Independence Day by Richard Ford

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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Independence Day is the first-person narrative of Frank Bascombe, a sportswriter turned real-estate agent. The novel continues the odyssey of self-discovery on which Frank embarked in Ford’s 1986 novel, The Sportswriter. Independence Day recounts a Fourth-of-July weekend in which Frank attempts to juggle work, relationships with family and friends, and a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, that he hopes will be therapeutic for his emotionally disturbed teenage son, Paul.

The novel’s events unfold primarily at different points along the highways that separate Frank’s home in Haddam, New Jersey, from Deep River, Connecticut, where Paul lives, and Cooperstown. This circuitous route mirrors the course of the narrative, which moves back and forth in time as Frank attempts to relate memories of the past to his current situation. Once a promising young fiction writer, Frank lost his bearings following the death of his young son from Reye’s syndrome. The trauma of this loss led to the breakup of his marriage to Ann Dykstra and his gradual drift into sports journalism, an occupation that allowed him to make a living while avoiding coming to grips with his profound emotional crisis. This “bad season” ended with Frank quitting his job and taking brief sojourns in Florida and Paris before returning to Haddam “aquiver with possibility and purpose.” Selling real estate comes naturally to him because he is “not one bit preoccupied with how things used to be” and because intimacy has begun to matter less to him. Frank is upbeat and optimistic about his community, where he serves as an exemplary landlord for two houses he maintains in Haddam’s black neighborhood, and he is persuasive in his real-estate dealings. He is very positive about his upcoming trip with Paul, and he plans to instruct his son with ideas gleaned from the Declaration of Independence and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Nevertheless, a mood of apprehension colors the novel’s events. Frank’s casual romantic relationship with Sally Caldwell is coming to an end, owing to his unwillingness to make a sincere emotional commitment, and his relationship with Ann, who has custody of their two children and is remarried to a man whom Frank detests, has grown strained. Property values are falling, and Haddam is not as safe as it used to be. Frank was mugged recently in town, and he is haunted by the murder of a fellow agent with whom he was once intimately involved. One of Frank’s tenants is a hostile former black militant who forces Frank to pick up the rent personally. The last such visit ended in a confrontation with the police over a misunderstanding, one of two such incidents in the book. Frank discovers that a business partner keeps a shotgun for protection at his roadside food stand, and he finds that a murder has just been committed at a highway motel at which he stops for the night. The experience of two of Frank’s clients, Joe and Phyllis Markham, crystallize the tensions within the story. Recently moved from Vermont, where they enjoyed successful careers and a splendid home, they are disappointed to find that Haddam’s homes fail to live up to their high expectations. With each discouraging house viewing, Joe grows surlier and his relationship with Frank more contentious, aggravated by Joe’s worsening manic depression and Phyllis’s chronic health problems.

Frank’s trip with Paul proves more difficult than he expected. The obvious affection between father and son is mitigated by Paul’s belligerence, which has gotten him into trouble with the law and estranged him from his mother and stepfather. Frank believes that Paul feels “compelled to figure out life and how to live it far too early,” but his efforts to distract Paul with trips to the basketball and baseball halls of fame and the simple character-building pleasures of normal adolescence prove futile. Events come to a head in Cooperstown when Frank, upset over Paul’s...

(The entire section is 4,134 words.)