Friday, 21 November 2008

Not Frank Bascombe

One of the books I tagged up in my list of Top Ten Books was the 2006 novel The Lay of the Land by the American author Richard Ford. The book is a rich examination of the inner life of realtor Frank Bascombe, but one in which only a limited number of external events occurs. Reading his earlier novel, 1986's The Ultimate Good Luck, is an altogether different experience.

Set in a then-contemporary Mexico, the novel tells the event-filled story of Harry Quinn, a Vietnam War veteran all at sea in the city of Oaxaca. He has travelled there to expedite the release of a former girlfriend's drug-running brother from prison. Sonny, as well as being caught carrying cocaine by the untrustworthy local police, is suspected of trying to cheat the shady local crime boss that employed him. As a result, Quinn finds himself caught between the corrupt legal authorities and the violent henchmen of Sonny's employer. To further complicate the situation, Quinn's former girlfriend, Rae, is travelling to Oaxaca to see her brother, posing both concerns for her safety and emotionally unsettling questions for Quinn. Against this dangerous foreground, the lawlessness and casual violence of Mexican life unsettle all bets on the outcome.

The preceding cliché-ridden summary probably doesn't do the novel any favours, but it covers the bases, at least in outline. What makes the novel more successful and interesting is that Ford brings his literary style to what is an otherwise conventional noir setting. So although the novel is given shape by the events that Quinn finds himself amidst, Ford gives a strong voice to Quinn's perceptions and his memories. While not entirely resolving the plot in a convincing fashion (unless I missed something!), he does a good job using it to ratchet up the tension. Quinn is forced down a twisting path where his available choices and his freedom for action are continually narrowing.

Given Ford's Frank Bascombe books, its interesting to read quite a different sort of novel from him. Certain things remain constant, principally the introspection of his central characters, but it's pleasing to see Ford successfully handle a more plot-driven piece too. Time to check out his other work.

In passing, given that this is the work of a literary giant and that it has a relatively straightforward plot, I'm amazed that an indie film director hasn't picked it up yet ... Actually, a quick look at the IMDB finds the Ford-penned Bright Angel, which seems to borrow somewhat from The Ultimate Good Luck. So there goes that idea for my entry into the upper echelons of Hollywood.

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