Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving as Jet Lag: Richard Ford, Frank Bascombe and The Lay of the Land

This year, for the first time since my deployment to Iraq, I won’t be cooking a Thanksgiving feast. Instead, I’ll fill my day by continuing to revise my novel-in-progress (Braver Deeds), answering emails, and, later, going to a friend’s house for the traditional dinner. In between, I’m sure I’ll manage to work in some hearty gulps of the book I’m currently reading, The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford.

Though I normally put Ford, one of my favorite contemporary American writers, to the top of the To-Be-Read heap as soon as he releases a new book, it has taken me nine years to get around to The Lay of the Land. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps other books intruded back in 2006, perhaps I was postponing the pleasure of the novel like an after-dinner mint, or perhaps (probably) it was because I’ve never been the biggest fan of Ford’s Bascombe novels. While I thought The Sportswriter and Independence Day, which chronicle the trials and tribulations of Frank Bascombe, were well-written, I’ve always had a more emotional connection with Ford’s fiction set in the American West (Rock Springs, Wildlife and Canada). Bascombe always left me feeling a little meh.

That being said, The Lay of the Land is proving to be the best of the Bascombe trilogy (last year’s Let Me Be Frank With You still remains in the TBR pile). Maybe it’s because Frank Bascombe and I are close in age (he’s 55, I’m a few years behind that), or maybe the time is right for me to read about a white male in 2000 riddled with anxiety over the unresolved presidential election results, his wayward children, his ex-wife, his real estate business, and—most of all—a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer, or maybe because there’s some damn fine writing on these pages—whatever the cause, I’m certainly enjoying this Bascombe more than I did versions 1.0 and 2.0.

Since I’m in a Thanksgiving-giving-thanks mood today, I thought I’d share two separate sections from Chapter 1 where Frank ruminates on the holiday season as he drives through the snarls of traffic near his New Jersey home.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Route 37, the Toms River Miracle Mile, is already jammed at 9:30 with shopper vehicles moving into and out of every conceivable second-tier factory outlet lot, franchise and big-box store, until we’re mostly stalled in intersection tie-ups under screaming signage and horn cacophony. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when merchants hope to inch into the black, is traditionally the retail year’s hallowed day, with squadrons of housewives in housecoats and grannies on walkers shouldering past security personnel at Macy’s and Bradlees to get their hands on discounted electric carving knives and water-filled orthopedic pillows for that special arthritic with the chronically sore C6 and C7. Only this year—due to the mists of economic unease—merchants and their allies, the customer, have designated “gigantic” Black Tuesday and Black Wednesday Sales Days and are flying the banner of EVERYTHING MUST GO!—in case, I guess, the whole country’s gone by Friday.

Cars are everywhere, heading in every direction. A giant yellow-and-red MasterCard dirigible floats above the buzzing landscape like a deity. Movie complexes are already opened with queues forming for Gladiator and The Little Vampire. Crowds press into Target and International Furniture Liquidator (“If we don’t have it, you don’t want it”). Christmas music’s blaring, through it’s not clear from where, and the traffic’s barely inching. Firemen in asbestos suits and Pilgrim hats are out collecting money in buckets at the mall entrances and stoplights. Ragged groups of people who don’t look like Americans skitter across the wide avenue in groups, as though escaping something, while solitary men in gleaming pickups sit smoking, watching, waiting to have their vehicles detailed at the Pow-R-Brush. At the big Hooper Avenue intersection, a TV crew has set up a command post, with a hard-body, shiny-legged Latina, her stiff little butt turned to the gridlock, shouting out to the 6:00 p.m. viewers up the seaboard what all the fuss is about down here.

Yet frankly it all thrills me and sets my stomach tingling. Unbridled commerce isn’t generally pretty, but it’s always forward-thinking. And since nowadays with my life out of sync and most things in the culture not affecting me much—politics, news, sports, everything but the weather—it feels good that at least commerce keeps me interested like a scientist. Commerce, after all, is basic to my belief system, even though it’s true, as modern merchandising theory teaches, that when we shop, we no longer really shop for anything. If you’re really looking for that liquid stain remover you once saw in your Uncle Beckmer’s basement that could take the spots off a hyena, or you’re seeking a turned brass drawer pull you only need one of to finish refurbishing the armoire you inherited from Aunt Grony, you’ll never find either one. No one who works anyplace knows anything, and everyone’s happy to lie to you. “They don’t make those anymore.” “Those’ve been back-ordered two years.” “That ballpoint company went out of business, moved to Myanmar and now makes sump pumps...All we have are these.” You have to take what they’ve got even if you don’t want it or never heard of it.

As everyone knows, the Thanksgiving “concept” was originally strong-armed onto poor war-worn President Lincoln by an early-prototype forceful-woman editor of a nineteenth-century equivalent of the Ladies’ Home Journal, with a view to upping subscriptions. And while you can argue that the holiday commemorates ancient rites of fecundity and the Great-Mother-Who-Is-in-the-Earth, it’s in fact always honored storewide clearances and stacking ’em deep ’n selling ’em cheap—unless you’re a Wampanoag Indian, in which case it celebrates deceit, genocide and man’s indifference to who owns what.

Thanksgiving also, of course, signals the beginning of the gloomy Christmas season, vale of aching hearts and unreal hopes, when more suicide successes, abandonments, spousal thumpings, car thefts, firearm discharges and emergency surgeries take place per twenty-four-hour period than any other time of year except the day after the Super Bowl. Days grow ephemeral. No one’s adjusted to the light’s absence. Many souls buy a ticket to anyplace far off just to be in motion. Worry and unwelcome self-awareness thicken the air. Though strangely enough, it’s also a great time to sell houses. The need to make amends for marital bad behavior, or to keep a way eye on the tax calendar to deliver on the long-postponed family ski outing to Mount Pisgah—all make people itchy to buy. There’s no longer a real off-season for house sales. Houses sell whether you want them to or not.

In my current state of mind, I’d, in fact, be just as happy to lose Christmas and its weak sister New Year’s, and ring out the old year quietly with a cocktail by the Sony. One of divorce’s undervalued dividends, I should say, is that all the usual dismal holiday festivities can now be avoided, since no one who didn’t have to would ever think about seeing the people they used to say they wanted to see but almost certainly never did.

And yet, Thanksgiving won’t be ignored. Americans are hard-wired for something to be thankful for. Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude. Even if Aunt Bella’s flat-lined and in custodial care down in Rucksville, Alabama, we still “need” her to have some white meat and gravy, and be thankful, thankful, thankful. After all, we are—if only because we’re not in her bedroom slippers.

And it is churlish not to let the spirit swell—if it can—since little enough’s at stake. Contrive, invent, engage—take the chance to be cheerful. Though in the process, one needs to skirt the spiritual dark alleys and emotional cul-de-sacs, subdue all temper flarings and sob sessions with loved ones. Get plenty of sleep. Keep the TV on (the Lions and Pats are playing at noon). Take B vitamins and multiple walks on the beach. Make no decisions more serious than lunch. Get as much sun as possible. In other words, treat Thanksgiving like jet lag.

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