Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245
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."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24
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
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2017
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 writers have careers—my work doesn't exist separately from my life."
Ford's first book was A Piece of My Heart, brought out by Harper & Row in 1976, and nominated for the Ernest Hemingway Award for Best First Novel. The Ultimate Good Luck followed five years later; The Sportswriter was published in 1986. Rock Springs came out in 1987. All have been issued in trade paperback by Vintage.
As he has roamed, so have Ford's books. A Piece of My Heart was hailed by the Boston Globe as a Faulknerian "collision course with destiny set in the swamp-ridden Mississippi Delta." The Ultimate Good Luck, called by one critic "a bruiser of a novel replete with gun-metal dialogue and drug deals gone sour," takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico, and was completed while the Fords were living in Cuernavaca and Yahualica. The Sportswriter has New Jersey as its locale; Ford came to know Princeton well while teaching there. The backdrop of Rock Springs and Wildlife is Montana, where Ford moved in 1983 when his wife accepted a job as planning director of Missoula.
While Ford has changed addresses often, much of The Sportswriter and some of Rock Springs were written in a house in the Mississippi Delta, one of Ford's longtime favorite spots despite his reluctance to be classed as a Southern writer. Jackson, Miss., his boyhood home, continues to hold his affection—as does Jackson resident Eudora Welty—and many of his relatives are in northwestern Arkansas. Though Ford's attachment to Mississippi may be circumstantial (his parents settled there because it was located at the center of his father's sales territory), his ties to the South are such that his 1987 Mississippi Academy of Arts and Letters' Literature Award came as a special pleasure. Still, regardless of where he is, Ford aims "to write a literature that is good enough for America."
But no literature can be good enough for everyone. Ford recalls, with impenitent cheer, the reaction of "a famous New York editor" to the first hundred pages of The Sportswriter, later to sell upwards of 50,000 copies: "He told me I was wasting my life." Ford concludes, "I got bit there. But you'll always get bit." When his publisher, Simon & Schuster—for whom Morgan Entrekin had acquired The Sportswriter before leaving S & S—requested changes in the novel, Ford resisted. Gary Fisketjon, then at Random House, now Ford's editor at Atlantic—and soon to join Knopf—finally acquired the book as a Vintage Contemporaries Original. Agent Amanda Urban's entreaty—"You need a book that's going to do well"—was thus satisfied.
Not all critical response to The Sportswriter was ardent, but sportswriters made their enthusiasm known, writing fan letters to Ford (who, after college, had hoped to be a sportswriter for the Arkansas Gazette). Their testimonials? "'I lay in bed with my wife and we read your book back and forth for a month," reports the author bashfully, "It hasn't made me rich, but it's made me read." Somewhat less gratifying was critic James Wolcott's fierce sally at Ford's accomplishments to date in the August 1989 issue of Vanity Fair. Deemed "a totally nasty piece of work" by Ford's publisher, "Guns and Poses: A Revisionist View of Richard Ford, the Lauded Novelist" was read by Kristina Ford, who told her husband not to try it. After letting fly with a few choice bits of invective, Ford philosophizes, "There are certain things that people are going to say about you that you can't redeem—you have to get used to it."
It was easier to get used to the praise of Rock Springs offered by such critics as the New York Times's Michiko Kakutani, who cited his "wholly distinctive narrative voice … that can move effortlessly between neat, staccato descriptions and rich, lyrical passages," and novelist John Wideman, who lauded the way Ford fashioned a "concentrated, supple, ironic" prose style from "everyday speech."
In fact, some of the credit for that style should go, Ford says, to the poets he has read and admired over the years. Once merely "mysterious" to Ford, poetry became clarified when "I saw people doing it"—James Wright, Galway Kinnell, Gregory Orr, Charles Wright, Donald Hall. "I saw how useful it could be to exercise such care over phrases and utterances and lines." In his own sentences Ford seeks a comparable "level of intensity, an economy of language and maximum effect."
Ford's "maximum effect" will soon extend to film; he has just finished wrapping up post-production work on Bright Angel, an adaptation of two stories (and a new one) from Rock Springs. Starring Sam Shepard and Valerie Perrine, the movie was directed by Michael Fields and shot on location in Montana.
Also an essayist, Ford recently served as guest editor of Houghton Mifflin's forthcoming Best American Essays 1990. With typically gentle self-mockery, he recalls trying to say no to his first essay assignment, from Rust Hills of Esquire. The year was 1983, the magazine's 50th anniversary issue was in the planning stages, and Hills approached Ford with the idea of writing a piece on Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. "Oh, you're making a big mistake," Ford dodged. "That's just an opportunity to hang myself." "Well," Hills countered, "you've been likened to Faulkner, you've been likened to Hemingway, you've been likened to Fitzgerald." Besides, he added, "Philip Roth turned it down."
Other recent projects include Ford's introduction to Juke Joints, a collection of photographer friend Birney Imes's work to be published in July by the University Press of Mississippi. And in January Ford was recognized for his lifetime achievements with an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Literature.
So he sits and works in his New Orleans townhouse, where the crime of the French Quarter is "scary." With his reputation as a "tough guy"—hotly disputed by Ford himself—and as a skillful evoker of male voices and violence, perhaps it's not surprising to hear Ford talk of a recent near fistfight. "This man was threatening to beat up his girlfriend in front of our house. I just kind of stepped out the door and asked him to quit. So there we were, nose to nose. And the police came and wanted to arrest me. We settled it, though." Ford pauses. "Maybe I am a primitive and don't know it." He hunts and fishes "to forget about what's bugging me, because my father and grandfather did it, because Kristina likes to do it," and for the fun of raising bird dogs.
"Writers' lives are such pedestrian affairs," Ford complains. "You want to mine out everything you can, but then broaden your ways. In an effort to be demanding on myself, I create an aura of difficulty, in which things won't turn out right. But I would like language to be, in some secular way, redemptive. Writing is an act of optimism: you make a thing, make it well, give it to someone, and it has a use. They need it—though they didn't know they did."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873
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 Sportswriter, in which Frank Bascombe, author of one book of short stories, retreats from art to sportswriting. In Independence Day, he has brought Frank back as a real-estate salesman. Now that's what I call blocked!
Both these novels belong to what might be called the Ruminative School of fiction. In novels by ruminants nothing much happens, but lots of Deep Thoughts get thought and often lots of fine writing gets written. Introducing a genuinely dramatic element would seem phony and inauthentic to writers of the Ruminative School. Such traditional forms of literary excitement as plot and character development are presumably beneath the dignity of those who have Deep Thoughts to think and fine writing to write. They write about what they know, and what they know is themselves.
