Excerpt from The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Lay of the Land

By Richard Ford

The Lay of the Land
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  • Hardcover: Nov 2006,
    496 pages.
    Paperback: Jul 2007,
    496 pages.

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Part 1

Toms River, across the Barnegat Bay, teems out ahead of me in the blustery winds and under the high autumnal sun of an American Thanksgiving Tuesday. From the bridge over from Sea-Clift, sunlight diamonds the water below the girdering grid. The white-capped bay surface reveals, at a distance, only a single wet-suited jet-skier plowing and bucking along, clinging to his devil machine as it plunges, wave into steely wave. “Wet and chilly, bad for the willy,” we sang in Sigma Chi, “Dry and warm, big as a baby’s arm.” I take a backward look to see if the NEW JERSEY'S BEST KEPT SECRET sign has survived the tourist season—now over. Each summer, the barrier island on which Sea-Clift sits at almost the southern tip hosts six thousand visitors per linear mile, many geared up for sun ’n fun vandalism and pranksterish grand theft. The sign, which our Realty Roundtable paid for when I was chairman, has regularly ended up over the main entrance of the Rutgers University library, up in New Brunswick. Today, I’m happy to see it’s where it belongs.

New rows of three-storey white-and-pink condos line the mainland shore north and south. Farther up toward Silver Bay and the state wetlands, where bald eagles perch, the low pale-green cinder-block human-cell laboratory owned by a supermarket chain sits alongside a white condom factory owned by Saudis. At this distance, each looks as benign as Sears. And each, in fact, is a good-neighbor clean- industry-partner whose employees and executives send their kids to the local schools and houses of worship. Management puts a stern financial foot down on drugs and pedophiles. Their campuses are well landscaped and policed. Both stabilize the tax base and provide locals a few good yuks.

From the bridge span I can make out the Toms River yacht basin, a forest of empty masts wagging in the breezes, and to the north, a smooth green water tower risen behind the husk of an old nuclear plant currently for sale and scheduled for shutdown in 2002. This is our eastern land view across from the Boro of Sea-Clift, and frankly it is a positivist’s version of what landscape-seascape has mostly become in a multi-use society.

This morning, I’m driving from Sea-Clift, where I’ve abided the last eight years, across the sixty-five-mile inland trek over to Haddam, New Jersey, where I once lived for twenty, for a day of diverse duties—some sobering, some fearsome, one purely hopeful. At 12:30, I’m paying a funeral-home visitation to my friend Ernie McAuliffe, who died on Saturday. At four, my former wife, Ann Dykstra, has asked to “meet” me at the school where she works, the prospect of which has ignited piano-wire anxiety as to the possible subjects—my health, her health, our two grown and worrisome children, the surprise announcement of a new cavalier in her life (an event ex-wives feel the need to share). I also mean to make a quick stop by my dentist’s for an on-the-fly adjustment to my night guard (which I’ve brought). And I have a Sponsor appointment at two—which is the hopeful part.

Sponsors is a network of mostly central New Jersey citizens—men and women—whose goal is nothing more than to help people (female Sponsors claim to come at everything from a more humanistic/nurturing angle, but I haven’t noticed that in my own life). The idea of Sponsoring is that many people with problems need nothing more than a little sound advice from time to time—not problems you’d visit a shrink for, or take drugs to cure, or that requires a program Blue Cross would co-pay. Just something you can’t quite figure out by yourself, and that won’t exactly go away, but that if you could just have a common-sense conversation about, you’d feel a helluva lot better. A good example would be that you own a sailboat but aren’t sure how to sail it very well. And after a while you realize you’re reluctant even to get in the damn thing for fear of sailing it into some rocks, endangering your life, losing your investment and embittering yourself with embarrassment. Meantime it’s sitting in gaspingly expensive dry dock at Brad’s Marina in Shark River, suffering subtle structural damage from being out of the water too long, and you’re becoming the butt of whispered dumb-ass-novice cracks and slurs by the boatyard staff. You end up never driving down there even when you want to, and instead find yourself trying to avoid ever thinking about your sailboat, like a murder you committed decades ago and have escaped prosecution for by moving to another state and adopting a new identity, but that makes you feel ghastly every morning at four o’clock when you wake up covered with sweat.

Excerpted from The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford Copyright © 2006 by Richard Ford. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher

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