The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


My experiences reading Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe novels have been memorable. It's hard to separate the experience of reading each novel from what was going on in my life when I was reading the novels. When I read THE SPORTSWRITER, the first and my favorite of these books, I was in Colorado in April about ten years ago, and of course it was snowing--I was accompanying my then-girlfriend to a wedding, although I had already decided that the relationship was over. (It didn't end for a while after that, which was a terrible decision on my part.) The novel has a touch of bitterness in it but also a lot of passive acceptance, and that really reflected where I was.

The next of his Bascombe novels, INDEPENDENCE DAY, I didn't "read" exactly; I listened to it while on a long, very enjoyable crosscountry drive. Flashes of it return to me: a quasi-racist stretch while I was cruising on I-5 across Shasta Lake, the climactic section (where Bascombe's son gets hit in the eye with a baseball) as I drove through the Southern Ute Reservation in southwest Colorado, cruising too fast and having to slam on my brakes as I crested a hill to find a boy leading a large herd of cattle across the two-lane.

Ford is an interesting character--like many great writers, he's a Mississippian; and like many of those (Willie Morris, for one), he's a northern transplant. He's become a kind of stand-in for Bascombe himself, in that Ford is now the unofficial poet laureate of New Jersey. These Bascombe novels are steeped in New Jersey's landscape, not least because Bascombe is (at least for two of the novels) a real-estate agent in south Jersey, on the shore. (In INDEPENDENCE DAY he lives in Haddam.) THE LAY OF THE LAND is, I think I can say categorically, the least of the trilogy, without much driving force. Of course, in this the novel reflects Bascombe himself, who has reached what he calls the "Permanent Period" of his life and is carrying around radioactive BBs in his prostate as a cancer prophylactic. The novels always center around a holiday when Bascombe's complicated and never entirely satisfactory family life comes into sharp focus. In this novel it's Thanksgiving: Bascombe's daughter and son are coming to stay with him, his first wife expresses a desire--quickly withdrawn--to return to him, and his second wife, who has left him for very bizarre reasons, is thinking about reconnecting. The vast majority of the novel consists of Bascombe's navel-gazing about his family, the real-estate business, New Jersey, and his personal history. Nothing "happens" in the present of the novel (there is a great deal of flashing-back to earlier events) until the very end, when one of the most awkwardly inserted and least believable events I've ever seen in a serious book occurs. It's so strange, so ridiculous and out of keeping with the rest of the book, that it almost feels like some kind of postmodern, FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN-type experiment.

We are off to Providence, Rhode Island tomorrow. It's supposed to be cold, rainy, and even sleeting for our visit, and I'm set to squire the boys around town on foot. This could be a long weekend.

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