28 April 2008

The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford

Vintage Books 2006. ISBN 978-0-679-77667-3. 485 pages.

This novel takes place during three days in the fall of 2000: Thanksgiving Day and the two days prior. It is narrated by Frank Bascombe, a real-estate broker who lives and works on the Atlantic shore of New Jersey.

Frank is in his mid-fifties, twice married, happy with his work, and successful. His life has had its pain, however. He and his first wife lost a son at age nine, to Reyes' syndrome. His second wife, Sally, believing herself to be a widow at the time of their marriage, discovered that she was not. Her first husband, Wally, was a veteran of the Viet Nam war who suffered from mental illness (probably post-traumatic stress disorder) and disappeared for many years. Sally believed him to be dead and went through the process of having him so declared. Wally reappeared after her marriage to Frank, and she – confused and dismayed – went off to be with Wally, leaving Frank alone in Sea-Clift, New Jersey with his business, his beach house, and his memories.

Frank has an employee named Mike Mahoney who works as an agent for his company, Realty-Wise. Mike Mahoney's Irish-American name is a comically incongruous label for this man. He is an immigrant, a Tibetan who worked his way to America by way of several jobs including telemarketing from a call center in India. Mike is a devout follower of the Dalai Lama, a Buddhist, and finds nothing but harmony between his religion, nationality, and profession. He is an excellent real-estate agent.

Frank's plans for Thanksgiving involve a reunion with his son and daughter at the beach house, with an elaborate catered meal. Each of his children plan to bring current serious love-interests to the holiday dinner, neither of which Frank has met at the beginning of the story. Clarissa is bringing a boyfriend, which is a change for her.

Frank's daughter Clarissa is a serious sort, who had been involved in a committed lesbian relationship at the time that Frank discovered that he had prostate cancer. She was enrolled in graduate school at the time, but came immediately to her father's side when learning of his illness and took an aggressive role as his advocate and aid in his fight against cancer. When we join Frank, he has made much progress in recovering from the disease, but it is still very much with him; his sickness and weakness are part of the pathos with which this story is interwoven.

Paul, the surviving son, is quite nearly a buffoon. He can hardly be civil with his father, for whom he feels great resentment. Apparently growing up as the surviving brother was not a pleasant role. Paul works for Hallmark in Kansas City, writing messages for greeting cards.

...Paul, in his rage last spring, told me about his job—that it was the same as what Dostoevsky or Hemingway or Proust or Edna St. Vincent Millay did: supplied useful words to ordinary people who didn't have enough of them. I, of course, thought he was nuts.”[p.390]

The days are eventful in a way that would be slapstick comedy if not written in such a thoughtful, sober, and analytical manner. On a trip to his inland home town of Haddam, NJ, Frank meets a developer with whom Mike Mahoney may partner, attends a friend's funeral, nearly witnesses the bombing of a hospital, and gets punched by a drunken acquaintance in a bar.

The next day includes a vitriolic argument with another old friend, and a gangsterish youth breaks out one of the side windows of Frank's car with a brick concealed within a milk carton. Getting this window repaired late on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Frank visits another bar, where he spends a little too much time, and finds himself sitting in his repaired car, without the keys, on a freezing, rainy night.

Thanksgiving Day itself provides no exception to the nearly absurd progression of accidents and disaster. Ford does not disappoint; he has constructed a fascinating and suspenseful plot that keeps us involved as well as enabling pointed commentary and reflection on the state of our lives as Americans in the twenty-first century.

During the meeting with the developer and Mahoney, Frank realizes that the field where they are, soon to be covered with new houses, is a place he used to visit with his deceased son, Ralph, who “would be almost 30 now.” [p.47]

...I take a departing look at the cornfield...soon to be overwhelmed...Someone should draw the line somewhere.

I say silent adieu to the ground my son trod and will no more. The old lay of the land...” [p.44]

The farmland changes to housing developments, and Ralph's short life and death, and Frank's first marriage, recede into the past.

Frank considers the development unnecessary, and he abhors the unnecessary, in spite of his career in Real Estate, and his Suburban, which might both be argued to be unnecessary. (The “Suburban,” of course may just be a little joke.) His rejection of the unnecessary is part of his understanding of what he terms “The Permanent Period.”

