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THE LAY OF THE LAND by Richard Ford Kirkus Star


by Richard Ford

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 0-679-45468-3
Publisher: Knopf

The third and most eventful novel in the Frank Bascombe series takes a whiplash turn from comedy (occasionally slapstick) toward tragedy.

Every ten years or so, Ford returns to Bascombe, whose debut in The Sportswriter (1986) provided the author’s popular breakthrough and whose encore in Independence Day (1995) merited the Pulitzer. Where there were considerable differences between the first novel and the follow-up—in which the once-promising writer and aspiring novelist settles for a comfortable living as a real-estate agent—the third sticks closer to the second’s template. Once again, Frank ruminates on his existence over an extended holiday, in this case Thanksgiving 2000, when the country is in the midst of millennial tremors and a contested presidential election. It seems that neither death nor divorce may be permanent in Bascombe’s life. He is now separated from his second wife, who had presumably been a widow, but whose first husband returns to the scene, while Frank’s first wife (now widowed by her second husband) gives signs that she wants to reconcile with him. His son and daughter are now adults, with complicated adult problems and relations with their parents. Frank has moved from Haddam, N.J., a suburb much changed by gentrification and cultural diversity, to a resort community on the shore, where he now sells homes and cottages with a Tibetan refugee, a Buddhist who has Americanized his name as Mike Mahoney. At the age of 55, Frank also suffers from prostate cancer, which has brought him to the autumn of his years (hence, Thanksgiving) earlier than most. As always, Frank prefers to react than act, to roll with the punches thrown by those who wish he were someone other than who he is. Over the course of three days culminating in a holiday dinner, he absorbs more punches than at any other time in his life.

Though not as consistently compelling as Independence Day (too many chickens coming home to roost), this reaffirms that Frank Bascombe is for Ford what Rabbit Angstrom is for Updike.