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The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

Now that we've turned the clocks back and the weather appears to have settled into something resembling autumn, I feel compelled to admit that this is my favorite time of the year. The leaves are past peak, but I think they are beautiful, and the colors of the overcast sky are rich and evocative. Snow does not feel that far away. The "fall back" of the clocks means that evening arrives suddenly, in the late afternoon, changing the tenor and tempo of the day. This is the calendar tilt towards the cold and the ushering in of the holiday season. By January, when it's been freezing for awhile and the holidays are long gone, winter will feel long and endless. But in early November, there is joy in the first fire, the extra blanket, the long-forgotten thick and cozy sweater. And there is the run up to Thanksgiving, a holiday I love.

Numerous novels use Thanksgiving, that quintessentially American holiday, as a focal point. There is, after all, rich material in the story of an extended dysfunctional family coming together to eat a lot of food, watch football and bicker. John Grisham and his new novel The Rooster Bar are on the cover of the November 2017 issue of BookPage, the monthly book review publication that is available at the Circulation Desk and is always posted on the Your Next Read bulletin board. But page 19 of the November issue of BookPage contains a list of five novels "about [Thanksgiving] holiday dinners you'd definitely want to skip," and I reviewed the list with great interest. I had read four of the books: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler, The Ghost at the Table by Suzanne Berne, May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes and Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes.

The fifth book, The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford, was a surprise, not because I had not heard of the book but because I had not realized that it took place over Thanksgiving. The Lay of the Land is the 3rd book in Ford's justly celebrated series of novels about Frank Bascombe, an American suburban "everyman." I had read, devoured really, the first two books: The Sportswriter, which takes place over Easter weekend in 1983, and Independence Day, which takes place over the 4th of July (of course), in 1988, and won the Pen/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1996. I had purchased The Lay of the Land when it first came out in paperback in 2007, but I had never gotten around to reading it, in large part because, by the time I bought it, I had already started checking books out of the library with abandon, which cut considerably into my available reading time for the books that I owned. I had even read Ford's most recent Frank Bascombe book, Let Me Be Frank with You, which takes place in the week leading up to Christmas in 2012. But I had never circled back to The Lay of the Land, nor had I realized (which now seems foolish, given the setting of the other Bascombe books) that the story takes place at Thanksgiving. A few days ago, I set aside the library books I had checked out and sat down with Ford's novel. And I am so very glad I did.

Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944. He received a BA from Michigan State University and an MFA from the University of California at Irvine.  His first novel, A Piece of My Heart, was published in 1976. He is the author of several other novels and short story collections in addition to the Frank Bascombe series. Ford is currently a professor of the humanities and the arts at Columbia University.

Taken as a whole, the Frank Bascombe books are very much of the time (1983, 1988, 2000 and 2012 respectively) and place (suburban New Jersey and the Jersey Shore) where they are set and are more than anything about modern life. Hardwired into each of the books are issues concerning the confusion that men face as they try to figure out what is happening to them as they age, the way women attempt to understand the men in their lives, how we got to where we are now and how to think about where we are headed, and the fundamental need we all have to live out our lives, despite the hurdles that come our way. As Frank says in Let Me Be Frank With You, "In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today and what we might still do. Plus whatever we think about all of that."

The Lay of the Land takes place during the week leading up to Thanksgiving Day, 2000. The outcome of the 2000 Presidential election is still being argued in court. Frank Bascombe is 55 and in remission from prostate cancer. He is married for the second time (his first marriage ended before The Sportswriter began), but his wife has gone to live with her first husband, who she had mistakenly believed was dead, placing the future of his marriage in doubt. Much to Frank's surprise, his first wife appears to be interested in a reconciliation. Frank's business partner in his successful real-estate firm is considering a better offer. And both his son, a greeting card writer for Hallmark, and his daughter, who has left her girlfriend to start dating a man almost Frank's age, are expected to visit for the holiday.

A lot happens to Frank during The Lay of the Land, which is not surprising given all the moving parts in his life. At almost 500 pages, the book is an investment of time and mental energy, but it's a worthy one. As one reviewer wrote about the book: "There is an immense generosity to the novel, augmented by an understanding that, at best, all we can do is somehow muddle through. As a portrait of the American psyche at a time of material plenty and great communal doubt, as a depiction of the dance we do with our own transience, and the accommodations we make with ourselves and others to get through the day, The Lay of the Land is a superb achievement."

And as we are two weeks out from a day of family, football, feasting and fullness, here, to give you a glimpse of Ford's writing and the way Bascombe's mind works, is Frank, musing on Thanksgiving: "Americans are hardwired for something to be thankful for. Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude. Even if Aunt Bella's flat-lined and in custodial care down in Ruckusville, Alabama, we still 'need' her to have some white meat and gravy and be thankful, thankful, thankful. After all, we are -- if only because we're not in her bedroom slippers. And it is churlish not to let the spirit swell -- if it can -- since little enough's at stake. Contrive, invent, engage -- take the chance to be cheerful. Though in the process, one needs to skirt the spiritual dark alleys and emotional cul-de-sacs, subdue all temper flarings and sob sessions with loved ones. Get plenty of sleep. Keep the TV on (the Lions and the Pats are playing at noon). Take B vitamins and multiple walks on the beach. Make no decisions more serious than lunch. Get as much sun as possible. In other words, treat Thanksgiving like jet lag."


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