...when very little you say comes in quotes...few...voices mutter doubts in your head...life's a destination more than a journey...who you feel yourself to be is pretty much how people will remember you once you've croaked...” [p.46]

...the Permanent Period...comes...when it comes...[It]portended an end to perpetual becoming, to thinking that life schemed wonderful changes for me...” [p.54]

[The Permanent Period] portended that I say to myself, and mean it, ...'This is how in the shit I am! My life is this way' – recognizing ... what an embarrassment...it would be if, once you were dust, the world and yourself were in basic disagreement on this subject.”[p.54]

Ford presents the absurd in a determined and calm manner. When Frank visits Haddam to make an appearance at the funeral of his old friend Ernie, there are costumed volunteers re-enacting a revolutionary war battle in the streets. As the hearse containing Ernie's remains leaves the funeral home en route to his final resting place, people in tri-corner hats are chasing each other in the street, pretending to shoot muskets.

Frank belongs to an unusual service organization known as “Sponsors.” It is the function of the Sponsors to provide a friendly ear, simple advice, but no personal involvement, to citizens of the area who contact the organization with requests for help. “Strange questions are our stock in trade.”

Sponsorship is not about connectedness anyway. It's about being consoled by connection's opposite. A little connectedness...goes a long way...We might all do with a little less of it.” [p.96]

Frank makes a Sponsor visit while he is in Haddam, to a well-to-do widow who is suffering from the feeling that she needs to confess something, but does not know what that “something” is. Frank advises her that most likely there is nothing; it is probably just a feeling arising from a need to get on with the future, and the belief that in order to do so the past must first be cleared up. Overlaying the visit, Frank believes at first that he has met the woman before, a feeling that gets stronger while he is there. He concludes that she was someone with whom, between marriages, he had a one-night encounter, which he recalls only vaguely. By the end of the meeting it seems that perhaps Marguerite remembers as well; we are not certain, and if she does she is not eager to recognize it either. Frank leaves this awkward situation having slightly made a fool of himself, and collapses in the refuge of his Suburban, feeling a little woozy.

In Lay of the Land, Ford has constructed a muted seaside world, a believable inland New Jersey, and a character into whose mind and memories we are allowed to wander, and browse. This book is, among other things, a snapshot of America in late 2000. In the background is the contested Gore-Bush election. It is not yet 2001, more innocence exists than will after the events of 11 September 2001. Frank is a confident Democrat, unafraid to sport a “WHY BUSH?” bumper sticker on the Suburban, even at the risk of offending a client.

There is plenty of plot, and action – which I have intentionally avoided exposing in order to preserve the enjoyment of the novel for anyone who has not read it – but there is a wealth of interior rambling as well. We follow Frank's despair, sadness, his joy with his second wife, the absurd disaster of Wally's return, his love for his daughter and sons – even the difficult Paul. There is an abundance of quirky characters, but they seem only to be drawn from real life, rather than contrived. Issues with which Americans had to and have to deal are introduced, examined briefly, and become part of the backdrop in front of which this play is performed. Lay of the Land seems to have something for everyone; in an odd and peaceful way, it is very reassuring. We are all here for only a while, everything changes, and we have the opportunity to behave well, to be decent to each other.

This book was given to me, consigned to my chairside pile, and read in order of seniority (approximately, anyway). It was not until I finished the book that I became aware that this was the third in a series of books about Frank Bascombe. The Sportswriter, and Independence Day both treat earlier periods in Bascombe's life. I mention this partly as praise, because Lay of the Land works perfectly all alone as far as I am concerned. I am, however, encouraged to read more of Ford's work, and may very well complete this trilogy.

26 April 2008

© Eric F. Lester 2008

26 April 2008

No Country For Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

Vintage International 309 pages. ISBN 978-0-307-38713-4

No Country For Old Men starts out with a short stream-of consciousness narrative, as if Sheriff Bell were talking to us, or we could read his thoughts. These italicized segments will be repeated throughout the book, and one will provide its epilogue.

Sheriff Bell, we discover, has been the Sheriff of his county for many years. He is a man who appreciates the peace and simplicity of his own life, and has a strong love for his wife, to whom he has been married for many years. Bell is in many ways a very traditional good American man, who served his country in World War II, and came back home to be a peace officer in the place where he grew up.

Bell is monogamous, not overly religious, and exhibits a calm, pragmatic tolerance of other people who may or may not be much like him. It would have been easy to write more prejudice into this character, to make him a little more of the typical “redneck” small-town sheriff; McCarthy has created a much more complex character here, a man that we will know, recognize, and like. Bell is the man we wish we had directing our local law enforcement, wherever we live.

In the beginning of the book, a man named Moss, out hunting in the desert, comes upon the scene of a grisly multiple murder that's taken place around several abandoned vehicles. There are dead bodies, weapons, and drugs. In one vehicle is a man who has been shot but is not dead, to whom Moss speaks. This man calls Moss cuate (friend, compadre) and asks for agua. Moss has no water, and is too cautious and fascinated to simply go for help at that moment.

