had gotten homogenized. Something had hardened in Haddam, so that having a decent house on a safe street, with like-minded neighbors and can't-miss equity growth—a home as a natural expression of what we wanted from life, a sort of minor-league Manifest Destiny—all that now seemed to piss people off, instead of making them ecstatic (which is how I expected people to feel when I sold them a house: happy). The redemptive theme in the civic drama had been lost. And realty itself—stage manager to that drama—had stopped signaling our faith in the future, our determination not to give into dread, our blitheness in the face of life's epochal slowdown. (90)

It is perhaps not coincidental to the tonality of the narrative as a whole that Bascombe in this book is under treatment for prostrate cancer. It is in fact his medical condition that sharpens or enhances his ability to attend to what is going on around him:

Contrary to the TV ads showing cancer victims staring dolefully out through lacy-curtained windows at empty playgrounds, or sitting alone on the sidelines while the rest of the non-cancerous family stages a barbecue or a boating adventure on Lake Wapanooki or gets into clog dancing or Whiffle ball, cancer (little-d death, after all), in fact makes you a lot more interested in other people's woes, with a view to helping with improvements. Getting out on the short end of the branch leaves you (has me, anyway) more interested in life—any life—not less. Since it makes the life you're precariously living, and that may be headed for the precipice, feel fuller, dearer, more worthy of living—just the way you always hoped would happen when you thought you were well. (96)

I guess that's a central point right there. The cliché has it that we should attempt to live our lives as if each day were our last. The fact that it has become a cliché is no proof that it is a mistaken idea. The great virtue of Richard Ford's writing is that he brings to his narration the power of the kind of focussed alertness and attention to which the rest of us, might, on our best days, aspire to. I'm enjoying this book, and am glad to have it available as a sort of experiential bridge between December of 2006, when I began it, and January of 2007, when I will finish it. In the meantime, Dear Reader, wherever you may be, Happy New Year.

1 comment:

John Ettorre said...

Wonderfully said, Bruce. I too have just been reading Lay of the Land, finishing it only the other day. And I found it marvelous. I think you've nicely captured why it worked for me as well.