Writer’s unique ever yman
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