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`The Lay of the Land': The sportswriter becomes a sour old man

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"The Lay of the Land" by Richard Ford; Knopf ($26.95)


"The Sportswriter," published in 1986, examined grief - the worst kind, that of a parent whose child has died. We staggered through Easter with Frank Bascombe, knowing that more than one life had ended. The book was both wonderful and wonderfully painful.

"Independence Day," published in 1995, took us on a second holiday journey with Frank, a disastrous Fourth of July with his surviving son. The novel won Richard Ford the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

"The Lay of the Land," our third holiday meeting with Frank, has been named a New York Times Notable.

I can't imagine why.

Frank has not aged well. "Lay of the Land" is tedious, a slog through a man's self-centered, self-pitying, self-serving ruminations as Thanksgiving approaches.

Just in case you hoped to enjoy this holiday season, Frank describes Christmas as a "vale of aching hearts and unreal hopes," rivaling the day after the Super Bowl for "more suicide successes, abandonments, spousal thumpings, car thefts, firearm discharges and emergency surgeries ..."

Granted, Frank, who is 55 in the year 2000, has ample reason for suffering and reflection: He has radioactive pellets in his prostate to slow cancer and must pace his travels bathroom to bathroom.

Sally, his second wife, has left him for Wally, her long-missing, presumed-dead first husband. The Vietnam vet and father of her off-stage children has reappeared after 30 years.

Frank's real-estate partner, a Tibetan refugee renamed Mike Mahoney, is considering a business move to land development. This exacerbates Frank's sneering commentary on the tension between Mike's Buddhism and his American assimilation.

Clarissa, his daughter, has ended a relationship with a woman he likes to try out a man he doesn't. She seems the only person he's truly fond of, but this fondness seems conditional, based on her having nursed him.

And Paul, his son, well, call it hostility.

Frank had expected to enjoy what he calls "the Permanent Period," a stage in which "we try to be what we are in the present - good or not so good - this, so that accepting final credit for ourselves won't be such a shock later on." The Permanent Period's truest signature, we are told, is "an end to perpetual becoming," to thinking wonderful changes will arrive.

Ford is an intelligent writer. He creates rich secondary characters; his examinations of America are darkly thoughtful. But he and Frank seem to have soured.

What remains strong, from "Independence Day" through "Lay of the Land," is Ford's use of the real-estate deal to riff on the state of the country.

Frank describes a wealthy neighborhood of "lanes and cul-de-sacs" with "insider mutter-mutter conversations passed across hedges between like-minded neighbors who barely know one another and wouldn't otherwise speak."

Frank says scientists would conclude from our suburban real estate that we like beer, suffer hemorrhoids, favor wood-paper products for excretions, falter in resolve about permanence vis-a-vis possibility.

He observes of his lottery-winning neighbors that they "got rich, got restless and adventuresome (like anybody else), bought oceanfront but somehow got detached from their sense of useful longing ..."

We're offered Frank's philosophical musings on presidents and politics, commerce and mortality as he drives about his real-estate kingdom. But he is so unmoored from others, so uninterested in anyone else's inner life that his analyses finally seem suspect.

And throughout runs an undercurrent of racism as he stereotypes everyone, whether Mike, an up-and-comer Filipino or "the fat little Hindu (or Mohammedan or Buddhist or Jainist or whatever he is) ..." he humiliates on Timbuktu Street.

Ford provides a bar fight, a feud with neighbors, a Wally-Sally disaster, a child's arrest, a hospital bombing, a murder.

Even so, this is a book in which you get stuck in the mind of an unpleasant man. Better to reread "The Sportswriter."


(c) 2006, The State (Columbia, S.C.). Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.

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