Anyone who followed Frank Bascombe through Richard Ford’s previous novels in this trilogy (The Sportswriter and Independence Day) will be forgiven for some trepidation on picking up the final instalment, which is situated during the Thanksgiving Day weekend of 2000. American holidays haven’t been good to Frank. They tend to induce introspection, disruption from the usual routine, and interactions with one’s family, all of which are somewhat risky activities. And for Frank, who is now settled in what he calls his ‘Permanent Period’, such moments of personal and national soul searching usual trigger transformation. A change is certain for the country, mired though it is in the aftermath of the disputed Bush-Gore presidential election. But what kind of change can come for someone in his Permanent Period? What’s next, other than the ‘Next Level’, and what can that be other than death itself?
Frank is estranged from his first wife. His second wife, Sally, has been gone for nearly a year, having followed her former husband (who had been presumed dead) to the Scottish island of Mull. He cannot survive even a brief conversation with his son, Paul, without nearly coming to blows. His daughter, Clarissa, is pursuing her own transformations. His Tibetan colleague in Realty-Wise is itching to climb another rung on the great ladder of being. And Frank is undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. Anxious might be too modest a word to describe Frank’s state of mind.
Once again, Richard Ford paints a masterly picture of the modern condition in this gripping conclusion to his Frank Bascombe trilogy. The prose is dense with hesitant metaphor and promiscuous symbolism as Frank asserts, contradicts, and reasserts himself, more acted upon than acting, and incapable, seemingly, of transacting the smallest bit of business without disaster—physical, emotional, spiritual—rearing up and biting him. It’s hard to imagine a character more in need of our sympathy, or less able or likely to accept it.
Of course, endings are very much the theme of The Lay of the Land. One way or another, it’s the end for Frank. Eschatology breeds an intemperate clamouring for teleology. But whether Frank can piece together his life as a whole is an open question. And the end, when it comes, is always a surprise, however much we prepare ourselves.
Recommended without reservation.