Thursday, November 23, 2006


The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

By Edward Copeland
With The Lay of the Land, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford sets out to turn his character of Frank Bascombe into a New Jersey version of Rabbit Angstrom, complete with asides to current events (in this case, the contested 2000 presidential election) and to give Bascombe a trilogy following his great debut in The Sportswriter and his masterful return in the novel that won him the Pulitzer, Independence Day. Unfortunately, the third time is not the charm for Ford or Bascombe, as The Lay of the Land seems aimless and meandering and lacks the forward momentum that made the first two Bascombe novels, especially Independence Day, so superb.

This time out, Bascombe still works in real estate, though his second marriage has disintegrated thanks to unexpected arrival of his wife's long-missing first husband. On top of that, Bascombe himself still is dealing with the death of a son and his own brush with mortality with a case of prostate cancer.

While Ford still has great skills as a writer of both prose and dialogue and creates many memorable scenes throughout The Lay of the Land, the novel as a whole fails to come together and while you muddle through its 400-plus pages you spend a great deal of time being reminded of other authors who have covered similar territory and better. In addition to the obvious parallels to John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom, the health plight of New Jerseyan Bascombe can't help but recall many of Philip Roth's works and, as good as Ford can be, he can't compete with those two giants.

Part of the problem I think stems from the fact that the previous two Bascombe novels were great as novels, not necessarily because of the Bascombe character. Since this novel seems lacking, the character alone can't carry it. I was a big fan of The Sportswriter and Independence Day, so The Lay of the Land proved particularly disappointing to me.

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