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...
(The entire section is 2026 words.)