Richard Ford: The Lay of the Land

Richard Ford has impeccable taste in fiction, as we know from his introductions to UK editions of James Salter’s Light Years and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. He also enjoys greatness by association with his old friends, the late Raymond Carver and the not late (except when it comes to turning out novels) Tobias Wolff. And his last collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, was a delight. But I get the impression that what he wants to be remembered for are the Frank Bascombe novels: The Sportswriter (1984), Independence Day (1995) and now The Lay of the Land. A clue to this comes in the early pages of chapter 1, where the uncommon word angstrom appears. Of course! It’s Rabbit by Richard.

And The Lay of the Land does seem more than either of the others to be Ford’s attempt to square up to Updike and give the world his own Harry Angstrom. It seems less interested in doing something new (it copies the structure of Independence Day: the detailed moment-by-moment recreation of the days approaching a public holiday – this time Thanksgiving – and a dramatic event near the end), and is content to examine Bascombe’s life with positively forensic attention.

This is not without event – Bascombe gets involved along the way in a bar brawl, a terrorist attack, and several switchbacks of his present and previous love lives – but there’s no denying that it does get at times extremely boring. It’s hard to tell whether this is deliberate – Frank after all is an estate agent and not a man given to outbursts of emotion – and at times this quality made it the ideal holiday read, as I had nothing else with me to put it down for. Ford’s prose is not the match of Updike’s, or Salter’s for that matter, and in storytelling circles Yates leaves him standing.

Nonetheless the book was not at all a difficult or reluctant read, and there are moments of brilliant observation, such as this assessment of Bascombes’ Tibetan employee, Mike Mahoney:

In this, he’s like many of our citizens, including the ones who go back to the Pilgrims: He’s armed himself with just enough information, even if it’s wrong, to make him believe that what he wants he deserves, that bafflement is a form of curiosity and that these two together form an inner strength that should let him pick all the low-hanging fruit.

This also plays into the Rabbitesque background to the book: the recounts and court challenges to the 2000 Bush/Gore election, which gives Ford a chance to put some choice anti-Bushisms in Bascombe’s mouth.

Finally, there is the inevitable impressed satisfaction of reading any book this length, that the author should have managed to sustain the performance for so long, even if we didn’t always enjoy it that much (or perhaps, as Forster once suggested, we tend to overpraise long books simply because we have got through them). Oh, and a word about that: my obsession with flagrant page-bloat has been mentioned before, but I think swelling the page count from 496 in the hardback to 726 in the paperback sets a new record. Unless of course you are even more anally retentive than I am about things like that, and know better.


  1. Page bloat! I love that!
    I always imagine Richard Ford as a “man’s writer” of “men’s books” and please don’t ask me to define that, it’s just a vague feeling I have. I really should read them to find out.

  2. Well, I wouldn’t rush into the Frank Bascombe trilogy, dgr – you’ll very likely just rush out again. Men’s books… perhaps, but unlikely to suffer accusations of misogyny as other ‘man’s writers’ like Roth and Updike do. Really I think his stories are the best of him. Try A Multitude of Sins. Or better still, try his mate Tobias Wolff if you haven’t already: Old School is a real treat.

  3. Richard Ford – a flabby, bloated minimalist. 726 pages by this supposed follower of Raymond Carver ! No thanks, I had enough problems with Independence Day.

  4. No one has mentioned this but I think it’s right up there. Richard Ford flat out ducked 9/11. A “chronicler of the life and times” doesn’t duck sea changes. Updike didn’t, nor did DeLillio, Both came to grips with 9/11 in their own way.

    One reason The Lay of the Land only sold 50,000 in hard cover was that Ford’s audience moved away from him. In war time, readers are less likely to meander through someone’s interior landscape. They want action ie: Jarhead. The same thing happened to Scott Fitzgerald. Had Tender is the Night been published in 1929, Fitz would have been an enduring hero. As it was, Tender came out in 1934. When people are in soup lines, they don’t want to read about frolicking on the French Riviera.

    Updike v Ford, not even close. Johnny trashes him and always will. The only reason Updike hasn’t won the Nobel Prize for Literature is that they’re not giving it to white guys anymore.

