Writer’s unique ever yman

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View - STEPHEN MATCHETT

DE­SPITE the fact nov­el­ist Richard Ford, sched­uled to ap­pear at this week’s Syd­ney Writ­ers Fes­ti­val, is happy to talk about his work, he has never made mar­ket­ing his books all that easy. For a start, Frank Bas­combe, the hero of his re­cently com­pleted tril­ogy, is a mid­dle- aged bloke, a rich, white, Amer­i­can bloke with two failed mar­riages, who used to be a jour­nal­ist. And is now an es­tate agent.

Th­ese are not char­ac­ter­is­tics cal­cu­lated to ap­peal to those lovers of lit­er­ary fiction who are in­ter­ested in char­ac­ters op­pressed due to their race and class, sex and eth­nic­ity. None of which but­tons Ford presses with Frank.

Of course if th­ese books were writ­ten by, or at least about, a wo­man in her 50s, still shaken by di­vorces, kids who had not en­tirely turned out as she hoped and who was watch­ing the world chang­ing in ways that alarmed her, they would be book- club nat­u­rals.

It would be good if they were, if only to give the lit­er­ary ladies a clue as to what the men in their set worry and won­der about.

But re­gard­less of how many copies he sells, or whether he ever ap­pears on Oprah , Ford is one of the great Amer­i­can nov­el­ists of our age. Per­haps one of the great nov­el­ists of the era, pe­riod.

Which is say­ing some­thing given an­other as­pect of his most re­cent work; there are large slabs of his last, long, novel in which noth­ing much hap­pens. As Emma- Kate Sy­mons put it in The Aus­tralian last Novem­ber, ‘‘ Frank treats us to his ev­ery maudlin, or mun­dane thought, as he veers from te­dious dis­cus­sion of real es­tate prices to plans for his funeral.’’

Harsh, but she had a point. ‘‘ I’ve got a lot of opin­ions,’’ Frank says in the first novel. ‘‘ But I tend to keep them to my­self, usu­ally.’’ Yet it is what the cen­tral char­ac­ter thinks, as much as what he says and does, that is the foun­da­tion of th­ese books. For much of the tril­ogy the nar­ra­tor talks to him­self, and us, about noth­ing much. This is a big part of Ford’s enor­mous achieve­ment. In Frank Bas­combe he has cre­ated a com­pletely cred­i­ble man liv­ing a largely un­event­ful life ( apart from the vi­o­lence, which is im­por­tant in The Lay of the Land ), with­out try­ing to make him into any kind of ac­tor in, or wit­ness to, the epochal events of his age.

In th­ese three nov­els, writ­ten dur­ing a 20- year pe­riod, mar­riages are made and un­made, af­fairs fail, chil­dren over­come, or don’t, the tri­als and trau­mas of child­hood, des­per­ately lonely men kill them­selves, while oth­ers demon­strate their bru­tal stu­pid­ity in acts of vi­o­lence.

And through them all Ford fills in Frank’s char­ac­ter and re­ports, at times in te­dious de­tail, the way the times and his ad­vanc­ing years change him.

Frank Bas­combe first ap­pears in The Sports­writer ( 1986) as a di­vorced 38- year- old jour­nal­ist, meet­ing his ex- wife at their son’s grave on Good Fri­day and then tak­ing an Easter trip to do an in­ter­view, ac­com­pa­nied by girl­friend Vickie, who is still around, sort of, 15 years later. He misses his kids, lusts in­ter­mit­tently, does not worry much about work and keeps his dis­tance from the di­vorced men who are the clos­est thing he has to friends.

In In­de­pen­dence Day ( 1995) he is 44, mak­ing money in real es­tate, an oc­cu­pa­tion his un­der­stand­ing of hu­man­ity and in­dif­fer­ence to­wards most peo­ple makes him good at.

The novel fo­cuses on his re­la­tion­ships with his girl­friend and his dick­head ( a de­scrip­tion that says what Ford takes a great many more words to say about the boy) son.

And now Ford has pulled it all to­gether in The Lay of the Land, the most com­plex of the three books. In this new novel Frank has come a way since his first ap­pear­ance.

He is as con­fi­dent in his own opin­ions and con­tained in the way he deals with the peo­ple around him as in the first book. But the pass­ing years have hard­ened his psy­cho­log­i­cal ar­mour and Frank is in­tent on en­sur­ing what­ever hap­pens will not hurt him, or at least not much.

Frank is now fo­cused on pro­tect­ing what he has rather than pur­su­ing what he wants.

The novel deals with the seem­ingly set­tled cir­cum­stances of his life, his frac­tured fam­ily re­la­tion­ships, de­clin­ing health and his de­sire to see things set right, prefer­ably with­out too much ef­fort for him, as he set­tles into what he calls the ‘‘ per­ma­nent pe­riod’’ of late mid­dle age.

But Ford makes it plain to his read­ers that the times are chang­ing and not for the bet­ter. The novel is set at the last Thanks­giv­ing when Amer­i­cans could ig­nore a hos­tile world, the year be­fore the de­struc­tion of the twin tow­ers shat­tered any com­pla­cency the coun­try may have had about the sta­bil­ity and se­cu­rity of the Amer­i­can way of life.

There are cer­tainly signs in the book of strife to come for all of Amer­ica, in­clud­ing Frank.

There is more to Ford’s achieve­ment in th­ese three books than Frank. Th­ese are com­plex nov­els, thick with plot, char­ac­ter and de­tail, but they are so well con­structed that it is easy to miss just how much Ford fits in. In The Lay of the Land, Frank moves from his present to his past and back again so smoothly it is easy to miss the sheer com­plex­ity of what Ford is telling us about what his char­ac­ter is do­ing, re­mem­ber­ing and plan­ning.

But the su­perb struc­ture of th­ese books stands sec­ond to Frank. He is a bril­liantly imag­ined char­ac­ter, al­beit not an es­pe­cially lik­able one. In The Lay of the Land he all but sneers at some of his fel­low Amer­i­cans. He gets into a blue with a bloke who does not agree with his Yel­low Dog Demo­crat pol­i­tics. He pri­vately pa­tro­n­ises his im­mi­grant busi­ness part­ner, a man who be­lieves in the Amer­i­can credo of equal op­por­tu­nity for all com­ers. And he is ut­terly ob­sessed with his own emo­tions and as­pi­ra­tions, all of which Ford de­scribes. Frank is so con­vinc­ing a char­ac­ter that at times this novel reads like a ver­ba­tim tran­script of an in­di­vid­ual think­ing.

It’s a very long tran­script, which is what makes The Lay of the Land te­dious in parts. But it is very much worth the ef­fort. If there is an en­dur­ing theme to th­ese nov­els it is not the Amer­i­can sub­ur­ban ex­pe­ri­ence but how hard many men make it for them­selves and for peo­ple who want to love them. For any­body in­ter­ested in what makes men tick, at least blokes who feel a great deal more than they ever ex­plain, Ford is worth read­ing and talk­ing about at book club.

match­etts@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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