It's not that Frank Bascombe has had a bad life. It's just that it has not gone the way he planned. We know that because we have been following him now for 20 years, since he first turned up in 1986 in The Sportswriter, Richard Ford's third novel. Back then he was a decent, meditative but somewhat adrift 38-year-old, given to serene reflections that eventually sounded like the defenses of a man whose wife has left him, whose son has died and who does not want to know how wounded he is. In 1995 Ford revisited Bascombe in Independence Day. By that time in real estate sales in New Jersey, Bascombe was squarely in the territory of the intricately beleaguered U.S. male in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer or John Updike's Rabbit novels. A great book, Independence Day won Ford the Pulitzer Prize.
With The Lay of the Land (Knopf; 485 pages), Bascombe is 55 and still a Realtor in a booming market, but a brittle, somewhat sour note has crept into his thinking. It's Thanksgiving weekend of 2000. The presidential-election fiasco is under way in Florida. By now his second wife has left him too. His two surviving children are grown up in ways he can't entirely take pleasure in, especially his strange and angry son Paul (who wears a mullet and writes greeting-card verse). Then there's the cancer. Bascombe has just had his prostate seeded with radioactive pellets to fight a malignancy. He could live, or maybe not. Meanwhile, there's no end of searching for a place to relieve his bladder.
Ford's method is familiar: we luxuriate inside Bascombe's head; treat ourselves to his readings of the headlong, clattering muchness of U.S. life; enjoy the precise registers of his melancholy. A lot happens in this book, including a bombing at a hospital, a romantic crisis and an abrupt slide into chaos, yet it doesn't have much of a narrative arc. Still, there's nothing like a few days of life seen through the eyes of an exemplary sufferer to give you a glimpse of what living is all about.