Bascombe is back.
It's been 20 years since Richard Ford introduced the world to Frank Bascombe in his acclaimed novel, The Sportswriter. The story of a man trying to navigate adulthood in the aftermath of a divorce and the death of his son, The Sportswriter was an astonishingly mature and captivating book about conducting life with dignity and optimism. But it wasn't until its sequel, Independence Day, in 1995, that Bascombe became firmly entrenched in the canon of modern literary protagonists.
Independence Day, which remains the only book to have won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, was nothing short of a masterpiece of contemporary fiction. (The New York Times agrees, honoring it in their "Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years" feature earlier this year.) Independence Day caught up with Bascombe nearly 10 years after The Sportswriter, as Frank tried to connect with his troubled son and save a faltering relationship over one Fourth of July weekend. His career had changed (real estate), his children were older, and he had a new girlfriend, but Bascombe was paralyzed in a holding pattern that came crashing down on him by book's end. Over the course of these two novels, Bascombe develops into a preternaturally lifelike character who reveals more of himself than most of the people closest to us in life.
And now, 11 years after we last heard from him, Bascombe is back in The Lay of the Land, as familiar and contemplative as ever. As Frank fills readers in on the details of the past decade of his life, it's the closest thing to reconnecting with an old friend as I've experienced in a life of reading. Since Independence Day, Frank has gotten married again, and his wife recently left him (for her ex-husband, who had been presumed dead but turned up on her doorstep one day). His son, who occupied so much of Ford's previous novel as a troubled kid, has grown into a troubled, angry adult, and Bascombe's daughter Clarissa is a Harvard bisexual who remains loyal to her father. The Lay of the Land is set during Thanksgiving week, and as in the previous Bascombe books, Frank's strategies for dealing with a relentlessly quotidian life break down in the face of a barrage of existential trials and banal calamities.The Lay of the Land starts slowly, with Frank espousing his views on life, and the mental state he's been inhabiting, which he calls the Permanent Period—"the time of life when very little you say comes in quotes, 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." It isn't until the book's second act that the real narrative action begins, and then it comes down like a landslide. I asked Ford, who was home in Maine, if he was aware that Bascombe had begun to ruminate in more complex, denser sentences as he laid out his life's philosophies. "Very aware of it," Ford said. "I think that's just the matter of me getting older, frankly. I don't get any smarter, but I do accumulate material as life goes on, which is usable in making a character. I wasn't trying to make it thicker in a sense. I was trying to make it as readable as I could. I think on the other hand, sentences like these can theoretically be pleasurable sentences."Not only does Ford craft pleasurable sentences, but for this reader, his books impart a wisdom of adulthood rivaled perhaps only by the short stories of Anton Chekhov. I've read the Bascombe books over a dozen times, and each time, I learn more about ways of dealing with the world: of coping with grief and loss, dealing with marriage and career changes, wooing sexy divorcees (I learn as much from Bascombe's mistakes as I do his victories). Ford tells me that experiences like these crystallize what he loves about literature. "Books are my opportunity to be smarter than I could be in any other way of living. That's what I go to literature for. When I read novels, I want them to tell me something that I couldn't have been told any other way." Me too, Mr. Ford. Thanks for making that happen for me. To read the complete Richard Ford interview, visit portlandmercury.com