Steve's Reviews > The Lay of the Land

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
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's review
Apr 30, 2009

it was amazing
Read in May, 2009

In this, the last in the trilogy, Frank is still the ever-thinking everyman, now age 55. He recently returned from the Mayo Clinic with less than full assurances, has seen his second wife leave him under odd circumstances, and has taken two steps forward and one step back (or is it one forward and two back?) with his first wife and their two grown kids. Frank has plenty to mull over. But then Ford offers up quite an assortment for readers to chew on, too.

1) Is there such a thing as a life too-well-examined? (Frank is as reflective as they come, but his insights are so interesting, we rarely begrudge him his self focus.)

2) Is the Permanent Period that Frank described himself to be in, "when few contrarian voices mutter doubts in your head, when the past seems more generic than specific, when life's a destination more than a journey and when who you feel yourself to be is pretty much how people will remember you once you've croaked -- in other words, when personal integration . . . is finally achieved," de rigueur around that age?

3) Is awareness of one’s own foibles a helpful step in dealing with them? (Frank is full of admissions like the following to fuel the debate: “It’s loony, of course, to think that by lowering expectations and keeping ambitions to a minimum we can ever avert the surprising and unwanted. Though the worst part, as I said, is that I’ve cluttered my immediate future with new-blooming dilemmas exactly like young people do when they’re feckless and thirty-three and too inexperienced to know better.”)

4) Are great writers like Ford just naturally better at dealing with deep, personal issues—things like Frank’s suppressed despair from a loss years ago? (This was a very effective scene made all the better by a rare show of emotion that Frank himself, in the first person account, didn’t see coming.)

5) Speaking of great writing, could this be Ford at the height of his powers? (All the prizes went to Independence Day, the second in the series, but I think the prose in this one is even better—-long and lush sentences, words flowing like music, acoustically pure.)

While I wouldn’t consider Frank a role model, he comes by his opinions honestly. Did I pay more attention because I’m getting close to his age? Is his search for meaning less clichéd for its lack of a spiritual basis? Does his contemplative inner life make him an island? He’s a complex character; these are questions to weigh with him in mind.

About two-thirds of the way into the book, it occurred to me that there was a lot Frank needed to wrap up before the trilogy’s end. I consciously slowed down so I wouldn’t miss any bit of how he did it. Five-star books like this give us data we should measure well to include in our eclectic samples.
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Susan (new)

Susan You've been so taken with Richard Ford that I wonder where you first heard of him? And how do you compare him to Richard Russo, another favorite who's been known to create a fascinating character or two?

message 2: by Steve (last edited May 29, 2009 10:17AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Steve I’d originally noticed Independence Day when I was trolling through prize winner lists. It’s the only one to have ever won both a Pulitzer and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Then my friend Robert, whose views I give a ton of weight, recommended the whole trilogy. It only took a few pages of The Sportswriter to know I’d be making a lot of time for Frank.

Funny you should ask about how Ford compares to Russo, another of my favorites. I’d been thinking about their similarities and differences already. When I finally get started with Updike’s Rabbit books, which should be soon now that you’ve given me the first one, I’m sure he’ll be invited to the mix as well.

From what I remember of Russo (having read all his books, but some dating back 10 years ago) and what I might extrapolate from Ford’s trilogy, the first thing I’ll say is that they’re both masters of the written word. They love language, but know, too, that stories are a big part of it all. I might give the nod to Ford for pure literary art. You’re more apt to read one of his passages and think, “What a great way of saying that.” With Russo you’re more likely to appreciate his skill in making it look so easy. His is the more natural, unassuming style. As far as story-telling is concerned, I think Russo may have the better knack. Both are good with their narratives and yet both seem to place even more importance on characters. That’s probably why I’m so drawn to both. They get really close to those they develop. Ford goes especially deep into Frank’s inner life, taking three pretty lengthy books to get the job done. In trying to recall all of Russo’s protagonists, I think it’s fair to say that he likes his creations more. Frank might ring a little truer, though—-more realistic (which is not to say pessimistic) in recognizing the alienation of modern life.

Both writers give you a strong sense of place. There’s plenty of context for figuring the characters out. With Russo it’s often upstate New York, past its industrial peak. Most of Ford’s trilogy is set in the leafy part of New Jersey. With Frank’s second career in real estate, we get a close look at what that’s all about. In a way, the differences in locations proxy for differences in characters. Russo’s Joe Blow is more likely to be working class whereas Ford’s people are middle- to upper middle-class. Maybe because he grew up with the type, Russo has always been great at giving seemingly simple guys fully sketched lives. With a background in academics, he can create characters from that world, too, but he often gives them a tweak for taking themselves too seriously. Maybe part of the reason I view Frank as truer to life is that I’m more likely to encounter his ilk. With guys like him you can sense the polished surface, but can also guess at what makes appearances deceptive.

Both great authors; and a great question, Susan.

message 3: by Susan (last edited May 29, 2009 10:35AM) (new)

Susan I might have guessed that you'd conclude that Russo likes his characters more than Ford. This is based on your own comments and my familiarity with Russo's work. I found Sully from Nobody's Fool and the dad in The Risk Pool appealing despite their numerous flaws (and my perhaps natural antagonism at the way those two handled their roles as spouses and fathers). Russo's natural affection for those guys really shone through in the writing and consequently opened my mind. This allowed me to enjoy a fuller appreciation of their characters than I might have otherwise.

Even though your comments about some aspect's of Frank's behavior have been guarded and less than fully positive, I'm more than willing to give The Sportswriter a chance to win me over.

Steve I'm glad to hear you say that, Susan. I think The Sportswriter is a good one for you to try. You've always understood male characters well, and connections with others of the species through sports is something you've picked up on previously, too.

If you go on to read the whole trilogy, I'll be curious to hear your thoughts on how Frank evolved. It's interesting to track how Ford's writing changes, too. Maybe you'll read them in quicker succession than I did and can see the modulations more clearly.

Please hurry up with that Dickens you're on so I can hear your thoughts on Frank.

Robert Great review, as always, Steve. I still need to do my Rabbit Angstrom/Frank Bascombe review-off. I've never read any Russo, though I've long heard that's good. I'll have to correct that soon.

Steve Yes, Robert, you did raise our hopes some time ago with talk of a Frank/Rabbit encounter. Please feel free to write it even before I start in on the Updike. I won't let your insights bias me, much.

A good Russo to try to get a sense of his style is Nobody's Fool. As my book-loving better half can confirm, Sully is not the only memorable character in that one. (Right, Susan?) You should get some chuckles out of several from that cast.

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