Study Guide

Richard Ford

Richard Ford Essay - Ford, Richard (Vol. 99)

Ford, Richard (Vol. 99)

Introduction

Richard Ford Independence Day

Awards: Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

Born in 1944, Ford is an American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.

In Independence Day Ford continues the story of Frank Bascombe, introduced in his earlier work The Sportswriter. Bascombe is a middle-aged, middle-class American, a short-story writer who published just one book before quitting to become a sportswriter. Having lost a son, his marriage, and finally his job, Bascombe attempts to carry on with a career in real estate sales. The story takes place over a Fourth of July weekend, which Bascombe intends to spend visiting the baseball and basketball halls of fame with his remaining, deeply troubled teenage son. In the process, he considers the nature of independence in people's lives and takes stock of his own life.

Critics have praised Ford's ability to evoke sympathy among readers for a protagonist as common, unremarkable, and unheroic as Bascombe. While some reviewers have dismissed the plot of Independence Day as sketchy and uninteresting, others have found in its plainness a metaphor for the quiet desperation of everyday life. Critics have also praised Ford as masterful in his use of descriptive detail in Independence Day, particularly in his depiction of the book's setting and his understanding of the real estate business. "With Independence Day," Michiko Kakutani observed, "Mr. Ford has written a worthy sequel to The Sportswriter and galvanized his reputation as one of his generation's most eloquent voices."

Principal Works

A Piece of My Heart (novel) 1976
The Ultimate Good Luck (novel) 1981
The Sportswriter (novel) 1986
Rock Springs: Stories (short stories) 1987
Wildlife (novel) 1990
Independence Day (novel) 1995

Criticism

Richard Ford with Molly McQuade (interview date 18 May 1990)

SOURCE: "Richard Ford," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 237, No. 20, May 18, 1990, pp. 66-7.

[In the following interview, Ford talks about the act of writing, his career, and his life.]

In Richard Ford's fiction, characters wince at a painful moment, extract its grudging truth, and scramble to survive. Ford, whose fourth novel, Wildlife, is due out next month from Atlantic Monthly Press, writes about "the smaller lives," their redeeming aches, and the luck or grit his people need to know themselves.

"I'm an optimist," Ford insists, but is rueful about what he calls, with amused chagrin, his "solemnity." It is something that permeates his stories and novels and also makes its presence felt in the author's soft-spoken yet hard-bitten Southern drawl. "I would rather be the guy who says 'I'm happy,'" Ford avows, "but I'm not much of a hoper. Rather than hope, I try to do something."

Since 1968, doing something has meant writing, and it came about fairly innocently. "When I decided to write, it wasn't larky, yet it was quixotic," Ford says. "I didn't have any notions of making a life out of it. I had the idea of writing stories, one at a time." Briefly a law student at Washington University in St. Louis, he had grown dissatisfied with the "answers" the law prescribed. Having been away for a spell from his home in the South—he was raised a salesman's son in Jackson, Miss., and Little Rock, Ark.—and separated from his Michigan State University sweetheart, Kristina Hensley, whom he later married, Ford felt "itchy and curious." So he left the place where he was living and changed his life.

"Turning my life toward writing books was a pretty strenuous turn. I was wrenched around," Ford concedes. But by temperamental decree, the man seems to need to move. He has been called "peripatetic" with a swaggering romanticism that Ford fights shy of, claiming that such talk is "very tedious to me. I don't think I'm restless. I live in the U.S., and wherever I am, I am." (These places have included New York City, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Princeton, Missoula and now New Orleans.) Protesting that "your preconceptions about a place are not exactly what happens," he explains his roving by stating, "I need to be certain that I have new stimulus. New places give me something I can use." But the self-described fatalist grew up with "an awe of the unknown" that may have predisposed him to rapid transits. His awe, Ford says, "was useful. There were a lot of things I didn't understand, and I got accustomed to living with that. I discovered that the virtue of writing can extinguish the vice of ignorance."

Ford swears that "I wasn't an extraordinary young man at all, and I didn't strive to be. I liked to write because I could do it by myself." But he acknowledges the help he got—and the salutary boot out the door he received—from such mentors as E. L. Doctorow, with whom he studied at the University of California at Irvine, earning an M.F.A. in 1970.

Doctorow proved a useful teacher because, Ford says, he taught his students that once class ended, they had to make their own way in the world. "It seems like you're getting left out in the cold, yet you're supposed to be left out in the cold—and get your work done." A popular writing instructor himself at Princeton, Williams College and the University of Michigan during the '70s, Ford quit in 1981 because his yen for "the cold"—and his wish to concentrate his energies on writing—got the better of him.