Mind you, lots has happened before the novel begins. Without his memories of death and divorce, of pain and loss, of sex and writing gone bad, the Ruminative hero would be a cow without a cud. But nothing much is happening as we read, at least not to the hero, and the banal, everyday events of his life are little more than the medium or stock in which his meaty thoughts are suspended. To taste them, we must consume lots more filler than we really want to about, say, the real-estate market in New Jersey in the late 1980s.
Frank Bascombe's new occupation is meant to be the guarantee of his authenticity. Writers get paid for thinking Deep Thoughts, while real-estate salesmen, we may assume, must think them solely for love. Also, Frank's profession has been chosen as being particularly appropriate to what he calls "the Existence Period" of his life. Theorizing about the Existence Period comprises the deepest of his thoughts, though there is no thought of how pretentious it is to divide one's own life up into periods.
Frank is sincere even in his pretensions. He sees the Existence Period as that phase of his middle age during which his practice "has been to ignore much of what I don't like or that seems worrisome and embroiling," or as "the high-wire act of normalcy, the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blow-up" and is characterized by "the small dramas and minor adjustments of spending quality time simply with ourselves."
Frank may in fact hold some kind of record for spending quality time with himself. But he also has a son, Paul, to whom he feels he owes some of this precious commodity, and the drama of the novel, such as it is, consists of his taking this troubled teenage boy to visit as many sports halls of fame as they can in two days (i.e. two). That's about it. It is one of those ideas that exhausts itself in being stated. What is there to say about the actual visiting of these places that is more interesting than the idea of visiting them?
So the father-son expedition, which doesn't even begin until more than halfway through the novel, is cut short with its one quasidramatic event, which puts Paul in the hospital. There are, however, no lasting consequences to this moment of action—beyond making Frank think even deeper thoughts about himself and life and everything. These remind us that, as he tells a client who thinks he may have a gift for selling real estate himself, the realty business is "like being a writer. A man with nothing to do finds something to do."
It is this sense of surrounding vacancy, of busywork, of the commonplace unnecessarily rendered into self-conscious prose, that is the characteristic feature of the Ruminative style. Its tortured, introspective meanderings finally become exasperating and at times degenerate into a paragraph full of speculative questionings about what if this or that had happened, followed by some such colloquial formula as: "God only knows, right? Really knows?"
My favorite passage of Frank's speculative self-questioning, which almost rises to the height of self-parody, is where he spends a paragraph wondering what it would have been like if he and his ex-wife had bought a Volvo that they looked at years before and then didn't buy. Nothing from his more youthful past is beneath the notice of his Existence Period, it seems, though he fantasizes about reaching a Permanent Period in which he will have become more like an "ordinary person." My guess is that it is a delusion characteristic of the Existence Period to suppose that there is a Permanent Period. The bad news for readers is that it is Frank's interminable self-examination that has become permanent.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1545
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 perceptions lifted him above what he called "the normal applauseless life" to illuminate the "psychic detachment" caused by his divorce and by his own relentless self-doubt. At the time, The Sportswriter was an entertaining CAT scan of the shellshocked American psyche. It remains so today.
And now there's a sequel. Frank has returned, 44 years old but still unconvinced that "life's leading someplace," to narrate Mr. Ford's spirited fifth novel, Independence Day. The time is 1988, and Frank is looking forward to the Fourth of July weekend, when he's arranged to meet with his girlfriend, Sally Caldwell, and then take his 15-year-old son, Paul, to the basketball and baseball halls of fame. Paul has never recovered from the death of his brother, Ralph; occasionally barks like a dog; and has been labeled by a team of therapists as "intellectually beyond his years" yet "emotionally underdeveloped." He has recently been arrested for shoplifting "three boxes of 4X condoms ('Magnums')" and is being taken to court by the female security guard who captured him, who's accusing him of assault and battery.
Frank's little excursion with his son is, as he puts it, "a voyage meant to instruct." Somewhat unrealistically, he has sent Paul, among other things, a copy of Emerson's Self-Reliance, to help him see that the Fourth of July is "an observance of human possibility, which applies a canny pressure on each of us to contemplate what we're dependent on … and after that to consider in what ways we're independent or might be; and finally how we might decide—for the general good—not to worry about it much at all."
As in The Sportswriter, Frank appears both as a survivor of the 1960's and as a descendant of T. S. Eliot's Hollow Men; in his own words, he is a man who has "yet to learn to want properly." These things we know about Frank: he is a New Deal Democrat who believes that life's choices are limited, that getting old is humiliating and that the nearness of death is downright terrifying—though, like any decent man, he's determined not to complain too much. He has abandoned sportswriting and returned to conservative Haddam, N.J., to live in the home of his ex-wife, Ann, and work as a realtor, a profession (and point of reference) that provides as many opportunities for sardonic commentary on the human condition as his previous job did. "You don't sell a house to someone," he observes, "you sell a life." But he has also learned that "a market economy … is not even remotely premised on anybody getting what he wants."
One thing Frank wants is for Paul, a boy "you'd be sorry to encounter on a city street," to come live with him so he can straighten things out. Another thing he wants is a second chance with Ann, which seems highly unlikely since she feels that he "may be the most cynical man in the world." There's also the small matter of her remarriage, to a 61-year-old architect named Charley O'Dell. "I divorced you," Ann tells Frank, "because I didn't like you. And I didn't like you because I didn't trust you…. I wanted somebody with a true heart, that's all. That wasn't you." For Frank, a third hankering is "to form a new grip, for a longer, more serious attachment" with his girlfriend, Sally, but here too there are problems. "Life seems congested to me," she confesses. "Something's crying out to be noticed, I just don't know what it is. But it must have to do with you and I. Don't you agree?"
To be sure, Frank's relationships with women—indeed, with most people—are as puzzling to him as ever. He speaks with his best friend in Haddam, Carter Knott, for no more than 90 seconds every six months; Frank prefers to keep things this way because he has happily entered what he calls the "Existence Period," "the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blowup," a sort of holding pattern characterized by "the condition of honest independence."
His other problems involve trying to collect rent from Larry McLeod, a black former Green Beret, and his white wife, Betty, who live in one of two houses Frank owns in Haddam's solitary black neighborhood. Although Frank fondly remembers an affair he once had with a black realtor, whose murder remains a mystery throughout the novel, he is clearly less sympathetic to the mixed-raced McLeods, because they give off a scent of self-righteousness. To him, Betty always seems to wear "a perpetually disappointed look that says she regrets all her major life choices yet feels absolutely certain she made the right moral decision in every instance, and is better than you because of it. It's the typical three-way liberal paradox: anxiety mingled with pride and self-loathing. The McLeods are also, I'm afraid, the kind of family who could someday go paranoid and barricade themselves in their (my) house, issue confused manifestoes, fire shots at the police and eventually torch everything, killing all within. (This, of course, is no reason to evict them.)"
