Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Lay of the Land (III)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote two posts (here and here) about Richard Ford's book The Lay of the Land, which I finally finished reading the other day. It was a long, slow, enjoyable read. The title phrase has a number of literal and metaphorical interpretations. It works at one level because Frank Bascombe is a realtor, whose job it is to match his prospective buyers with the house they want in the landscape they want. It works at another level because the novel is in some ways a painstaking recreation of the texture of the life in a particular (and uniquely American) time and place: several days around Thanksgiving in the year 2000 in suburban New Jersey. And it works in the more general metaphorical sense, where getting the lay of the land is an exercise in orientation, an attempt to correctly read one's surroundings.

Bascombe is of a certain age (55), has a certain physical condition (undergoing treatment for prostrate cancer), and has suffered some painful familial losses (one of his sons died young, his first wife divorced him, and his second wife has left him when her former husband, long presumed dead, suddenly shows up more or less on her doorstep.) He has weathered all of these experiences with a certain wry, soft-edged, self-deprecating humor. He is not easily distressed. Even when he is distressed, he tries not to let it get the better of him. But he sure thinks a lot. And one of the things he thinks a lot about—not surprisingly, under the circumstances, is what it means to grow old. That's a territory for which each of us must create his own map.

But there are, of course, models for us to examine for their possible relevance to our own situation. In Frank's life, one such model is Wade, whom he first met perhaps 15 years before when, for a time, he was dating Wade's daughter. The relationship didn't work out, but he remained friends with Wade. And now Wade has turned into a crotchety old fart, a character, and Frank watches him with a mixture of fascination and distaste:
Back in the Barnegat Pines days of '84—when Wade took life more as it tumbled, projected a seamless, amiable surface, kept his garage neat, his tools stowed, his oil changed, tires rotated, went to church most Sundays, watched the Giants not the Jets, prayed for both the Democrats and the Republicans, favored a humane, Vatican II approach to the world's woes, inasmuch as we live among surfaces, etc.—back then I just assumed that he, like the rest of us (prospective son-in-laws think such things), would wake up one morning at four, feel queasy, a little light-headed, achy from that leaf-raking he'd done the evening before and decide not to get up yet. Then he'd put his head back to the pillow for an extra snooze and somewhere around six and without a whimper, he'd soundlessly buy the farm. "He usually doesn't sleep that late, but I thought, well, he's been under a strain at work, so I just let him—" Gone. Cold as a pike.

Only old age plays by strange rules. Wade's now survived happiness to discover decrepitude. To be alive at eighty-four, he's had to become someone entirely other than the smooth-jawed ex-Nebraska engineer who was cheered to see the sun rise, cheered to see it set. He's had to adapt—to shrink around his bones like a Chinaman, grow stringy, volatile, as self-interested as a pawnbroker, unable to see his fellow men except as blunt instruments of his demon designs. Apart from merely liking him, and liking to match Wade—remembered to Wade—present tense, I'm also interested for personal reasons in observing if any demonstrable good's to be had from getting as old as Methuselah, other than that the organism keeps functioning like a refrigerator. We assume persistence to be a net gain, but it still needs to be proved. (312-3)

The passage captures quite well the sharply observant and wryly humorous turn of Frank Bascombe's mind. Much of The Lay of the Land is made up of passages like this, passages which are not narrative so much as ruminative. The lay of the land we are experiencing as we read this is the shape of the internal landscape of Frank's brain, the way his thoughts move in mediative, elaborative circles around certain recurring questions and themes. Frank is a world-class ruminator. What makes him such good company is that the questions and themes that he chews on are not-so-distantly relevant to anyone who has managed to find their way to the North End of middle age. It struck me more than once as I was reading that this is a book for adults, not age-of-majority adults, but adults who by age forty have, as the French proverb suggests, the face they deserve. Despite all the wisecracking by the narrator and the sheer linguistic exuberance of the author, this is a serious novel, in every sense of that word.

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