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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  • First Published:
    Nov 2006, 496 pages
    Jul 2007, 496 pages

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Sponsor conversations address just such problems, often focusing on the debilitating effects of ill-advised impulse purchases or bad decisions regarding property or personal services. As a realtor, I know a lot about these things. Another example would be how do you approach your Dutch housekeeper, Bettina, who’s stopped cleaning altogether and begun sitting in the kitchen all day drinking coffee, smoking, watching TV and talking on the telephone long-distance, but you can’t figure out how to get her on track, or worst case, send her packing. Sponsor advice would be what a friend would say: Get rid of the boat, or else take some private lessons at the yacht club next spring; probably nothing’s all that wrong with it for the time being—these things are built to last. Or I’ll write out a brief speech for the Sponsoree to deliver to Bettina or leave in the kitchen, which, along with a healthy check, will send her on her way without fuss. She’s probably illegal and unhappy herself.

Anybody with a feet-on-the-ground idea of what makes sense in the world can offer advice like this. Yet it’s surprising the number of people who have no friends they can ask sound advice from, and no capacity to trust themselves. Things go on driving them crazy even though the solution’s usually as easy as tightening a lug nut.

The Sponsor theory is: We offer other humans the chance to be human; to seek and also to find. No donations (or questions) asked.

A drive across the coastal incline back to Haddam is not at all unusual for me. Despite my last decade spent happily on the Shore, despite a new wife, new house, a new professional address—Realty-Wise Associates—despite a wholly reframed life, I’ve kept my Haddam affiliations alive and relatively thriving. A town you used to live in signifies something—possibly interesting—about you: what you were once. And what you were always has its private allures and comforts. I still, for instance, keep my Haddam Realty license current and do some referrals and appraisals for United Jersey, where I know most of the officers. For a time, I owned (and expensively maintained) two rental houses, though I sold them in the late-nineties gentrification boom. And for several years, I sat on the Governor’s Board of the Theological Institute—that is, until fanatical Fresh Light Koreans bought the whole damn school, changed the name to the Fresh Light Seminary (salvation through studied acts of discipline) and I was invited to retire. I’ve also kept my human infrastructure (medical- dental) centered in Haddam, where professional standards are indexed to the tax base. And quite frankly, I often just find solace in the leaf-shaded streets, making note of this change or that improvement, what’s been turned into condos, what’s on the market at what astronomical price, where historical streets have been revectored, buildings torn down, dressed up, revisaged, as well as silently viewing (mostly from my car window) the familiar pale faces of neighbors I’ve known since the seventies, grown softened now and re- charactered by time’s passage.

Of course, at some unpredictable but certain moment, I can also feel a heavy curtain-closing sensation all around me; the air grows thin and dense at once, the ground hardens under my feet, the streets yawn wide, the houses all seem too new, and I get the williwaws. At which instant I turn tail, switch on my warning blinkers and beat it back to Sea-Clift, the ocean, the continent’s end and my chosen new life— happy not to think about Haddam for another six months.

What is home then, you might wonder? The place you first see daylight, or the place you choose for yourself? Or is it the someplace you just can’t keep from going back to, though the air there’s grown less breathable, the future’s over, where they really don’t want you back, and where you once left on a breeze without a rearward glance? Home? Home’s a musable concept if you’re born to one place, as I was (the syrup-aired southern coast), educated to another (the glaciated mid-continent), then come full stop in a third— spending years finding suitable “homes” for others. Home may only be where you’ve memorized the grid pattern, where you can pay with a check, where someone you’ve already met takes your blood pressure, palpates your liver, slips a digit here and there, measures the angstroms gone off your molars bit by bit—in other words, where your primary care-givers await, their pale gloves already pulled on and snugged.

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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