"I was always a hard worker when I was young, and my ethic was to work hard at writing. But to make literature your life's habit is a fairly fragile habit," Ford observes. "You get to the point where you're doing it the best you can, and then you can't do much else. It's like walking down a road that gets narrower and narrower. As you get further out on that limb, it becomes precarious, but writing is a precarious life—and all life is precarious." Or, as a character in Ford's acclaimed short story collection Rock Springs put it, "The most important things of your life can change so suddenly, so unrecoverably, that you can forget even the most important of them and their connections, you are so taken up by the chanciness of all that's happened and by all that could and will happen next."

Ford broods, "Writing is the only thing I've done with persistence, except for being married to Kristina—and yet it's such an inessential thing. Nobody cares if you do it, and nobody cares if you don't. And the way you 'make yourself up' to be the author of your books, especially when you're young, depends on the stars coming into alignment. Life tugs at you. It's not as if there's a profession for writers out there; there isn't even a fraternity. You may have friends who are writers, but they can't write your books. I don't think...

(The entire section is 2017 words.)

James Bowman (review date 16 June 1995)

SOURCE: "One Man's Cavalcade of Really Deep Thoughts," in Wall Street Journal, June 16, 1995, p. A12.

[In the following review, Bowman criticizes Ford's Independence Day as an example of the "Ruminative School of fiction" in which plot and character development are sacrificed for deep thinking.]

A good rule of thumb for readers of contemporary fiction is to avoid anything written in the first person whose main character is a failed writer. Actually, I would avoid anything whose main character is any kind of writer, but failed or blocked writers purporting to write about themselves are the worst. Richard Ford enjoyed his biggest success as a novelist with The...

(The entire section is 873 words.)

Charles Johnson (review date 18 June 1995)

SOURCE: "Stuck in the Here and Now," in The New York Times Book Review, June 18, 1995, pp. 1, 28.

[In the following review, Johnson discusses Ford's characterization in Independence Day, and asserts that "Frank Bascombe has earned himself a place beside Willy Loman and Harry Angstrom in our literary landscape."]

When we last saw Frank Bascombe, the angst-ridden antihero of Richard Ford's highly praised 1986 novel, The Sportswriter, he was 38 and about to cast himself adrift. A journalist and onetime short-story-writer, Frank was a perfectly ordinary man with an extraordinary gift for social observation. Served up in highly original language, his...

(The entire section is 1545 words.)

John Blades (essay date 22 June 1995)

SOURCE: "House Calls," in Chicago Tribune, June 22, 1995, p. 9C.

[In the following essay, Blades discusses Ford's novel Independence Day and asserts that Ford's "migratory habits have only enriched his life and fiction."]

By loose definition, Richard Ford is a displaced writer, but his migratory habits have only enriched his life and fiction. For one thing, they relieved him of the need to do extensive research for his latest novel, Independence Day.

The book's central character, Frank Bascombe, is a real estate agent, an occupation with which the 51-year-old Ford has acquired a more than passing familiarity over the decades, as he moved...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

Michiko Kakutani (review date 22 June 1995)

SOURCE: "Afloat in the Turbulence of the American Dream," in The New York Times, June 22, 1995, p. 1.

[In the following review, Kakutani praises Ford's accomplishments in Independence Day, asserting that Ford moves beyond Frank's state of mind to create a portrait of middle-class America in the 1980s.]

Perhaps the highest compliment a sportswriter can bestow on a basketball player is "he's unconscious!"—meaning, he's on one of those rhapsodic shooting streaks where instinct and reflex have combined to produce a blissful state devoid of doubt and hesitation, a state of pure immediacy where touch is everything and every shot falls with perfect, unthinking...

(The entire section is 1130 words.)

R. J. Smith (review date 2 July 1995)

SOURCE: "You Can't Drive Home Again," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 2, 1995, pp. 1, 7.

[In the following review, Smith praises Ford's Independence Day for features he says Ford's readers have come to expect—the mimetic dialogue and telling detail—but points out that "the book can be a hefty sulk."]

A central dread of Frank Bascombe's life in Richard Ford's new novel, Independence Day, is that his ex-wife has married an architect. Bascombe is a realtor, someone who by his own description sells dreams. But his ex has left him for somebody who builds them, and somehow manages to bring those dreams to life. The question of what makes a house a...

(The entire section is 1225 words.)

Merle Rubin (review date 3 July 1995)

SOURCE: "Frank Bascombe Awakes to Lessons of Independence," in The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1995, p. 13.

[In the following review, Rubin praises Ford's Independence Day as "a fully realized portrait of modern American life as filtered through the mind and heart of a unique, yet typical American man."]

It's the early summer of 1988, year of the Dukakis-Bush presidential election and five years since we've last heard from Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of Richard Ford's memorable novel The Sportswriter.

