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A Pilgrim's Progress

In "The Lay of the Land," novelist Richard Ford takes Frank Bascombe to the "Next Level."



Readers met him in the 1980s in The Sportswriter. That novel was set in the spring; the timing was one Easter weekend.

Then readers followed him into the 1990s in the Pulitzer Prize-winner Independence Day. The season was summer; the timing was one Fourth of July holiday.

And here he is again: Frank Bascombe, sportswriter turned real-estate agent, approaching the autumn of his years, in Richard Ford's latest novel, The Lay of the Land (Knopf). The year is 2000. It's Thanksgiving week. And here's what "gives": "EVERYTHING MUST GO!"

That's what the sale signs are saying in stores on the New Jersey shore, where Bascombe lives, but it goes for Bascombe too, because at the age of 55, he's got mortality on his mind. (What man wouldn't after having 60 radioactive iodine seeds ­-- encased in titanium BBs -- "smart-bombed" into his cancer-carrying prostate?) And yet, Bascombe intends for this Thanksgiving to go according to plan:

". . . I've organized events to be purposefully unspectacular -- consistent with my unspectacular physical state -- and to accommodate as much as possible everyone's personal agendas, biological clocks, comfort zones and need for wiggle room, while offering a pleasantly neutral setting . . . for nonconfrontational familial good cheer. My thought is that by my plan's being unambitious, the holiday won't deteriorate into apprehension, dismay and rage, rocketing people out the door and back to the Turnpike long before sundown. Thanksgiving ought to be the versatile, easy-to-like holiday, suitable to the secular and religious . . . . It often just doesn't work out that way."

No, it does not in the pages of The Lay of the Land. Though, God knows, Bascombe is trying. He's hosting his grown son and daughter, their significant others, plus a few friends for dinner at his beach-front house in Sea-Clift, where Bascombe has lived for eight years and where, he's the first to point out, there isn't a clift in sight. But the food's taken care of thanks to the catering firm of Eat No Evil Organic, which promises that everything's "so yummy you won't know it's not poisoning you." ("No sugar, no flour, lard or anything good," Bascombe explains, but it'll cost you: "two thousand dollars cheap.") Unfortunately, the problem this millennial Thanksgiving is what's not taken care of. Make that problems. The short list consists of the following:

Bascombe's wife, Sally: She's been gone since June, because she moved to Scotland to join her first husband, Wally, a man who years ago took off for parts unknown. Sally finally had him declared dead and happily married Bascombe, but Wally's been discovered still alive, still pretty crazy. And Sally? She's sorting things out.

Bascombe's first wife, Ann: She's moved back to upscale Haddam, New Jersey (where she and Bascombe once lived and where houses now carry "seizure-inducing" price tags), after being widowed by her second husband. Ann is on the staff of a high-priced private school, but she's kept her terrific golf swing. (And still has a thing, maybe, for Bascombe.) She may or may not be there for Thanksgiving too. She's sorting things out.

Bascombe's daughter Clarissa, age 25: She's taken up with a guy named Thom van Ronk, a name to really rankle Bascombe, who much preferred the woman Clarissa took up with during and after Harvard. Gay/straight? Clarissa's sorting things out.

Bascombe's son Paul, age 27: He's driving to New Jersey from Kansas City, where he writes greeting-card gibberish (or is it sarcastic insight?) for Hallmark. Nothing here to sort out except for Paul's verbal and physical assaults on his uncomprehending father. Good thing Paul's one-handed girlfriend has a Midwesterner's solid grip on Paul, who busies himself burying a time capsule and hauling out Otto, his ventriloquist's dummy.

Bascombe's son Ralph: His death at age 9 haunts Bascombe still.

As does what Bascombe calls the "Forever Concept." As does what Bascombe calls the "Permanent Period," which is where he finds himself, at 55 and full of BBs, and where the paramount issues of loss and acceptance, of becoming and being now and then weigh on Bascombe's alert mind -- major issues, yes, and ones Bascombe scatters throughout The Lay of the Land. Just don't let those musings weigh you down. There's too much else in these 500 pages to keep Bascombe (and you) moving and observing the U.S. at the dawn of a new century. For example:

America's real-estate market, where prices have gone nuts and realtors even nuttier. Bascombe sees through the insanity, but it doesn't keep him from profiting by it, learning from it, looking far East. "When man stops wanting ocean-front, it'll be because they've paved the ocean," he says, which is why with a house looking onto the Atlantic in Sea-Clift (clift or no clift), Bascomb's sitting on a gold mine and glad for it.

America's talent for punishing self-improvement and its herd instinct: "[A] handsome, healthy, sinewy, finely-limbed bunch of sociopathic greyhounds" is how Bascombe describes the mostly middle-age participants in a Turkey Day 5-K. (No word on those joggers' opposites in number: the country's morbidly obese.)

America's touchy-feely patent on phony empathy: As Bascombe cautions, "Never tell anyone you know how she or he feels unless you happen to be, just at that second, stabbing yourself with the very same knife in the very same place in the very same heart she or he is stabbing. Because if you're not, then you don't know how anybody feels."

And yet Bascombe does know something of how others feel -- enough for him to forgive his go-getter Buddhist associate Mike Mahoney (née Lobsang Dhargey), from Tibet, for viewing potential clients as "rolls of cash that happen to be able to talk"; enough for him to share in the down-and-out real-estate dreams of "Termite," who bartends at a watering hole for "late-middle-passage dykes"; enough for him to brawl with the arch-conservative denizens of a once-friendly bar in Haddam. Bascombe knows something of himself too when he thinks of writing a letter intended for the next president of the United States. Gore? Bush? Who knows? Bascombe thinks he knows, and he doesn't like the looks of it.

"It will not be a letter," Bascombe tells us, "about the need for more gun control or the need for supporting the family unit so fourteen-year-olds don't steal cars, own machine pistols and shoot people, or about ending pregnancies, or the need to shore up our borders and tighten immigration laws, or the institution of Engish as a national language (which I support), but will simply say that I am a citizen of New Jersey, in middle age, with wives and children to my credit, a non-drug user, a non-jogger, without cell-phone service or caller ID, a vertically integrated non-Christian who has sponsored the hopes and contexts and dreams of others with no wish for credit or personal gain or transcendence, a citizen with a niche, who has his own context, who does not fear permanence and is not in despair, who is in fact a realtor and a pilgrim as much as any. (I will not mention cancer survivor, in case I'm finally not one.)"

But a survivor by the close of The Lay of the Land Frank Bascombe sure is, and the shocking scene of his run-in with near-death does indeed entail someone rocketing out a door and back to the Turnpike long before sundown on Thanksgiving Day, the day's planning, not to mention the fruits of Eat No Evil Organic, laid to waste. In their place: Otto the Dummy as the one guest at the Bascombe family table.

No dummies at The New York Times. On December 10, 2006, editors at the Book Review named The Lay of the Land one of its ten best books of the year. No argument here.

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