Independence Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Independence Day is a lyrically driven though slow-moving sequel to Richard Ford’s highly praised 1986 novel The Sportswriter, a book hailed by fellow sportswriter and novelist Fred Exley as “a grand achievement.” The Sportswriter, Ford’s third novel, was a crossover success, a book that appealed not exclusively to serious readers of literature but also to the elusive general reader and bookstore browser. In Frank Bascombe, the thirty-eight-year-old narrator of The Sportswriter, Ford gave voice to a man grappling with everyday life, a revised 1980’s version of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman meeting John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a contemporary Everyman traveling a road detoured by death and divorce. Now, in Independence Day, six years have staggered by, and Frank, aged forty-four, is still divorced. Now, however, instead of writing about sports for a living, he is working as a realty agent. This job puts him face to face with people who are seeking the illusionary home of their dreams—though he is well aware that dream-homes can only be sold, not bought. This, Frank admits, is the cold, hard reality of real estate.

The reality of Frank’s life can be summed up as follows. A once-promising young writer whose first book of short stories was optioned to a film producer for a large sum of money, he set aside his novel-in-progress when he was offered a job writing about sports for a well-known, glossy-covered commercial magazine. Sportswriting provided a life of comfort for him, his wife X—rechristened Ann in Independence Day—and their three children. When their son Ralph died from Reye’s syndrome, however, Frank was, as he put it, “launched off into the dreaminess his death may or may not have even caused but didn’t help, and my life with X broke apart. The Sportswriter is filled with, and at times burdened by, this overwhelming sense of dreaminess. The blow-by-blow account of Frank’s personal unraveling is sometimes weighed down by Ford’s tendency to tie up the narrative with a moment of epiphany: an expository technique wherein a narrator seems compelled to explain events—to search for some pattern or meaning—so that the actual telling becomes a significant part of the story. Ford uses this self-reflective method of narration best in the stories of Rock Springs (1987) and the novel Wildlife (1990). When it is working best, it can strike a feeling of intimacy between storyteller and reader; at its worse, the possibility of intimacy can backfire and ultimately intrude. This is the case in The Sportswriter, but it is especially true in the more immaculately detailed Independence Day: a book bogged down, more so than its predecessor, by Frank’s malingering sense of suburban, middle-class, middle-aged malaise.

Frank Bascombe still lives in Haddam, New Jersey, a place known for its “tree- softened streets” and “shaded lawns,” a town still trying to hang on to Americana as mythically immortalized by the likes of Norman Rockwell—an idealism recently revived by the propaganda campaigns of right-wing actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan. Yet in reality all is not well, and no one knows this better than Frank Bascombe himself. He makes his living by selling people what they believe to be the American Dream. His clients are terminal nomads in search of permanence in a world where roots are repeatedly uprooted, where freedom is defined by how far a person strays from the family home. Frank knows firsthand how needy most lives tend to be. He himself hungers for the way things used to be: husband, wife, children all living under the same roof. As things do not work out, however, the wife and children end up living with another man, Charley O’Dell, a man, in Ann’s words, with “a true heart.” Much to his credit, Frank ends up buying his former wife’s house in a desperate attempt to create the illusion of order and uniform sameness when his kids come to visit. When they do come, at least the walls will seem familiar. Even this proves an exercise in futility, one man’s last-ditch effort to save his marriage and his children’s fractured family image, to salvage himself, once and for all, from the wreckage that has claimed his life.

Frank’s desire to reclaim his life from the repercussions of the past is at the heart of this novel. It is clear that he wants to set things straight, to get back on track, in his dealings with his former wife and with his troubled teenage son Paul (who has been diagnosed, after a series of petty thefts and run-ins with the law, as “intellectually beyond his years” but “emotionally underdeveloped”), as well as with his current girlfriend, Sally Caldwell, with whom the possibility of a long-term relationship is, at best, a long-shot bet on a three-legged horse. If nothing else, however, Frank proves to be an optimist, riding out the...

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Independence Day Historical Context

The Presidential Campaign of 1988
Independence Day takes place against a backdrop of a developing presidential...

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Independence Day Literary Style

The guiding metaphor throughout the novel is of real estate as the reality of life itself. A house is a...

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Independence Day Literary Techniques

Independence Day is told by by Frank Bascombe, a former novelist with a real gift for observation. The book takes place over the span...

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Independence Day Ideas for Group Discussions

Ford's work—and this novel particularly— is described as an insightful look at contemporary American life, although it often takes a...

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Independence Day Social Concerns

Although at its heart it is the story of one man's personal conflict, Independence Day, as befits its tide, has been called by many...

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Independence Day Topics for Further Study

What does Independence Day mean for you? How does the July 4th holiday differ from other American holidays, such as Thanksgiving or Memorial...

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Independence Day Literary Precedents

Ford's novel is closely related to the Rabbit novels (see separate entries) of John Updike. The main character of those books, Harry...

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Independence Day Related Titles

It can be said that many of Ford's works are related stylistically and thematically. The archetypal Ford character could be described as a...

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Independence Day Adaptations

An audio-tape version of Independence Day was released by Random House Audiobooks. The three-hour abridgement is read by John...

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Independence Day What Do I Read Next?

The Sportswriter (1986) is the first of Ford’s novels to feature Frank Bascombe, who at this time is a sportswriter, struggling to...

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Independence Day Bibliography and Further Reading

Ford, Richard, Independence Day, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.

Giles, Jeff, “Seems like Old...

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Independence Day Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Christian Science Monitor. July 3, 1995, p. 13. A review of Independence Day.

Commonweal. CXXII, October 6, 1995, p. 27. A review of Independence Day.

The Detroit Free Press. July 2, 1995, p. 5H. A review of Independence Day.

Ford, Richard. “The Art of Fiction CXLVII.” Paris Review 38, no. 140 (Fall, 1996). Lengthy interview in which Ford discusses the craft of writing and offers personal observations on all of his work.

Gray, Paul. “Return of the Sportswriter.” Time, June 19, 1995, 60.


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