Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Lay Of The Land

Whew! Just finished the new(ish) Richard Ford, and though I have had, from time to time, my issues with the man's work (including The Sportswriter, which has always seemed half-baked to me), this book is exactly what I've been dying to read lately. I think it's gotten me off my only-crime-novels-and-recording-magazines kick.

The book gets off to a slow start--it seems only to consist of Frank Bascombe driving around thinking--but the rambling narrative gradually draws several disparate threads into focus: the nature of love, of mortality, of community. Ford has done his homework on the subject of New Jersey (Bascombe has left the Haddam of the last book and has moved to The Shore), to the extent that he actually overindulges the use of characteristic personality types, cultural signifiers, and place names. But one's sense is that the preoccupation is Bascombe's, not Ford's, such is our immersion in Bascombe's voice.

This same phenomenon obtains in one of the book's oddest qualities--it manages to make the spectacularly implausible not only forgiveable, but somehow more convincing than real life. The plot shakes off its langour after 200 pages or so and gradually comes to seem like a wild, eventful dream; and Bascombe's narrative simultaneously less trustworthy and more authentic. It's mesmerizing, really--by the end, you're perfectly willing to accept the bizarre agglomeration of motifs (including a car crash, Russian teen gangsters, and a time capsule) that back on page 50 you would have sneered at.

I don't think I've ever known of a writer whose various approaches to fiction result in such wildly uneven results--there are stories of Ford's I really cannot stand, particularly the ones in Women With Men, a book I thought marked the expiration of his prodigious talents. But, go figure, I adore this novel. There's something about Bascombe that turns Ford into some kind of genius--the character leads the writer to his deepest, funniest, and most human places.

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