The Lay of the Land, by Richard Ford

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When a future history of US literature is written, I wager that much will be made of a novel that, until very recently, languished in obscurity. Published in 1961, Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road can now be seen as the Madame Bovary of its time. It dared to address the ennui and despair at the heart of la vie Américaine. More tellingly, Yates's bleak and uncompromising novel also exposed, for all to see, the stifling conformism and narrow horizons of the Eisenhower years - when America's post-war prosperity found its ultimate expression in the creation of that socio-economic construct known as suburbia.

These tidy, uniform communities - far removed from the ethnic mean streets of city life - became the communal choice for a generation of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It was a world of men in grey flannel suits who took the 8.11am to Grand Central Station every morning; of university-educated women who accepted the role of "homemaker" as if it was a manifest destiny; of highballs, and perfectly manicured lawns, the Sunday nod to Episcopalian piety, and three unthreatening kids who, at worst, were demanding golf clubs for their 11th birthday.

Other writers - notably John Cheever - caught the piquancy of the suburban dilemma. But then Yates published his novel, which, though critically hailed, did not become the bestseller everyone expected - simply because it rendered, with ferocious accuracy, the desolateness of life in these stifling communities, and also made its readers confront an unpleasant truth about the human condition. We are the architects of our own cul-de-sacs.

Since Revolutionary Road, the suburb has become a mainstay subject in American literature. But of all the recent writers who have attempted to chart its bourgeois rituals, Richard Ford stands out as the novelist who has best sidestepped the usual "snarled into a life I hate" take on this constricted world. Not that there isn't despair in Ford's depiction of life in these bedroom communities. If anything, the three novels that Ford has written about Frank Bascombe - The Sportswriter, Independence Day and now The Lay of the Land - are all infused with a quiet melancholy and a realisation that, at best, temporal existence does often leave us feeling psychically short-changed.

But Ford (a great champion of Yates's work) is a Southerner, born in that foreign land called Mississippi. As such, he has always brought an outsider's detached perspective to American suburban realities. And the tone of his Bascombe books has always been infused with a Southerner's sense of the ironic and the elegiac, yet underscored with a fierce understanding that, like it or not, we must somehow adapt to all that happenstance throws at us.

Certainly, Frank Bascombe is well acquainted with the random nature of life. He has suffered the death of a child and the subsequent collapse of his first marriage and the ending of his journalistic career. He has always been very much alive to the inequities we all suffer simply by being here, so he never embraces the self-pitying "when bad things happen to good people" option adopted by so many of his compatriots.

At the outset of The Lay of the Land, he has just had radioactive pellets surgically implanted in his prostate, in an attempt to stave off the cancer that has taken up residency in that most duplicitous of male glands. He's 55, still living on the New Jersey shore, still selling real estate (and profiting from booming house prices in the tri-state area), and still married to his second wife, Sally - with whom he thought he was happy.

Ford sets The Lay of the Land in the autumn of 2000 - around the time that a certain Texas fratboy won the White House in a much-disputed election and well before the events of the following September, which, as they say, Changed Everything. But Bascombe himself is having to deal with much change - not only with the intimations of mortality that inevitably accompany a diagnosis of cancer, but assorted domestic disturbances.

His son Paul - who has always battled mental demons, but has carved out a life for himself as a writer of greeting cards in Kansas City - wants to move back east and work for his father. Meanwhile, his sister Clarissa - who has been nursing Frank through his cancer - is getting over a broken love affair with the woman with whom she's been involved. Then there's Bascombe's second wife, who has been suffering from some major mid-life thing that has manifested itself in her need to "commune" with her ex-husband.

Structurally, the novel is a wonder. Though packed with incident - from the bombing of a local hospital (where Bascombe, eccentrically, often eats lunch), to his children's roller-coaster emotional states, to an attempt by his first wife to investigate the possibility of a rapprochement, to an act of violence into which Bascombe wanders - the novel doesn't play by straightforward narrative rules. Rather, it often feels like an extended stream-of-thought, yet one that is compulsively readable, even though Ford dares to set a pace that is both capacious and leisurely, and in which personal rumination is brilliantly married to spot-on social scrutiny.

Ford's grasp of the material textures of the contemporary American landscape is splendidly rendered. Like Updike, he can find a certain lyricism in a strip mall. Yet the wry density of his observations about, say, the world of real estate are perfectly pitched and never veer into the sort of faux-poetics that weaken so many works of literary fiction. Moreover, Bascombe's pensive, accepting tone never becomes cloying or self-congratulatory. If anything, Ford understands that, though a survivor, his protagonist is as baffled as the rest when it comes to trying to discern meaning in the stuff that befalls us.

As such, there is an immense generosity to the novel, augmented by an understanding that, at best, all we can do is somehow muddle through. As a portrait of the American psyche in a time of material plenty and great communal doubt, as a depiction of the dance we do with our own transience, and the accommodations we make with ourselves and others in order to get through the day, The Lay of the Land is a superb achievement. Reading it, I felt the best sort of professional envy. It's that damn good.

Douglas Kennedy's new novel, 'Temptation', is published by Hutchinson next week

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