There’s something irresistibly rewarding about almost any series of movies or books that drops in on the same fictional characters every 10 years or so. Spend a while with John Updike’s Rabbit books, or Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset movies, or Fran çois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, and you will wonder why more artists don’t return to their best characters for something more elegantly aged than a mere sequel.
Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels are in this rare, ambitious company, which is reason enough to be thankful for them. Ford introduced Frank in his 1986 breakout, The Sportswriter, brought him back for 1995’s Pulitzer-winning Independence Day, and now checks in on him again in The Lay of the Land, another couple-days-in-the-life epic about Frank, a very ordinary guy from New Jersey who once again narrates with an armchair philosopher’s appreciation for everything from the route he drives to work to the grandest themes of everyday life. And it’s a pleasure to see what he’s been up to, and fall back into his dreamy, remarkable voice. We like Frank even if he sometimes turns into a bit of a windbag, and despite the fact that — it hurts to report this — Lay feels easily like the least of the three Bascombe books.
Twelve years have passed since Independence Day took place, but one big disappointment of the new book is that Frank does not seem to have evolved as radically or as intriguingly as he did in the previous novel. Whereas in Independence Day he had given up sportswriting for real estate, in Lay he’s still selling real estate, and still bending our ears about it in too much detail. Other particulars, however, are new. Frank, now 55, lives on the Jersey Shore, a tumor in his prostate is being treated with radioactive BBs, and his wife, Sally, has left him because her previous husband, presumed dead for 30 years, has turned up alive and living in Scotland. Over the course of Thanksgiving week, he gets into minor earth-shaking adventures, which are stretched out to great length (the novel is almost 500 pages) because it’s Frank’s way to spend more time talking about things than actually doing them.
That’s one of the frequent heady pleasures (and only occasional pains) of all three of these vivid books, but in Lay for the first time it feels as if Ford tries to make up for the long swatches of inaction by throwing in a lot of hard-to-believe intrigue. And his ending — inexplicably violent — is a huge mistake. Such straining makes his new book feel dangerously close to a simple retread or knockoff sequel, rather than the glorious continuing chapter in the elevated literary enterprise it might’ve been.