I have a question for Richard Ford, whose new book, The Lay of the Land, just arrived in stores: why so glum? When I read the review of the new book by The New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, I was struck by two things: her impatience with the minutiae of the main character's life, and the freakiness of the author photo:
I recently heard Mr. Ford speak. He appeared jolly. Acerbic, yes, but hell-hath-no-fury-Dimmesdale-freaky, no.
One of Ms. Kakutani's complaints about the book is how Mr. Ford allows space for every of his main character's ponderings, whether it's over death or dinner. In sum, she believes Frank Bascombe, the protagonist, takes himself too seriously, and that the writer fills his book with superfluous details. I am only about 100 pages in, but I aver that I've skimmed--whole paragraphs: something I never would have done in The Sportswriter or Independence Day, the first and second books in the Bascombe trilogy.
I don't always concur with Ms. Kakutani's judgments, but I do admire her independence, and her commitment to the raison d'etre of reviewing: to judge. Her judgment of Lay of the Land? It is "an unnecessary and by-the-numbers sequel."
In contrast, when the Times' film critic A.O. Scott reviews the book in the Book Review this week, he refrains from judgment. Even when he makes a criticism, he soft-pedals on it. Of Bascombe he complains:
Spend three days driving back and forth from Haddam to Sea-Clift, and some of his mannerisms start to drive you crazy. Why does he insist on calling New York “Gotham”? He has an impressive history with the ladies, but when he talks about sex he falls back on fussy, schoolboyish words like “woogle,” “boink,” “woo-woo” and “raree,” which almost makes you miss Rabbit Angstrom’s lyrical evocations of pubic hair.
But the point is, you must take Frank as he is, and admit him into your circle of intimates according to affinities that go deeper than literary taste.
I'm wondering, why must I "take Frank as he is?" I certainly don't have to.
Mr. Scott sums up his take as follows:
By now, we have gotten to know Frank Bascombe well enough to take his measure, and to appreciate that, like almost no one else in our recent literature, he’s life-size.
I suppose his point is that whether or not we care for Bascombe, we must admit he seems like a real person. This conclusion is a non-clusion. Finishing the review, I can't tell whether or not Mr. Scott liked the book, but I'm failry certain he wants Mr. Ford to like him.
As I've mentioned before, I consider Mr. Scott to be a bit of a panderer. Whether he's cozying up to the Park Slope literary clique or the creator of a middle-aged dreamer stuck in his "Permanent Period," as Ford designates Frank Bascombe's zeitgeist, Scott forgets that in a reviewer, honesty is prized more than affability.