Moss follows the tracks of an injured man who crawled away from the scene, and finds him dead, with a bag “level full of hundred dollar bills... His whole life was sitting there in front of him. Day after day from dawn till dark until he was dead. All of it cooked down into forty pounds of paper in a satchel.”

This money, which Moss takes, drives the story to its end. It is, of course, the proceeds from a drug deal that went horribly wrong. Moss, who we find to be a simple and generally honest man devoted to his young wife is instantly possessed by the spell of lucre, the awesome possibilities that these millions of dollars represent, the vision of freedom from dull and difficult work. He has practically no resistance, although we are given strong hints that he sees the seeds of his own destruction herein. Moss knows full well that he has scant chance of getting away with this treasure, but the reward is just too great for him not to try.

The lure of all that money doesn't completely corrupt Moss. He returns later, in the night, with water for the man in the car, but it is too late. As he runs with the satchel of money he demonstrates that he has not lost his strong set of principles. He is as kind as he can afford to be; he is loyal to his wife.

There are many evil men in this book, but none with evil so pure as Chigurh. Chigurh is presented as a heartless, soulless murderer; he comes into the story by killing a young deputy in a county next to Bell's. As he moves through the story he leaves a trail of victims, some shot to death, some killed with an air-powered hammer designed to slaughter cattle.

Chigurh obviously takes pleasure in killing, but he is not killing solely for pleasure. He seeks the money that Moss has found, hoping that by recovering it he can gain the trust and business of the mysterious drug cartel whose ill-fated transaction in the desert caused the scene that Moss discovered. He represents the coldest of the cold; the murdering reptile brain that thrives in the world of drugs.

Moss runs, and is sought by the drug runners, Chigurh, and Sheriff Bell. Bell has put the pieces together, and has a reasonably accurate idea of what has transpired. Reason and logic, which serve him in understanding the case, also tell him that Moss is very unlikely to survive. (And what will happen to his wife?) He sets out to find, and rescue him – an impossible task that he cannot refuse to try. Bell's wife asks him: “Do you really care?” To which Bell answers:

Yes mam. I do. The people of Terrell County hired me to look after em... I get paid to be the first one hurt. Killed, for that matter. I'd better care.”
There is a struggle in this book, but even more there is despair. Bell, consulting with his deputy, Torbert, says this about the drug runners:

...I used to say they were the same ones we've always had to deal with. Same ones my grandaddy had to deal with. Back then they was rustlin cattle. Now they're runnin dope. But I don't know as that's true no more. I'm like you. I ain't sure we've seen these people before. Their kind. I dont know what to do about em even. If you killed em all they'd have to build an annex on to hell.”

Bell could be described as a conservative, but that would be an oversimplification. Bell certainly believes in what we might term “traditional” moral values, but he brings his own personality, a sort of horrified acceptance of what is coming to pass, to the discussion. He tells of a discussion with a woman who complains about the “right wing,” and says “I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion.” Bell says:

...I don't have much doubt but what she'll be able to have an abortion. I'm goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she'll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation.”

McCarthy writes much of this book in a vernacular that seems appropriate for the people, and the place, in a way that is easy and pleasant to read. I devoured this book on a rainy Sunday several weeks ago. After a couple of hours I cancelled my plans for the day and read it to the end. I am not sorry for doing that.

This is a skillfully told story, in the tradition of the Western, but addressing one of the major questions of modern civilization: What have we done? We have created this wealthy, technologically enhanced existence (at least for those of us in America, much of Europe, and the rest of the “developed” world), at the expense of decency, community, and perhaps even humanity. Drug addiction, and the soulless criminals that supply the addicts, make up the basis for a profound symptom of the rot growing within our numbers. Again, from Bell:

I think if you were Satan and you were settin around tryin to think up somethin that would just bring the human race to its knees what you would probably come up with is narcotics.”

And this:

I think I know where we're headed. We're bein bought with our own money. And it aint just the drugs... Money that can buy whole countries ... it will put you in bed with people you ought not to be there with. It's not even a law enforcement problem. I doubt that it ever was...

...I told a reporter...It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners... It reaches into ever strata...You finally get into the sort of breakdown in mercantile ethics that leaves people settin around out in the desert dead in their vehicles and by then it's just too late.”

By the end of No Country for Old Men I felt very close to Sheriff Bell and his view of the world. I believed in Chigurh and the evil he symbolizes, and I understood the futility of looking at it as a “law enforcement problem.”

Furthermore, I look forward to reading more books by Cormac McCarthy. This was my first.

12,13,24 April 2008

©Eric F. Lester 2008