Frank is no less critical of Joe and Phyllis Markham, two "donkeyish clients" he has guided through 45 houses and is urging to close on a place located next to a minimum security prison. The Markhams watch their dreams and their marriage unravel; they come to know firsthand "the realty dreads," and after so many house showings realize they are "just like the other schmo, wishing his wishes, lusting his stunted lusts, quaking over his idiot frights and fantasies, all of us popped out from the same unchinkable mold."
We have come to expect brilliant character sketches from Mr. Ford, and he doesn't disappoint us. In addition to the principal players orbiting like moons around Frank Bascombe's planet-sized ego, there are memorable cameo figures like his former boss, old man Schwindell, who alternates between sucking on Pall Malls and the nozzle of an oxygen tank, and Char, a saucy chef Frank meets in the Deerslayer, an inn in Cooperstown where he stumbles upon a copy of his "now-old book of short stories" and makes a discovery that leads to one of the novel's most richly ironic scenes.
But there is only the thinnest of story lines in the 451 pages of Independence Day. The novel often bogs down in repetitive descriptions of place and setting. Some events—Frank's effort to collect his rent from the McLeods, his arrival at a motel in Connecticut just after a killing has occurred and the mystery of the realtor's murder—lead nowhere. On the other hand, plot (or the notion of life's events leading much of anywhere) would violate Frank's basic belief that "you can rave, break furniture, get drunk, crack up your Nova and beat your knuckles bloody on the glass bricks of the exterior wall of whatever dismal room you're temporarily housed in, but in the end you won't have changed the basic situation and you'll still have to make the decision you didn't want to make before, and probably you'll make it in the very way you'd resented and that brought on all the raving and psychic fireworks."
Predictably, then, Frank's meeting with Sally is inconclusive. (Sally hopes someday he'll "get around to doing something memorable.") The Markhams lose the house they were looking at to a Korean family. And Frank's effort to help his troubled son veers toward tragedy and irreparable loss.
In the end, however, the small problems in the world of Frank Bascombe resolve themselves for the best—or at least in the best ways that can be expected for a man who knows that "it's not exactly as if I didn't exist, but that I don't exist as much" as other people. Despite this alienation, which Mr. Ford uses effectively for memorable comic moments, Frank has, by the novel's final scenes, managed to take his first tentative steps from the Existence Period toward a sense of community and the possibilities of the "Permanent Period," which he defines as "that long, stretching-out time when my dreams would have mystery like any ordinary person's; when whatever I do or say, who I marry, how my kids turn out, becomes what the world—if it makes note at all—knows of me."
With a mastery second to none, Richard Ford has created, and continues to develop in Independence Day, a character we know as well as we know our next-door neighbors. Frank Bascombe has earned himself a place beside Willy Loman and Harry Angstrom in our literary landscape, but he has done so with a wry wit and a fin de siècle wisdom that is very much his own.
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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 from Mississippi to New Jersey to Montana to Louisiana, with various intermediate stops.
By lighting out every couple of years for a new territory, Ford has been able to diversify, to "learn and write about the whole country." In the process, said the novelist, who was briefly in Chicago this week to promote his new book, he has also avoided the regional stereotyping that handicaps so many fiction writers.
Of his nomadic life, Ford said: "I haven't bought very many houses, but I've looked at a jillion. And when I started Independence Day, I discovered how much I knew about real estate. I guess it's a habit of being a writer. You just begin to soak stuff up."
Selling houses represents a dramatic career change for Frank Bascombe, who was "The Sportswriter" in Ford's 1986 novel of that title. For the sequel, Independence Day, Ford decided to retire Frank from sportswriting and immerse him in real estate.
Next to sportswriting, selling houses sounds like a resoundingly dull business, hardly the stuff of lively or sympathetic fiction. But Ford disagrees, calling real estate "an index to our national character…. As Frank says, a large portion of every American's life is spent in the company of realtors."
Ford's faith in his ability to invigorate not only the subject but also his fictional characters was largely affirmed by the reviews for Independence Day. Perhaps the most positive was the one in Publishers Weekly, which called the novel "often poetic, sometimes searing, sometimes hilarious."
Though well-grounded in the fundamentals of real estate, Independence Day is more concerned with Frank Bascombe's psyche than his occupation. The novel catches him six years after the close of The Sportswriter, still living in Haddam, N.J., still troubled by his divorce and the death of a son from Reye's syndrome.
As the title indicates, Ford's long, introspective novel takes place over a Fourth of July weekend. During the holiday, Frank compulsively meditates on his "psychic detachment" and the nature of personal independence, while embarking on an inglorious pilgrimage with his surviving teenage son to the basketball and baseball halls of fame.
Although he has never sold real estate, Ford did spend a year as a sportswriter with Inside Sports magazine, beginning in 1980. At the time, his first novel, A Piece of My Heart, though generously received, was out of print, leaving him in need of a regular income, said the author (whose 1995 income got a welcome boost with the $25,000 Rea Award for short fiction).
When the magazine was sold, Ford was out of a job, but his brief inning as a sportswriter provided him with the raw material for a novel. As a number of reviewers pointed out, The Sportswriter, with its consuming focus on moral and spiritual issues rather than physical action, tried to do for sports what Walker Percy's The Moviegoer did for movies.
At various places in Independence Day, Frank Bascombe expresses his preference for real estate transactions over sportswriting, which offers at best, he says, "a harmless way to burn up a few unpromising brain cells." Ford may tacitly endorse that sentiment, but not so eagerly that he'd ever apply for a real estate agent's license. "Given a choice," he said, "I'd still probably want to be a sportswriter."
A native of Jackson, Miss., who grew up in Eudora Welty's neighborhood, Ford naturally used the South as background for his first novel. Since then, he has deliberately avoided the region in his fiction, setting subsequent books in places like Mexico (The Ultimate Good Luck) and Montana (Wildlife, Rock Springs) as well as New Jersey.
Before he settled in New Orleans five years ago, Ford was called "America's most peripatetic fiction writer." By one interviewer's tally, he and his wife, Kristina, had lived in a dozen places in 22 years, with Chicago; St. Louis; Princeton, N.J.; Missoula, Mont.; and Oxford and Cahoma, Miss., among their many transient postmarks.
According to Ford, the chief reason he has traveled around so much is not to satisfy his own literary wanderlust so much as accommodate the career moves of his wife, an urban planner currently employed by the City of New Orleans. "We're not really migratory," Ford said. "She just goes places for a better job, and I take my work along with me."
For all its dark threads, Independence Day is a hopeful novel. Taking inventory of all his misfortunes, Frank Bascombe concludes that he's "still as close to day-to-day happy as I could be…. I made one promise to myself, and that was that I'd never complain about my life, and just go on and try to do my best, mistakes and all."
Although Ford distances himself from Frank in other matters, he does admit to sharing his resilient optimism. "Writing a book is an optimistic gesture," he said, "because it presumes that people will have the time to read it and that it will have a good effect on them."
