Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Frank Bascombe

For the past year and a half, I've been slowly working through Richard Ford's trilogy of novels about Frank Bascombe, sportswriter, father, real estate agent, husband, and narrator. In order of publication, Frank's story is told in The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay Of The Land. Today, I finished reading the third and hopefully final novel.

Each novel is set during a pivotal American holiday, such as Easter for the first book and Thanksgiving in the third. A pattern is used for all three novels - essentially Frank goes through a spiritual crisis relating to the past and relating to his place in the world. However, each novel builds on the previous one.

Frank's story is really about the reconciliation with the past and with the future. Every time we meet Frank, he thinks he's happy, but he's not really. He moves through life with a fake grin and some talk about sports and who will win the pennant. His loved ones move around him and he tries his best to connect with them. He and his first wife, Ann, divorced because they just weren't meant for each other, as well as the absolute heartache of their first son's death at an early age. The son, Ralph Bascombe, is the ghost that haunts Frank forever. He's always trying to settle with it, to make peace with it, but he never can. His relationship with his surviving son, Paul and daughter, Clarissa is complicated and strained.

In The Sportswriter, Frank tells us that he hates people who live in the past, that he hates people who can't move on, but he's obsessed with the past. He can't stop reliving the pain of death, the pain of divorce, the pain of failed prospects. He resigns himself to a life of writing abouts sports for a high class magazine. Sports represents bullshit, essentially. Frank spends all this time in bars, with his current lover, with his son, bullshitting, making the days go by. He hasn't found his place in the grand scheme of things, and he may never will. There's two pivotal moments in The Sportswriter: Frank's interview with the injured sports-stars, and the climax in which he realizes he can't marry his lover, Vicki. He realizes this when he learns of the suicide of his friend Walter, a member of his informal Divorced Men's Club (another way of living in the past but loathing it). Walter's death is the edge that Frank is standing at: whether to move forward in life, or to stay entrenched in the pain of the past. Frank moves forward, and decides not to continue with Vicki. He ends up in Europe with a much younger lover, and a better sense of his place.

We meet Frank in the second novel, Independence Day, set fifteen years after the first novel. Frank has now become a real estate agent and is living in his wife's old house in New Jersey. During the course of the Independence Day weekend, Frank tries to again reconcile the past by forging ahead with a relationship with Sally, bonding with his troubled son, Paul, and trying to sell a house to a couple with more problems than you can count. Independence Day won the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Prize, the first novel to do so. This is a much more complex novel than the first one. Frank has entered what he calls the Existence Period. He's at middle age and has resigned himself to a life of selling houses and simply existing, being part of the world as it moves on, rather than struggle against it. But he's still not happy. The spectre of his son, and of his marriage to Ann, and of Vicki hangs over everything he does. He sells houses to be a part of something bigger than just writing. The theme of real estate features very heavily into this book, seeing as how all three novels are American pastorals that meditate on the grand themes of being, uniquely, American. The meat of the second novel is the road trip that he takes with his teenaged son, Paul, and the anger and resentment that Paul feels comes to a head. He's not a happy kid. They go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and then to a batting cage, where tensions grow and Paul gets hit in the head with a ball. The climax of the story is Frank at the hospital with Ann, realizing that his relationship to the past can never be broken. He again resigns himself to living with the past, but forging ahead. The ending of Independence Day isn't nearly as hopeful or as joyous as the previous book. This is an older, wiser Frank. He decides to stick with Sally and be happy, and instead of just existing, he's going to try and be more.

Finally, we finish with Frank in The Lay Of The Land, which this blog is named after, in part. It's now 2000 and the election looms over America. Frank is still a real estate agent who's married to Sally and lives in an upscale beachside property. He now owns his own realty business that employs a funny Buddhist Tibetan by the name of Mike Mahoney. Paul works for Hallmark in Kansas City and has met Jill, a one-handed girl who seems to be able to handle Paul's... bizarre behaviour. Clarissa has gone from straight to gay and back to straight with Thom, an older sage man. She's staying with Frank to help him recuperate. It seems that Frank has prostate cancer and has a needleful of radioactive BBs shot into his body to vanquish the cancer. He may be married to Sally, but she has left him for a long-lost (literally) previous husband who disappeared long before Frank met her. Ann's second husband is dead, leaving Ann lost at sea and despondent.

During the course of the Thanksgiving weekend, Frank sells some houses, witnesses a suicide bombing at the local hospital, gets into a bar fight, hangs out with Vicki's senile father, gets into a fight with his son, rebuffs Ann's desire to remarry, and gets shot by a 14 year old Russian assassin who's after Frank's asshole of a neighbour. More than anything, The Lay Of The Land is about spirituality and mortality. Frank is as close to death as a healthy man can be, and he finally, finally, sees that Ralph is never going away. He's not mad about Sally leaving him - she had to. He's not mad that Ann is trying to get back together with him. He's not mad that Mike is trying to buy him out. He's not even mad that he has cancer, or that he was shot (which happens at the climax). Frank is in the middle of the Permanent Period, where things finally settle down and people become who they are going to be, and things become as they will. The lay of the land is that it will always be. There's no "is that it then?" - rather, things are and things be. If the two novels before were about Frank's relationship to the past, this is the final moment when Frank faces life and decides to live. He mentions more than once that the crippling moment of Ralph's death does not define him, but rather is a part of him. Frank says that he will never get over Ralph's death, but it's part of the lay of the land. It's all part of the grand story. At the end, back together with Sally, Frank flies to the Mayo clinic for hopefully good news about the cancer. Frank knows he's going to live and he's not nervous. The plane touches down, and he's back to being on the ground literally and figuratively.

Frank's an interesting and complex narrator. We can't believe the things he says, cause he's bullshitting all the time, with people, with family, with us, with himself. He never faces the truth until it's staring at him in the face. You can't escape the past anymore than you can outrun it, he finally decides, and instead of living inside himself, being insular and an island, he brings himself back to the world, to the ground, to the land. He might not be entirely happy at the end of the story, but at least he's not bullshitting himself. Isn't that the most one can ask?

I really loved The Sportswriter, and really liked Independence Day and enjoyed The Lay Of The Land. The second book has much more going on, but the immediacy and the innocence of the earliest and youngest Frank gave me a more emotional reaction. However, I think the third book has the happiest and most satisfying ending. It's taken over 25 years, but Frank has finally stopped bullshitting himself.

I wouldn't mind re-reading these books right away and teasing out every meaning and symbol I can find. They're very complex novels that I'm sure lend themselves to multiple readings, but unfortunately, I have a million billion books to read as it is. Next, I am starting Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, which won the National Book Award.

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