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The Impermanent Period

Richard Ford’s modern-day Hamlet.

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Toward the end of Richard Ford’s 1995 novel, Independence Day—winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and the second in what is now a trilogy featuring Frank Bascombe—Frank relates an observation made by his girlfriend, Sally, after Frank’s troubled son is injured by a baseball: “She could tell I’d been ‘vitally moved’ by something ‘deep and complicated,’ which my son’s injury may have been ‘only the tip of the iceberg for.’ It may, she said, have everything to do with my gradual emergence from the Existence Period” (the 44-year-old Frank’s term for the period of midlife adjustment he’s endured throughout the novel), “which she actually said was … a sort of ‘mechanical isolation that couldn’t go on forever’; I was probably already off and running into ‘some other epoch,’ maybe some more ‘permanent period’ …”           

The Frank Bascombe saga is an exhaustive look at the inner life of an American Everyman (of sorts), and The Lay of the Land follows the same basic pattern as its predecessors. Despite certain complications, Frank always affects to be reasonably happy at the beginning of these novels. The Sportswriter opens with Bascombe saying, of his eponymous career, “What could be better, I thought, and still think?” Six years later in Independence Day, he claims to live “happily if slightly bemusedly” in the pleasant town of Haddam, N.J., where he is now a real estate agent. In each novel, however, it eventually transpires that Frank is evading life’s disappointments, large and small, and is headed for an epiphany whereby he may or may not come to terms with reality and move to a more authentic (for lack of a better word) Period in his life.

In The Lay of the Land, Frank is witnessing the sudden disruption of his Permanent Period—a pleasant enough time when “you can’t completely [mess] everything up anymore,” as he puts it. He is now 55 and suffering from prostate cancer, which he developed shortly after his wife Sally left him in favor of her former husband, Wally, who was presumed dead at the end of Independence Day. And matters look bleak in terms of the larger zeitgeist (which Ford, à la Updike in his Rabbit novels, always evokes to good effect): It’s the week before Thanksgiving 2000, the disputed election is about to go the wrong way, and little hints abound of the millennial disaster to come (one of many subplots involves a Muslim bombing a hospital to “send a message”)—a disaster that will dispel any remaining illusion of a Permanent Period both for Frank and the world at large.

And yet while reading this latest Bascombe novel, my growing suspicions were confirmed: The Permanent Period is not, in fact, all that different from the Existence Period, or for that matter from whatever Period of “dreaminess” Frank was experiencing (at age 38) in The Sportswriter. Whatever it happens to be called, each Period tends to be a time of blithe (but knowing) denial—a condition remarkably similar to what Binx Bolling, the narrator of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, called “the Little Way”: “not the big search for the big happiness” (says Binx) “but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.” In Binx’s case, however, a life-changing conversion is somewhere in the offing, while Frank’s trajectory is never quite clear. One may be forgiven for thinking that all this Period shtick is mostly a pretext for a lot of riffing in the beguiling voice of Frank Bascombe. But surely Ford is after something bigger: exploring how a man (morbidly self-conscious in this case) may define himself in relation to a world where happiness is fleeting, at best, and chaos the norm. Indeed, Frank appears to be forever grappling with the question of how to cope with his own diminished expectations. Any true resolution is fleeting, however, such that these novels seem less a progression than a kind of eternal recurrence—a fact that makes Frank all the more representative, perhaps.

Ford has acknowledged the influence of The Moviegoer, and it’s fair to say that Binx Bolling’s predicament and voice serve as a loose paradigm for Frank’s. Both characters have been traumatized: Binx was wounded in the war and his brother Scott died in childhood, while Frank is haunted by the death of his 9-year-old son, Ralph, a tragedy that “has to be staved off like a bad genie and stuffed back in its bottle.” Both seek comfort in “the Little Way”—namely by embracing, as Binx puts it, “the most ordinary life imaginable.” In Binx’s case, though, the “Little Way” is transcended in the course of his “search,” leading to a Kierkegaardian leap of faith that allows him to accept loss as a merely temporal phenomenon.