  5. The only reason Updike hasn’t won the Nobel Prize for Literature is that they’re not giving it to white guys anymore.

    Harold Pinter, 2005?

    No one has mentioned this but I think it’s right up there. Richard Ford flat out ducked 9/11. A “chronicler of the life and times” doesn’t duck sea changes. Updike didn’t, nor did DeLillio, Both came to grips with 9/11 in their own way.

    How do you expect a book set in 2000 to come to grips with something that happens the following year?

  6. Thanks for dropping by, RB. I think Stewart’s point is pertinent: I believe Ford began The Lay of the Land before 9/11. He could have changed it, or started something new, but he doesn’t strike me as that sort of writer. Anyway “only 50,000 in hardcover” sounds like a feat most writers would kill for.

    Of the 13 Nobel Literature winners since 1995, eight have been white guys: Heaney (Irish), Szymborska (Polish), Fo (Italian), Saramago (Portuguese), Grass (German), Kertesz (Hungarian), Coetzee (South African), Pinter (British).

    In war time, readers are less likely to meander through someone’s interior landscape. They want action ie: Jarhead

    Jarhead has almost no action in it! It’s mostly about how much waiting around Swofford and his colleagues had to do in the Gulf, and the effect that had on them.

  7. Uh .. some of the comments u guys make. Anyway, I’m on p. 472 of the paperback Vintage edition @ 3 am in the f– ing morning and ‘riting w’/one eye closed to keep all these words from blurring together–still trying to make sense of the Russian twins and the Gretchen connection and how this can possibly make sense (‘less I’m missing something), even so having enjoyed much of this book I think it will stand well the test of time.
    And, yeah .. the angstrom thing caught my attention too .. and it’s not hard to see how devotees of the Rabbit series would nat’lly gravitate to Ford’s Frank–if just to get their high-Lit’ set-in-the-suburbs eliteist’s fix.
    (The classic scene though was on Timbuktu St .. “translated by this house of spirits into my next incarnation on earth. Frank Fox.” Well-paced. Great stuff.)

  8. Hi John,

    I’ve just read, and posted on, Richard Ford’s Independence Day, and I have to say I’m pretty ambivalent about its notionally ordinary narrator, Frank Bascombe. He’s a bit ‘too’ aware – too authorial – to be a credible first person. I prefer my narrators to be a little less reliable than Bascombe, with more to read between the lines, rather than on them. Have you read it?


  9. Yes I have James. My recollection – ten years or more on – is that it was my favourite of the trilogy, though I’d be hard pressed to be more specific. Credibility, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and I don’t always want naturalism from my narrators. A bit of artifice is fine by me.

  10. I agree that the credibility of the narrator is very subjective, I just felt that there was not a lot more to Frank Bascombe than an author (or more precisely, THE author) mascarading as a real estate agent. I couldn’t really get to grips with him as a person, and it left me cold.

  11. If you can’t live with the voice in a novel, it’s all over. For me, I’m always desperately disappointed if the voice is flat; ie, the plot is king and the ‘voice’ submits to it. I think the problem with Ford is that he goes too far the other way and is too restlessly insightful to the extent that nothing sticks but a vague memory of some great turns of phrase. Basically, I think he needs to wind down the insight and stop freighting everything with leaden importance. I love the voice, but I tire of it. I don’t want to be endlessly assailed with cutting extrapolations, I want to meet them halfway.

      1. I agree that this is a very succinct summary of the problems I have reading Ford. I wanted to like all three books in the trilogy and found every one frustrating — “winding down the insight” is great advice.

  12. It’s a real shame, though. You can take a passage from any of those books and it may startle you with its’ brilliance. You just can’t sustain that level of engagement over a few hundred pages. Bellow suffered from this at times, but not nearly as much. Updike seemed to keep a tight enough reign on it, and Roth continues to strike the perfect balance for me.

  13. how can one criticize a total exprience–that is what the Bascombe trilogy is….let it flow and dont play lit crit professor….it is to be enjoyed and experienced as life and the fact of the matter is sh-t happens. I thank the author for the experience and am now devouring the short story collections……And I say all in admiration as one who has written or edited seven books

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