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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 grace.
It was the fate of Frank Bascombe, the title character of Richard Ford's highly acclaimed 1986 novel, The Sportswriter, never to experience that state of grace, which is why he became a writer instead of the athlete his youthful prowess promised. Indeed, Frank emerged in that lucid novel as one of the most self-conscious, self-annotating characters to make his debut in contemporary American fiction since Binx Bolling appeared in The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, in 1961.
Bascombe is back in Mr. Ford's powerful new novel, Independence Day, and though some seven years have passed since the death of his oldest son and the subsequent breakup of his marriage, Frank seems worse off than ever, sunk deep into a morass of spiritual lethargy. Although Frank's existential gloom and talent for self-pity can sometimes makes him an irritating (not to mention long-winded) narrator, Mr. Ford expertly opens out his story to create a portrait of middle age and middle-class life that's every bit as resonant and evocative of America in the 1980's as John Updike's last Harry Angstrom novel, Rabbit at Rest.
Since he and his wife, Ann, spilt up, we learn, Frank has suffered a kind of breakdown, quit his sportswriting job, bummed around Europe with a young woman, returned home to Haddam, N.J., and stumbled into the real-estate business. Ann, meanwhile, has remarried and moved their two remaining children, 12-year-old Clary and 15-year-old Paul, to Connecticut. All these changes have served only to magnify Frank's sense of detachment, his determination to remain cautious, careful, in control. He has entered what he calls his "Existence Period," a fancy term for going through the motions without really caring or connecting, and letting "matters go as they go."
"I try, in other words," he says, "to keep something finite and acceptably doable on my mind and not disappear. Though it's true that sometimes in the glide, when worries and contingencies are floating off, I sense I myself am afloat and cannot always touch the sides of where I am, nor know what to expect. So that to the musical question 'What's it all about, Alfie?' I'm not sure I'd know the answer."
Frank warns his girlfriend, Sally, that he may well be "beyond affection's grasp." As for his children, he says he wants to be a good father, wants to impart to them some sort of wisdom, but feels exiled from their daily lives. He is especially worried about Paul, who has been arrested for shoplifting, and who has fixated on his dog that was run over by a car almost a decade before. Paul has grown fat and slovenly, and has shaved off most of his hair; he has also taken to barking like a dog.
Frank decides that over an Independence Day weekend, he will take Paul on a father-and-son trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Along the way, he hopes, he will "work the miracle only a father can work."
"Which is to say," he explains, "if your son begins suddenly to fall at a headlong rate, you must through the agency of love and greater age throw him a line and haul him back."
Like The Sportswriter, Independence Day takes place over a couple of days, though Frank's ruminations move freely backward and forward in time, navigating his entire life and the lives of his neighbors and friends. His actual actions may seem banal in the extreme: he shows some houses to a disagreeable couple named the Markhams; he tries to collect rent from another troublesome couple, the McLeods; he checks in with Kari Bemish, his partner in a root-beer-stand operation; he spends an unsettling evening with Sally, and he sets off on the long drive to his ex-wife's house to pick up Paul.
On the way there, Frank comes close to witnessing a brutal murder in a motel. As in many of Mr. Ford's short stories, such acts of random violence percolate throughout this novel, grisly reminders not only of our own encroaching mortality but also of the innate precariousness of life, the fragility of the bonds of love and order and logic. Frank's co-worker Clair, a young black woman with whom he had an affair, was raped and murdered at a housing site several months before, and Frank worries, too, about the more prosaic dangers of radon, E. coli, hydrocarbons and black ice. Given such all-too-palpable perils, he reasons, why subject oneself to the further dangers of emotional hurt; better, he thinks, to avoid regret and disappointment by expecting and volunteering nothing.
If one were to describe Independence Day in outline, it might sound schematic and strained. The title and holiday backdrop baldly underscore the hero's quest for self-reliance, as does his reading of Emerson; and over the Fourth of July weekend, a traumatic event brings this man's relationship with his family into sharp and sudden focus, even as his midlife anxieties are echoed and reinforced by the problems of his friends and clients. Yet happily for the reader, the spindly armature on which Independence Day has been so methodically constructed quickly melts into the background, so persuasively does Mr. Ford conjure up the day-to-day texture of Frank Bascombe's life.
Not only does Mr. Ford do a finely nuanced job of delineating Frank's state of mind (his doubts and disillusionments, and his awareness of those doubts and disillusionments), but he also moves beyond Frank, to provide a portrait of a time and a place, of a middle-class community caught on the margins of change and reeling, like Frank, from the wages of loss and disappointment and fear. Mr. Ford uses his consummate ear for dialogue to give us a wonderfully recognizable cast of supporting characters (from the obnoxious yet oddly touching Markhams to the justifiably paranoid Bemish, from Frank's put-upon girlfriend to his troubled, troubling son), and he orchestrates Frank's emotional transactions with them to create a narrative that's as gripping as it is affecting.
With Independence Day, Mr. Ford has written a worthy sequel to The Sportswriter and galvanized his reputation as one of his generation's most eloquent voices.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1225
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 home, and a group of people a family, animates Ford's novel.
Bascombe goes on an air-conditioned drive across New England, in a sense looking for the architect who might animate his own life. It's a parody of the journey to knowledge—Bascombe is a pilgrim more lost than he knows on his way to the shrine. Bascombe is on an idiot mission over the Independence Day weekend of 1988, driving with his son and trying to hit as many halls of fame as they can in 48 hours. Along the way, he thinks he'll: save his son from the life of crime he fears is ahead by reading Emerson to him; rendezvous with his girlfriend; and maybe get back together with his wife. His Ford Crown Victoria becomes his secret Mayflower on his voyage into the soul of independence. But instead, Bascombe gets a royal comeuppance, ends up crying three times in less than 24 hours and has to take his son to the emergency room.
Independence Day picks up five years after Ford's celebrated 1986 novel, The Sportswriter. Bascombe is still living in Haddam, the New Jersey commuter town where he feels at home in his cheerful invisibility. By having Bascombe end up a sportswriter after a promising start as a fiction writer in the earlier book, Ford hit an ominous bass-chord of failure. (You could have made a drinking game out of how frequently Ford homed in on that chord in the earlier novel—every time somebody asks Frank why he doesn't write short stories any more, the reader downs a shot. Bascombe himself would have liked that.) And yet Ford here has extended the feat, finding a chord resonating even lower than the last one. Bascombe has quit his unnamed sports magazine and become a real estate agent. And if the intended fall, from man of letters to man of ledgers, is meant to be calamitous, it is also oddly rich with possibility—rarely has real estate seemed so tethered to the very mysteries of life.
