Back in 1986, it seemed that a lot of us—and by us, I mean late-twentysomething and early-thirtysomething publishing employees in New York—were drifting. Relationships were sputtering or had foundered, our jobs felt undetermined, and we spent a lot of time over drinks in bars, wondering about the sudden journalistic appetite for glitz and money in New York and about our apartments and our lack of focus and where we would all fit in. We read Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, and the hip frenzy of its nightclubbing, coke-sniffing, diffidently ambitious New Yorkers, and especially its loving dissection of an insane New Yorker–like magazine, thrilled us. Yes, we were in the right place, doing the right thing! But then what? Pete Dexter and Bob Shacochis came along, and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and other fine books, but nothing really spoke to our condition. And then Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter was published, a book that became—and for me has remained—a touchstone of the passage of time and the greatness of American fiction.
The Sportswriter is narrated by Frank Bascombe, a journalist from Michigan whose marriage has just recently crashed. His eldest son has died, age 9, from Reye’s Syndrome, an incomprehensible event that reveals the foundational cracks in Frank’s life. For much of the book, Frank tries to put the pieces back together again. He can’t fix his marriage, nor can he bring his son back. What he can do is try to understand not how he got here, but where he might go. And as he blindly searches for his future, he says things like: “[F]or your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret.” And “there are no transcendent themes in life.” And “I think most things are better if you just let them be lonely facts.”
With its yearning evocations of leafy suburban neighborhoods in New Jersey, its rhapsodies about roadside diners and neglected crumbling industrial towns, its moody descriptions of the loneliness of looking through a windshield during a late-night drive, its laconic rendering of the stunning reality of solitude, empty cheeriness and the impossible yet necessary need to connect, somehow, with the people we love, The Sportswriter is among the most elegiac, romantic and breathtakingly beautiful novels ever written.
ALMOST 10 YEARS LATER, the news that Richard Ford had written a sequel taking Frank Bascombe a few years into the future didn’t thrill me—the perfection of The Sportswriter seemed sacred; I was unwilling to trust Mr. Ford with the next step. And I was shortsighted, as it turned out: Independence Day (1995) won a Pulitzer Prize, cemented the author’s reputation as one of the great writers of his generation, and firmly established Frank Bascombe as one of the most memorable and authentic characters in fiction.
An ordinary man in distressing circumstances (the death of a child, the wreckage of a marriage), Frank opts for no choice other than to face his life head on. In doing so, he plumbs profound levels of our existence with bravery and eloquence and understanding. He speaks directly to readers—especially male readers—with more honesty than any other literary character I can think of.
In Independence Day, Frank has abandoned his sportswriting job for a career in real estate. He’s still grieving over the death of his marriage, though the death of his son has receded into depths better left untouched. His relationships with various women are always tipped on the edge of a precipice. His beloved New Jersey is changing rapidly, losing its charm and taking on the attributes of greed and emptiness. His surviving children have morphed into incomprehensible and somewhat unpleasant strangers. And Frank is even more acutely aware of the passage of time (“the end of something stressful followed by the beginning of something indistinct”), the shakiness of his abilities and the general transience of the sweet moments in life—though he never stops believing that he can not only survive but prevail. “A sad fact about adult life,” he says, “is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon.”
As Frank recognizes, “What we all want, of course, is all our best options left open as long as possible; we want not to have taken any obvious turns.” His observations about himself and about the nature of human relationships, which fill the novel more fully than any plot the author could have devised, make Independence Day not just addictive but almost painful reading—it’s the equivalent of that strange, uncomfortable feeling of looking into a mirror and recognizing too well what one sees.
NOW FRANK BASCOMBE HAS RETURNED—11 years later in real time, but just a few years along in fictional time. (Comparisons to John Updike’s Rabbit series are inevitable. Much as I admire those books, Mr. Ford is after something different.) The action takes place during the 2000 Bush-Gore election debacle, on a Thanksgiving weekend given over to a family gathering that promises the worst.
Frank has remarried (wife No. 2 is a former sweetheart from Independence Day, someone who gave him the heave-ho once before and whose reliability is again in question). His children are still incomprehensible: His daughter, who’d flaunted her lesbian identity in a hostile way, now seems more interested in cultivating the paternal relationship, though maybe not; his son, always the problem child, now works for Hallmark writing greeting-card messages and continues to defy his father’s hopes for some evidence of familial affection. Frank’s real-estate business has been a success. He’s neither lonely nor depressed. Yet he continues to examine his life for flaws, clues, directions. “What has developed is that my life’s become alloyed with loss.” “I’d never take a lie-detector test; not because I lie, but because I concede too much to be possible.” “What is home then, you might wonder. The place you first see daylight, or the place you choose for yourself? Or is it the someplace you just can’t keep from going back to?”
In a final twist that brings it all into focus, Frank has prostate cancer. Age and time have caught up with him. The sweet, baffled wonder of life’s incomprehensibility has turned to a dead certainty that the dangers, the fantasies, the fears, are all true.
At just under 500 pages, The Lay of the Land is a lot of Frank Bascombe. There’s more, too: a bombing at the local hospital, a random murder that proves nearly fatal to Frank, a runaway bride. Some of the passages, especially those involving Frank’s real-estate sidekick Mike, a Tibetan Buddhist, feel like padding. Frank’s children, so vital to the tone of Independence Day, in which they play key roles, are essentially peripheral characters here, despite the considerable airtime they’re given. And yet, by the beautiful end of this novel—after all the heartbreak, the tentative steps towards renewal, the violent encounters with death, the struggle to overcome the terror of what is, after all, the ordinary hand that life deals each of us—Frank reaches a resolution that’s powerfully moving.
Mr. Ford’s language, still laconic yet comfortably embracing; his account of the inexorability of modern life; his humane understanding of the puzzlement men face when trying to comprehend what has happened as they age; his tenderness in describing how women deal with men; his basic understanding of how we all got here and what we’re all facing; his affirmation of the great need to truly live one’s life out—they all add up to an experience that transcends ordinary reading. A candidate for the great American novel, the trilogy of Frank Bascombe books is a heartbreaking masterpiece.
André Bernard writes the “Casual Reader” column for the Kenyon Review.