Frank, who started out as an aspiring novelist with a book of short stories to his credit, then opted for journalism and became...

(The entire section is 771 words.)

Guy Lawson (review date 10 July 1995)

SOURCE: "Teenage Wasteland," in Maclean's, July 10, 1995, pp. 42-3.

[In the following excerpt, Lawson compares and contrasts the adolescent angst suffered by Paul in Ford's Independence Day to that of Chappie in Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone and discusses the literary merits of each work.]

There isn't a name for them yet—those early teen years of 14 and 15 when a boy's voice drops, he grows two shoe sizes every six months and he begins to see and judge the world through his own eyes. "An ass-o-lescent" is how Frank Bascombe, the narrator of Richard Ford's latest novel, Independence Day, describes his 15-year-old son, Paul. Chappie, the...

(The entire section is 986 words.)

Elizabeth Hardwick (essay date 10 August 1995)

SOURCE: "Reckless People," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLII, No. 13, August 10, 1995, pp. 11-14.

[In the following essay, Hardwick praises Ford for his talent as a storyteller, tracing his use of lavish detail, strong characterization, and sense of time and place throughout his work.]

From the stories in Richard Ford's collection Rock Springs: "This was not going to be a good day in Bobby's life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail. He had written several bad checks, and before he could be sentenced for that he had robbed a convenience store with a pistol—completely gone off his mind." Bobby's ex-wife is giving him his last breakfast and...

(The entire section is 4341 words.)

Richard Ford with Dinitia Smith (interview date 22 August 1995)

SOURCE: "A Nomad's Ode to Soffit and Siding," in The New York Times, August 22, 1995, pp. C13, C17.

[In the following interview, Smith talks to Ford about his life, his career, and his novel Independence Day.]

After a lifetime of itinerancy, living in 9 states and some 14 homes, the novelist Richard Ford knows the language of real estate by heart. "I try to be someone upon whom nothing is lost," he said the other day in his present hometown, New Orleans, borrowing a phrase from Henry James.

"Richard watches everything," said his wife, Kristina.

In Independence Day, his sixth work of fiction, Mr. Ford has tapped into the...

(The entire section is 1519 words.)

Geoff Dyer (review date 24 August 1995)

SOURCE: "Realty Meltdown," in London Review of Books, August 24, 1995, p. 23.

[In the following review, Dyer praises Ford's ability to capture the psychological dynamics of a situation by describing a few simple movements.]

Richard Ford's narrator, Frank Bascombe, quit serious writing to become a sportswriter. This was the making of Ford. It wasn't until he became Bascombe, the sportswriter, that Ford turned himself into a major novelist.

At odd moments in The Sportswriter, Frank looks back on his abandoned literary career. He had published a 'promising' collection of stories, Blue Autumn, and had then started on a novel which he never...

(The entire section is 2332 words.)

Raymond A. Schroth (review date 6 October 1995)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Real Estate," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXII, No. 17, October 6, 1995, pp. 27-8.

[In the following review, Schroth notes that although the characters of Ford's Independence Day are searching for their independence, they are actually very interconnected.]

One of my regrets about not having money is that I'll never be able to buy a house. Still, I cannot jog the oak-lined streets of Uptown New Orleans or bike up Storm King Mountain at Cornwall-on-Hudson without casing every house I pass and asking if that house is "me."

Which is why, perhaps, Richard Ford, in his new novel, Independence Day, his continuation of The...

(The entire section is 1040 words.)

Richard Ford with Susan Larson (interview date 5 November 1995)

SOURCE: "Novelist's View: Real Estate and the National Psyche," in The New York Times, November 5, 1995, sec. 9, p. 7.

[In the following interview, Ford talks about the realty industry and how he used his experience with real estate agents to create the character of Frank Bascombe in Independence Day.]

When the novelist Richard Ford sees Michael Wilkinson showing French Quarter property to potential clients, he stops his car and sticks his head out the window to say hello. "I always ask him, 'Read my book yet?'" Mr. Ford said, "And he always says, 'No.'"

So much for the great relationship between literature and life. Real estate agents who read Mr....

(The entire section is 1244 words.)

Thomas Bonner, Jr. (review date 9 December 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Independence Day, in America, Vol. 173, No. 19, December 9, 1995, pp. 26-7.

[In the following review, Bonner praises Ford as a storyteller and calls Ford's Independence Day "a work at the edge of philosophy but far enough away that its art still lives."]

"I was trying to address the country in as large a way as I can imagine—intellectually as well as spiritually. It was the way I defined myself a challenge," observed Richard Ford about his novel Independence Day during a New Orleans Times-Picayune interview. The mission suggested in his comments gives his fiction a life beyond the story and makes his narrative part of a...

(The entire section is 683 words.)