Bascombe is knee-deep in what he calls the Existence Period, an epoch lodged between the Pleistocene and the Great Beyond. He is existing but hardly more, shutting out those who get too close, effortlessly mangling the lessons of his life, rotting from the inside out. "When you're young your opponent is the future," he offers, "but when you're not young, your opponent's the past and all you've done in it, and the problem of getting away from it." Forward to the deep freeze. Where the Bascombe of The Sportswriter would at times shriek and squeal over what was slipping away—his wife, youth, self-esteem; he imagined himself translucent, walking the streets of Haddam—now the middle-aged realtor tries to focus on the good he imagines he's doing setting people up in new homes. Failing that, he concentrates on the fixed mortgage rates. He's no happier, but he's resigned to disappearing, and that steadies his voice.
Fumbling his own life choices while fancying he's helping strangers with theirs, Bascombe himself has only gotten more pathetic in the years since he gave up sportswriting. When his ex-wife moved out of Haddam, Bascombe sold his home, bought hers and moved in. He has an intricate definition of "home" he's trying to sell himself; by owning hers, he thinks, he is creating a fresh life with her. He'd like nothing more than to start all over again with his wife.
As Bascombe and his son drive the turnpikes and side streets, an awful lot of architectural detail is described along the way. Ford looks attentively at the dormers and mullions, the redwood decks and picket fences, only then to look beyond appearances. Ford explores the idea of what "home" means to people, and how finding a home isn't nearly the same as finding a place for yourself in the world. The way Bascombe sees it, maybe it all comes down to a business motto he quotes, that selling real estate is the "True American profession coping hands-on with the fundamental spatial experience of life: more people, less space, fewer choices." That's a lesson from the late-80s market, but it finds its home in this painful novel about reconciling yourself to life's final offer.
At the end, the tour is a mess. In a batting cage outside the Baseball Hall of Fame … Bascombe's son intentionally steps into a fastball and winds up with a detached retina. Yet it's his father who seems struck by something possibly more violent, a shard of responsibility that he suddenly can't shut out any longer. Maybe it will stick and maybe not; but he seems to have navigated an amicable break with his wife, and perhaps built a new bridge to his son. He's cut a fresher start from himself than he managed at the end of The Sportswriter. You can bet on another book yet, as Bascombe grows older and snaps up the estate left by Updike's Harry Angstrom. He's ready to move in.
Independence Day is an easy novel to inhabit, a harder one to love. Bascombe lives deeply within shallow confines; Ford's observations are broader than they are deep. Bascombe's talk on the fly, racing past like the scenery on the Yankee Expressway, is invariably sharper and closer to heart than the long ruminations that dapple the book. Ford ribbons a bittersweet tone with Bascombe's biting sarcasm—the longer Ford writes, the funnier his fiction gets. Still the book can be a hefty sulk. The place Bascombe shared with his wife is never just his home, it's "my old once-happily married house." Parked before that address, Bascombe asks himself, "And yet and yet, do I sense, as I sit here, a melancholy?" After some 450 pages of the Crayola spectrum of melancholia, you can just bet the mortgage he does.
The accomplishments here are many and familiar to Ford's readers. There is the exquisitely mimetic dialogue, his ease with a telling detail, and the life found at the world's extremities. Ford makes the Vince Lombardi Rest Area on the New Jersey Turnpike seem like a world unto itself (or is it hell on earth?). But maybe there's no greater proof of skill than how he makes Bascombe's base elements seem like universal essences. By the end of the book, the realtor's self-pity, his fear that any break in the day's routine could lead to unspeakable dread he'll never recover from, even his urge to fish with his son, may well seem like the American experience, rather than the circumscribed experience of the white suburban male. Maybe nobody more than a provided-for white guy could be so certain that his crises were those of the world.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
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 a sportswriter, has recently changed careers again [in Independence Day]. He is now a realtor. Forty-four years old, divorced, still living in Haddam, New Jersey, he feels he is entering a new, rather cheerless, phase of his life, which he calls his "existence period:" a time when unrealistic dreams have been given up and clear-eyed coping begins.
Frank is looking forward to the coming Fourth of July holiday. He plans to take his son, an increasingly troublesome teenager, on a trip to the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame in the hope that the excursion will be a chance to communicate with the boy. Armed with a copy of Emerson's "Self-Reliance," he imagines he will find a way to teach his son the lesson of independence.
Frank's own "independence" has been brought home to him not by his divorce from his wife, Ann, but by Ann's subsequent remarriage and move to Connecticut. Prior to this unwelcome wake-up call, Frank had somehow managed to kid himself that they were still the same two people "only set in different equipoise: same planets, different orbits, same solar system…. My life was (and to some extent still is) played out on a stage in which she's continually in the audience (whether she's paying attention or not)." By removing herself and their two children to her new husband's home in Connecticut, Ann has dismembered "the entire illusion … leaving me with only faint, worn-out costumes to play myself with."
The narrator, if not quite the hero, of his own story, Frank wryly yet seriously portrays his current life in sharply-observed detail, from the workings of the real estate business to the fluctuations of his skittish relationship with a woman he's not sure he loves. And, it is Richard Ford's great gift as a novelist that makes the details matter: first, in the way that they are used to create a profoundly convincing picture of particular people at a particular time and place; second, in the way that even seemingly trivial occurrences, words, gestures are shown to have significance.
Frank's career in real estate, for example, bears some relation to his moral and political beliefs. He likes to think of himself as someone who helps people find homes they can afford. He owns rental property in the town's black section and conscientiously keeps it in top-notch repair. He's also helped a redneck entrepreneur finance his birch-beer stand in the countryside. One of the few remaining Democrats in a town growing ever more Republican, Frank entertains some hope that Dukakis (whom he finds uninspiring) will defeat Bush (whom he finds even more so).
In the weeks leading up to Independence Day, however, Frank's patience is being sorely tried by an extremely indecisive, hard-to-please couple from Vermont, who find fault with every house he shows them. The Markhams are in the sad, but all-too-common position of being unable to afford the kind of house they would like. Frank perceives his job as getting them to face up to reality and take the plunge—much as he has embraced the diminishing dreams of his "existence period."
Frank's undeclared war of attrition with the Markhams, however, is pushed aside by a family crisis involving his evermore-difficult son. Despite his revulsion for the boy's buzz-saw haircut, filthy clothes, disturbing pranks, and fresh tattoo, Frank has a sneaking affection for someone who, like Frank himself, hates "Mommy's new husband." But his son is in deeper trouble than Frank first is willing to understand.
An assiduous and accomplished practitioner of contemporary realism, Richard Ford is at the top of his form, brilliantly and believably evoking all the social, psychological, and moral nuances of Frank Bascombe's world. (Speaking as someone not usually interested in sports or real estate, I can attest to the fact that both fields seemed quite fascinating as depicted here.)
