Not least because my various diatribes on such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan are less than entirely flattering, and partly because I believe there is much to be positive about in current literature, I am going to post a series of short reviews on books that I regard as modern classics.
A classic, I would tentatively submit, is more than a masterpiece. A classic is a masterpiece tested by time. One of the attractions of pontificating about a "classic" which has been written recently is that it tests the reviewer's ability to look into the future. Because I am a person of strong opinions on almost everything, I am afraid to say this doesn't worry me in the slightest. Like a good scientific theory, the prediction that a work is a classic is in principle refutable. If a modern novel which I choose to portray as a classic fades badly with time, then my thesis on that work is falsified.
In earlier posts, I promised that I would do my best to annoy by continuing to emphasise certain principles, in particular that what distinguishes classic literary works from fashionable literary novels is their moral and philosophical content more than their "literary" surface. Richard Ford's recent novel The Lay of the Land, published only last year, exemplifies these characteristics.
The Lay of the Land is the last work in a trilogy which began with The Sportswriter and Thanksgiving Day. They are already widely, and justifiably, regarded as masterpieces of modern American literature. One of Ford's great strengths is his constant exploration and interrogation of his narrator Frank Bascombe's motives. In The Lay of the Land, Frank, battered by his two marriages but by now a reasonably successful realtor, rides a rise in property values at the Millennium. His junior colleague in the property business, Mike, is a Tibetan who elides his Buddhist beliefs with the American dream of constant material ascent. Frank's thoughts on Mike's moral views are respectful but wry:
Mike and I cross the shadowed Square to my car, parked in front of Rizutto's. Mike still has said nothing, acknowledging that I don't want to talk either. A Buddhist can nose out disharmony like a beagle scenting a bunny. I assume he's micro-managing his private force fields, better to interface with mine on the ride home.
Ford is a genius at rendering the sordid so vividly it becomes poetic. Frank, under the weather after his most recent treatment for prostate cancer, enters a shabby bar hoping for a little private space and instead finds himself arguing with a racist and homophobic George W Bush-supporting Republican called Bob. Despite ill-health, Frank cannot help but be drawn into a brawl. Soon the two of them have toppled onto the floor:
All of this begins to seem more like an annoyance than a fight, like having someone's pet monkey hanging on your neck, though we're down on the floor and the stool's on top of me and Bob's going "Grrr, errrr, grrr" and squeezing my neck, his breath and hair reeking like old haddock. Suddenly, I lose all my wind and have to buck the bar stool off my back to breathe, and in doing so I get my knee in between Bob's own squirming, jimmering knees and my right elbow into his sternum, just below where I could interrupt his windpipe.
Ford's deadpan delivery and attention to detail convey the admixture of sordidness and absurdity with an almost casual perfection:
I lean hard on Bob's breast bone, stare down into his bulging, blood-splurged eyes, which register that this event may be almost over. "Bob," I half-shout at him. His eyes open, he bares his long yellow teeth, refastens a fisted grip on my neck tendons and croaks, "Cocksucker." And with no further prelude, I go ahead and jackhammer my kneecap straight into Bob's nuttal pouch pretty much as hard as I can -- given my weakened state, given my lack of inclination and the fact that I've had a martini and had hoped the evening would turn out to be pleasant, since so much of the day hadn't.
When the fight is over, and Bob's "hatchet-faced woman friend" has helped him to his feet and taken him back home, Frank's colleague Mike appears, somewhat unexpectedly, at the bar, and helps Frank totter across the floor to the exit. As they leave, the barman, Lester, who has been watching the fight with detached interest, decides to make his disapproval known.
"Blow it out your ass, you fag," Lester says. "I hope you get AIDS." He scowls, as if these weren't exactly the words he wanted to say, either. Though he's said them now and ruined his good mood. He turns sideways and looks up at the TV as we meet the cold air awaiting us in the stairwell. A hockey game is on again, men skating in circles on white ice. The sound comes on, an organ playing a lively carnival air. Lester glances our way to make sure we're beating it, then turns the volume up louder for a little peace.
That last sentence, apparently nonsensical but psychologically pitch-perfect, is typical of Ford's virtuosity. His work is littered with such beauties. As a final example of the manner in which he is able to mint vivid gold from life's less salubrious aspects, when he and Mike are driving away from the bar, Frank's prostate problems appear once more in material form ("In a moment that alarms me, I realise I haven't pissed and that I have to -- so bad, my eyes water and my front teeth hurt."). He draws over to the kerbside:
My car would make for good cover and has many times since the summer -- on dark side streets and alleys, in garbage-y roadside turn-outs, behind 7-Elevens, Wawas, Food Giants and Holiday Inn Jnrs. But the Square's too exposed, and I have to step hurriedly into the darkened Colonial entryway of the Antiquarian Book Nook -- ghostly shelving within, out of print, never-read Daphne du Mauriers and John O'Haras in vellum. Here I press in close to the moulded white door flutings, unzip and unfurl, casting a pained look back up the side street towards the Pilgrim farm, hoping no one will notice. Mike is plainly shocked, and has turned away, pretending to scrutinise books in the Book Nook window. He knows I do this but has never witnessed it.
There are delicious subliminal references to Frank's earlier life as a sportswriter and failed novelist, now reduced to urinating in the entryway of an antiquarian bookshop in front of the ghostly images of the past's unopened bestsellers:
I let go (at the last survivable moment) with as much containment as I can manage, straight onto the bookshop door and down to its corners onto the pavement -- vast, warm tidal relief engulfing me, all fear I might drain into my pants exchanged in an instant for full, florid confidence that all problems can really be addressed and solved, tomorrow's another day, I'm alive and vibrant, it's clear sailing from here on out. All purchased at the small cost of peeing in a doorway like a bum, in the town I used to call home and with the cringing knowledge that I could get arrested for doing it.
The Lay of the Land sustains itself with similar insight for more than seven hundred pages, leaving this reader at the end with the fervent wish that he could begin all over again.