By contrast,Frank Bascombe mentions that he used to read The Great Gatsby every year, “the way we’re all supposed to” (I do too), but he finally “got sick of its lapidary certainties disguised as spoiled innocence” and donated his copy to a Shriners benefit. In the absence of “lapidary certainties” (including those of religious faith), Frank’s own search remains perforcea rather aimless, if engaging, affair. “More significant signage,” he typically reports while driving along: “SUCCESS IS ADDICTIVE (a bank); HEALTHY MATE DATING SERVICE; DOLLAR UNIVERSITY INSTITUTE FOR HIGHER EARNING”—on it goes, purposefully or not, and the pace of the novel is glacial. The first 200 pages cover a single day, albeit a day full of incident: Frank has a funny argument outside a funeral home, observes the aftermath of a bombing, gets into a bar fight, and so forth. But whenever there’s a dramatic flare-up of some sort, rest assured at least 10 to 20 pages of woolgathering will follow.

Partly this reflects the protean nature of our narrator, a hard fellow to figure out, as he seems to adopt and discard personae on almost every other page. Sometimes he speaks with an almost Mandarin subtlety (“the truest, deep-background reason Ann is courting me … is for a private whiff of the unknown,” etc.) and sometimes in staggering banalities: “Happy is a circus clown, a sitcom, a greeting card. Life, though, life’s about something sterner. But also something better … Believe me.” Wait, is he kidding or not? It seems impossible to believe that, with cancer and a vanished wife, he thinks a “sterner” life is better than happiness per se. Or is he being a sort of Buddhist Will Rogers, apropos of his remark that Buddhism is simply a matter of turning “every Will Rogers cliché on its ear and pretend[ing] it’s Spinoza”? Likewise, witness the way Frank serves as a so-called Sponsor in his community—that is, a fellow who pays visits to lonely strangers and dispenses homespun, putatively unironical advice (“like a friendly stop-by from the bland State Farm guy,” Frank observes, both in-on-the-joke and deadly earnest).

At one point, Frank relates real estate to “Keatsian negative capability” in a way that didn’t quite parse for me, though I think the concept applies nicely to Ford himself. Frank Bascombe, for instance, is no more consistent than Hamlet, at once a shrewd (or obtuse) commentator and passive stooge. On the other hand, Frank’s wariness and willful banality make a kind of sense, since plainly the center is not holding and he is loath to trifle with so volatile a world. One of the great scenes in contemporary lit is when Frank tries to interview the wheelchair-bound football player Herb Wallagher in The Sportswriter: At first Herb seems like any crotchety old jock, until suddenly he confesses a dream in which he strangles three women by a roadside; then, infuriated by Frank’s determined triteness, he declares himself “a verb” (quoting Grant’s memoirs) and refuses to cooperate further. As with much of Ford’s best writing, the bare facts seem madcap and barely plausible, but word-for-word the scene is pitch perfect: naturalistic in every detail—no matter how bizarre—it lingers in the mind like an awful episode from one’s own life.

Still, Fordian negative capability is nothing if not unpredictable, and tends to result in a rather wacky deus ex machina-type climax—in other words, whatever it takes to stop Frank’s dithering and nudge him toward another epiphany of sorts. In The Lay of the Land, the author has complicated matters by giving himself a pretty tough MacGuffin. As Ford tells it, he was sitting at his desk one day wondering what “unfinished business” he could address in another Bascombe book, when it struck him: “Duh, what if Wally came back?” Wally, a Vietnam vet, had abandoned his wife, Sally, almost 30 years before and exiled himself (we learn) to the Isle of Mull, where he lived contentedly amid the sheep. Without going into Byzantine detail, he returns to the States,older and fatter,and is reunited with Sally, who invites him to stay a while with her and Frank. Since this is a novel and not just an ingenious set piece, however, it’s necessary for Sally to defy reason and leave with the repulsive Wally (though, as she admits, “I don’t know that I love him at all”) and thus upend Frank’s Permanent Period in all its fatuous complacency.

Amid the gunplay, suicide, and diverse misadventure that occurs toward the end of The Lay of the Land, I thought of Matthew Arnold’s“Dover Beach”: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!” the poet advises, envisioning the chaos to come in a world that has“neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” What’s good enough for Matthew Arnold is good enough for Frank Bascombe, I dare say, though how one sees fit to act on such knowledge is another matter. “In time,” Frank muses, after his wife returns, “I will find words to explain to her that none of this is as simple as she thinks, and in doing so possibly help explain herself to herself.” Still the folksy old Sponsor, then, though he speaks of taking his life to “The Next Level.” Of course, he hinted at a similar resolve in the first two novels, and nothing much came of it in either case. Perhaps it’s safe to say that, 10 years from now, when the next Bascombe novel appears, we’ll find him back in the same old rut—or whatever Period “The Next Level” is called by then.