Ending on a note of cautious, hard-earned optimism, Independence Day is a fully realized portrait of modern American life as filtered through the mind and heart of a unique, yet typical American man.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
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 plain-speaking and compelling 14 year old narrator of Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone, doesn't have a word for his stage of life, and he doesn't have a witty father to mint one for him. Chappie doesn't have a father at all.
That is just one of the contrasts between these very fine, very different new works of American fiction. The stories of two white man-boys, the kind one might see hanging out at a mall on a school-day afternoon, sharply illustrate the vast and growing divide between rich and poor, haves and have-nots. Independence Day, the sequel to Ford's much-praised The Sportswriter, finds Frank Bascombe, a divorced, 44-year-old former short story writer and sports journalist, selling real estate in a posh New Jersey town. It's the Fourth of July week-end in 1988, and Bascombe is emerging from what he says is his "Existence Period," a kind of mid-life crisis, a time of uncertain desire and lost love and regret, when treading water is the most that can be hoped for.
It is his son, Paul, a troubled, pudgy rich kid living with his mother and stepfather in a mansion in Connecticut, who seems to be drowning. Busted for shoplifting three boxes of extra-large condoms, Paul has his hair cut "in some new, dopey, skint-sided, buzzed-up way" and sports a tattoo that says "insect" on the inside of his right wrist. "In the next century," Paul tells his father, "we're all going to be enslaved by the insects that survived this century's pesticides. With this I acknowledge being in a band of maladapted creatures whose time is coming to a close."
Driving up to spend the Independence Day weekend touring the baseball and basketball halls of fame with his son, Bascombe tells himself that at least Paul does not suffer from what he calls "the big three:" he does not play with fire, wet his bed or torture animals. But Bascombe finds a dead bird at the gate of Paul's stepfather's mansion and knows instantly that it is his son's handiwork. Paul does torture animals.
Paul also reads The New Yorker, barks like a dog from time to time, and asks his father questions such as "Do you think I'm shallow?" When Paul steals one of his stepfather's Mercedes and crashes it, no charges are brought. The incident is hushed up, consequences avoided. Paul has suffered the pain of a brother's death and his parents' subsequent divorce. But despite his strong self-destructive streak, Paul has second chances in life and is loved by his mother and father.
In Russell Banks's Rule of the Bone, 14-year-old Chappie, like Paul, has an attention-grabbing hairdo—a Mohawk cut. He also has a pierced nostril and ears. Chappie shoplifts useless goods, too—in his case, "a silky green nightgown" from a lingerie store. In the course of the novel, Chappie gets a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm. But getting his tattoo—a pirate's crossed bones without the skull—is not an ersatz nihilistic gesture like Paul's. It is a way of remembering the innocence of his childhood, the time when his grandmother read Peter Pan to him, and of constructing his new identity as "the Bone," as he comes to call himself.
Chappie, or Bone, doesn't get second or third chances in life, or much in the way of love. Abandoned as a baby by his father, he lives in a trailer with his mother and stepfather, Ken, "basically a Nazi with a drinking problem plus a few others." He lives there, that is, until he is kicked out of the trailer for stealing his mother's rare coin collection.
Homeless and suffering, he says, from "wicked low self-esteem," Chappie sets out into the world with nothing but his wits….
In one of Banks's earlier works, The Sweet Hereafter, a character says, "In my lifetime something terrible happened that took our children away from us. I don't know if it was the Vietnam War, or the sexual colonization of kids by industry, or drugs, or TV or divorce, or what the hell it was: I don't know which are causes and which are effects; but the children are gone, that I know." In a post-industrial, postmodern, pre-nothing culture, that is the sentiment that underlies Banks's Rule of the Bone and Ford's Independence Day.
Still, despite the superficial similarities, there is an enormous gap between Paul's and Chappie's lives. Middle-class Paul hurts himself to get his divorced parents' attention; rejected by his family, Chappie seriously contemplates, then nearly commits, suicide. When Paul steals a car he is protected; Chappie, who steals a pickup truck, would be sent to one of the boot camps popular with politicians these days to have the spirit beaten out of him if he were caught.
Taken separately, Independence Day—cracking with insights into everything from what to look for when buying a house to the special ring of hell reserved for divorced spouses who still love each other—is one of the year's best novels. Rule of the Bone is a work of great humanity and empathy, and Chappie is a character who will stay vividly lodged in the memory….
Taken together, Independence Day and Rule of the Bone prove that growing up in America is not getting any easier.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4341
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 man she is now living with is telling the story, with some disgruntlement ("Sweethearts").
In the title story, the narrator, Earl, with his daughter, Cheryl, her dog, Little Duke, and Earl's girlfriend, Edna, are driving through Wyoming in a stolen car.
I'd gotten us a good car, a cranberry Mercedes I'd stolen out of an opthamologist's lot in Whitefish, Montana. I stole it because I thought it would be comfortable over a long haul, because I thought it got good mileage, which it didn't, and because I'd never had a good car in my life.
The car develops trouble in the oil line and they have to abandon it in the woods. Somehow the little group gets to a Ramada Inn, and after a bit of food and lovemaking Edna accepts Earl's offer of a bus ticket and takes off.
There he is, Earl, with Cheryl, the dog, and no car. They might as well be dead, as immobile as the stone urns for geraniums outside the inn. In the dark of night in the parking lot: "I walked over to a car, a Pontiac with Ohio tags, one of the ones with bundles and suitcases strapped to the top and a lot more in the trunk, by the way it was riding." Standing beside the car, Earl's inner soliloquy runs:
What would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?
Another story, "Optimists," begins: "All of this I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back." The father was working in the railroad yards when a hobo tried to jump off a train and was cut into three pieces. The father comes home ashen and trembling from the horrible accident he has seen. At home some recent acquaintances of his wife are playing cards. The visitor, more or less a stranger to the father, turns out to work for the Red Cross. He interrupts with a pedantic interrogation about tourniquets, resuscitation, all the while insisting that technically, as it were, the hobo didn't have to die if the father had acted properly.
In a rage of grief and the presumption of the lecture, the father hits the man, and the blow kills him. He goes to prison, comes out in a state of deterioration, begins drinking and brawling, and disappears, off somewhere. The years pass and one day the son sees his mother with a strange man shopping for groceries at a mall. The son and mother talk briefly, but with a good deal of inchoate affection. And that is more or less it. "And she bent down and kissed my cheek through the open window and touched my face with both her hands, held me for a moment that seemed like a long time before she turned away, finally, and left me there alone."
The smooth and confident use of the first person narration in these brilliant stories is especially remarkable when they are told by petty thieves, the stranded and delinquent. Here the "I" is not remembering or recasting, but living in the pure present, in the misbegotten events of the day. The focus is of such directness, the glare of reality so bright, that the shadow of the manipulating author does not fall inadvertently on the deputed "I"—who is in no way a creature of literary sensibility. The tone and rhythm of the composition, the feat of being inside the minds, or the heads, as they make their deplorable decisions and connections, infuse the pages with a kind of tolerance for false hope and felony and rotten luck.
