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Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land


Most of the way through this novel, and though I’ve attempted all his books with the last few not quite getting to me, this one is a revelation. His Frank Bascombe is back, older, and with another divorce under the belt and possibly surviving a bout of prostate cancer. And what is astonishing to me in this novel is how it seems to relegate so much else of my reading to slap dashes in the park. This book is a world.

I would almost counsel any would be writers to avoid this book because it is much too high a bar to aspire to for most anyone. Other, and of them some very good, novels, come off as short hand in the comparison. Ford has possibly the most comprehensive observational skills of any writer today.

Many writers are quite competent at conveying a mind but few manage to add the world to it. In this book not only do you have a central personality in detailed complexity but a context of unsurpassed elaboration and yet none of it feeling superfluous or distracting.

His character has reached a stage in life he calls the Permanent Period wherein though he may not be able to predict what will happen one day to the next, he has reached a state of being settled, and for the most part is pleased with it. No longer does he worry about what he may accomplish but has found peace in where he is, and while occasionally this sense is threatened, he is at a place where he does not worry about being wrong (you just are sometimes).

I’ve had the pleasure to speak with Ford on three occasions, each of them unique.

1. Sometime after the Sportswriter came out, I was working at a bookstore in Edmonton and we had him in for a signing and only six people showed up despite the fact that he had already won the Pulitzer and was widely known as a writer’s writer. The small group meant that I was able to spend about 30 minutes just talking with him about this and that. He came across as a cultured Southern gentleman, relaxed, gracious and unprepossessing, not unlike Bill in Trueblood.

Just before he showed up I was rereading Sportwriter and though expecting to skim the book I found myself once again caught stuck on reading each perfect sentence.

2. At a book convention in Chicago, there was a private get together with a number of Random House authors and I managed to get a few words with him despite being buttonholed by Brett Easton Ellis. (I had been entrusted with a book to be signed by Ellis for a terminal friend of a friend who thought he was the greatest). When I talked to him, he took me outside the crowd to talk, because he just might have had enough of them by then….I do remember noticing the hairs on the back of his hand and thinking of American Psycho.

3. Once again in Edmonton, Ford was up for a reading and in the basement of a small bookstore he read one of his stories from beginning to end, and it seemed to me as if I had stepped into the past. This scene could have taken place centuries ago, the quiet crowd assembled for an old time storyteller. Ford was a little under the weather but pulled off a fine reading and spoke with each person coming up to get their books signed, distracted only by wanting to know the baseball score on a pivotal game being played that day in another country.

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