The Montana landscape in Rock Springs is empty and beautiful and lonely. The men do whatever kind of work turns up and are always being laid off. There is nothing but hunting and fishing, sex, and drinking and fighting. Wives go off to Seattle or Spokane, just for a change. Young girls and not-so-young men turn up in the taverns and get into a lot of trouble for themselves and others. So your wife has taken off with a groom from the dog track and a couple of huge, rough women turn up at your door with a deer gruesomely slain lying in their pickup; and you will be glad for their knock, for the company, which will be a mistake. Recklessness is the mode of life, but what the stories seem to be saying is that people are not always as bad as what they do, something like that. No judgment is solicited, and yet the desperation and folly arouse pity, the pity that everywhere sends girlfriends, mothers and children, grandparents and old pals trundling out to the prisons for visiting hours.
In the novel Wildlife, a son is the observer of the sudden defections and panics of his parents. "In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him." The tactful, muted eloquence of the tone is a sort of balance for the unstable inner and natural landscape. It is Great Falls, Montana, and the forest fires of summer are still smoking and glowing in the autumn sky. The parents have lived and been to college in Washington state and have come to Montana from Idaho, thinking money could be made from the oil boom. But prosperity does not extend itself to them and so the father works at the airbase for two days a week and otherwise as a golf pro at the local country club. He is rudely laid off at the club because of a false accusation. In Ford's fiction the West, with its fabled openness under the big sky and all that, is a place of emotional collapse from forced or glumly accepted idleness, an invitation to dangerous brooding over the whiskey bottle. After such an acute brooding and character upheaval the father somehow gets a chance to save his soul, or self-image, by being allowed to take a place with the knowledgeable firefighters in the forest, although he has no experience beyond the flaming egos on the golf course.
The mother is alone for three days. She and the son visit the voracious Warren Miller, a man with a limp and soon to die of a "lengthy illness," a man with lots of money, grain elevators, and other assets, and a wife who has gone off somewhere, a man with a house. In the house the mother and the son spend the night after the older folks have been drinking and dancing. The unresisting mother is seduced and on the spot decides to leave her husband and set herself up in a rented flat, there to accommodate what she foolishly believes will be a better life with Warren Miller. Shifts in direction, improvisations, sleepwalking into calamitous consequence seem to be in this fiction part of the effect the Western states have upon the mind. The characters are still pulling the wagon across the frontier, looking for a place to settle.
The father comes down from the burning hills to meet his domestic surprise. In a fury ignited by betrayal and alcohol, he picks up a can of gasoline at the local pump and, thinking his wife is inside, sets fire to Miller's house; the fire is not serious and no charges are filed. Miller indeed fled the scene with another woman in tow, not the wife. After some years of wandering, the mother returns to Great Falls, and the son reflects that something has died between them but something remained. "We survived it." A benign accent in the style of narration covers Wildlife in a forgiving mist. The quiet pacing through the threat of the landscape and the predatory challenge of experience is a compromise, the rain falling on the blackened trees.
Before he went West, so to speak, in his stories and in the novel Wildlife, Richard Ford had published three books of fiction: A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck, and The Sportswriter. A Piece of My Heart, the first, is an elaborate, stylistically ambitious, and complex novel, somewhat in the Southern Gothic vein. The setting is Mississippi and there are two old people in their decayed mansion, the man a relentlessly loquacious, cursing, shrewd old fellow. The estate is connected by boat to an island where people from town pay to hunt duck and for the turkey shoot in season. Two young men, each of whom has an alternating section of the book, come to the spread. One is a Columbia graduate enrolled in the University of Chicago Law School; he's in a slump and his girlfriend thinks that, since he is a native Mississippian, he might pull himself together by a spell at the estate, owned by a relation of hers. This character, perhaps an echo of Faulkner's Quentin Compson, is not entirely successful, owing to the mingled yarn in the knit of his rather far-flung situation.
The other young man, named Robard, might be a character in one of the stories in Rock Springs. His fate is powerfully and alarmingly conceived in the intense thicket of the action. Robard wakes up in the dark of early morning, looks at his wife peacefully sleeping, and, although he has gentle feelings for her, takes off without leaving a word. His journey, his hardscrabble trek to the swamp of sex, has come about from a curious, oblique feeling of obligation to experience. Some years before, Robard had picked up a young woman on the road when her car broke down. They ended up in a motor court for a raw, lascivious night or two, and for Robard that was the end of it, but not for her, Beuna by name. Beuna is a seriously dreadful encounter, a sex fiend, a sort of barnyard creature of befoulment—illustrating, if such is the need, the joke of the assertion that the pornographic imagination and desires arise from books and movies rather than from the somehow inevitable contents of the human mind.
Time has passed and Beuna is married to W. W., a broken-down bush league ballplayer and a deputy sheriff. Beuna does not find much satisfaction in W. W., and since she knows where Robard lives she begins to send messages to him and to make disturbing phone calls, delivered with a panting absolute demand for a reunion. Robard finally takes off to meet her. His emotions are murky and guarded and he means to return. Beuna's insistence over the weeks and months gives Robard the sense that something has entered his life he can't altogether deny. He is broke and to complete his destiny he takes a job at the estate, acting as a guard on the island to keep poachers away.
His true "business," as he calls it, is to go into town in the evening to find Beuna. They meet and bed down in a scabby rent-a-cabin place, where she says the proprietor wouldn't care if you took a "goddamn sheep in here." For the tryst, Beuna has brought a plastic bag of excrement. There is a merciful blackout of the subsequent congress, but at last it is the cue for Robard to climb out of the pit of Eros, find his truck, and get back to the island. W. W. is nosing after him in his Plymouth, shotgun at the ready. Almost free of the pursuing Furies Robard meets his death, his release, when he is shot as a poacher by a boy who is taking his place as guard on the island.
The backcountry landscape, the waters of the river at night, the woods, the sullen towns are rendered with a tireless fluency. As a principal in a sordid tangle of compulsion, Robard, nevertheless, is conceived in tragic terms and is the most touching of Richard Ford's doom-stricken young men, rushing to certain destruction, to Beuna, who, by the unfortunate meeting on the road, has become "a piece of my heart."
Ford's second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, is another trip altogether, this time to Mexico, around Oaxaca. It is a steamy ride through the south of the border labyrinth, with characters who are defined by situation, plot, intrigue, and denouement. They have a certain brittleness as they act out their roles; and there is a cinema noir aspect to the landscape of drug smuggling, prisons, bribery, disappearances, threats of murder, and actual murder. Quinn, a Vietnam vet, and his mistress or whatever, Rae, are engaged in an effort to get Rae's brother, Sonny, out of the hell of a Mexican prison.
Sonny has been picked up for drug smuggling and his escape or release is to be accomplished by bribery, mysterious connections, and enigmatic maneuvers under the direction of a shadowy lawyer named Bernhardt, who, along the way, is murdered for his efforts in the matter or perhaps for some other malfeasance. Also there is a character, a "spade," to use the locution of the drug world, named Deals. Deals is out to get Sonny since, as a partner, he believes Sonny has skimmed the profits of one of their big drug exchanges. He also thinks Sonny wants to be in jail to escape the serious retribution he, Deals, has in mind. The language is rich, there is, or so it seems, a deep saturation in the countryside, the bars, the alleys, the prison, the midnight world. No one is sympathetic; there's not much to be said for Quinn, and Rae, embarked on her act of charitable rescue, is stoned most of the time. Sonny is not an object of moral concern since he is stupid, greedy, and a natural loser. The Ultimate Good Luck has a curious sheen of high glamour as a genuinely imaginative example of a genre, if that is the proper word for this visit to the underworld.
The Sportswriter followed the first two novels and preceded the Western stories and the novel Wildlife, Frank Bascombe is the sportswriter, living by choice in Haddam, New Jersey, a pleasant suburban town of moderate physical and social dimensions, suitable to Bascombe's moderate expectations from life. He has published a book of stories which did moderately well, started and abandoned a novel, and is moderately content to be something of an oddity in the arts, where an early kiss from the Muse is likely to leave a lifelong discoloration on the cheek. He is not a failed writer but one who fails to write another fiction or poem. What is to prevent your writing, dear? the forlorn wife in George Gissing's New Grub Street asks of her miserable husband trapped in the period of the three decker novel. Bascombe's answer would have been a cheerful: I prefer not to.
But even Bascombe's cheerfulness is moderated by the dark wings of melancholy, after the death of his son Ralph, and the divorce from his wife, here called X. The most remarkable aspect of this engaging character is his remove from paranoia, the national and literary mode of the time. Bascombe is offered a job on a well-known sports magazine, published in New York, to which he chooses to commute. Needless to say he does not take sports or sportswriting with undue seriousness.
I make my other calls snappy—one is to an athletic shoe designer in Denver for a "Sports Chek" round-up box I'm pulling together on foot injuries…. Another call is to a Carmelite nun in Fayetteville, West Virginia, who is trying to run in the Boston Marathon. Once a polio victim, she is facing an up-hill credentials fight in her quest to compete, and I'm glad to put a plug in for her in our "Achievers" column.
The scene shifts, as it often does in this work crowded with incidents and people met along the way, shifts to a trip to Detroit to interview Herb Wallagher, an ex-lineman who lost his legs in a ski-boat accident and is now in a wheelchair. The interview is not profitable, even though the sportswriter tries to rouse Herb about the game of football: "But I'd still think it had some lessons to teach to the people who played it. Perseverance. Team work. Comradeship. That kind of thing." To which, Herb replies: "Forget all that crap, Frank."
The trip to Detroit is made with Vicki, cute and with far greater common sense than Bascombe, she being a nurse in the local hospital. She talks about a "C-liver terminal, already way into uremia when he admitted, which is not that bad cause it usually starts 'em dreamin about their pasts and off their current problem." Scenes and characters float into this suburban novel on the wide stream of Bascombe's obstinate receptiveness. The Divorced Men's Club, which Bascombe attends, brings him into an encounter with poor Walter Luckett, whose wife has taken off to Bimini with a man named Eddie Pitcock. Walter has a secret he wants to share. After a few drinks with a Wall Street colleague, he finds himself going to bed with him, not once but again and again in the fellow's New York apartment. Walter is troubled and as naive as a country-boy sailor on his first shore leave in Naples or some such place. In what could be called a sentimental confusion, for that is his nature, he commits suicide one night.
One of the most brilliant scenes is Bascombe's Easter Sunday visit with Vicki's family. Her father, a turnpike toll-taker, has somehow gotten an old Chrysler into his small, wet basement and is restoring it fin by fin, with full attention to broken and rusted chrome. Her brother, Cade, a boat mechanic, is on the wait list at the Police Academy. Cade has already "developed a flateyed officer's uninterest for the peculiarities of his fellow man." Lynette, the father's second wife, is working on the crisis line at the Catholic church. She has "transformed her dining room into a hot little jewel box, crystal candle chandelier, best silver and linens laid" for "the pallid lamb congealed and hard as a wood chip and the … peas and broccoli flower alongside it cold as Christmas." In the midst of all this, Bascombe's thought is: "what strange good luck to be reckoned among these people like a relative welcome from Peoria."
The Sportswriter is a sophisticated book that celebrates life as it comes and speaks in its voice, often with devastating humor, and a hypnotic sinking into every spot of the turf. Easter Sunday: "the optimist's holiday, the holiday with the suburbs in mind" and the sermon about the Resurrection: "Well now, let's us just hunker down to a real miracle, while we're putting two and two together … let's just let plasma physics and bubble chambers and quarks try to explain this one." The vitality of the novel lies in the freedom and expressiveness of this first-person excursion through New Jersey, Detroit, the Berkshires, and the bearable shambles of Bascombe's life.
Independence Day, Richard Ford's new novel, returns to Frank Bascombe. Rabbit Redux?—not quite. Bascombe is an upscale ruminant, now in his forties, with opinions about everything, and Emerson's "Self-Reliance" in the glove compartment. There is no outstanding typicality in him; instead he has the mysteriousness of the agreeable, nice person, harder to describe than the rake, the miser, or the snob. As a professional, or a working man, his resume is unsteady—short-story writer, sportswriter, and now a "realtor." The wobbly nature of Bascombe's status makes him a creditable collector; nothing need be rejected, not the trash of the road signs, clichés produced with a ring of discovery, the program on TV, the decor of the Sleepy Hollow Motel on Route 1, or the "fanlights, columned entries and Romany fluting" of the houses on the better streets.
Selling real estate is a good way to get about town, but a poor way to reach "closure." The business is a serial plot of indignities—tune in tomorrow. Joe and Phyllis Markham have decided to get out of their hand-built house in Vermont, "with cantilevered cathedral ceilings and a hand-laid hearth and chimney, using stones off the place," to try a suburban New Jersey life style and better schools for their daughter. They "have looked at forty-five houses—dragging more and more grimly down from … Vermont." The fearsome negotiations, or lack of them, provide a miserably comic underpinning to Bascombe's days and nights.
The other block of the story is a hazardous trip, a Fourth of July journey with his son, Paul, to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, where they stay in The Deerslayer Lodge. Paul is a thoroughly complicated and unpredictable young man of fifteen. He has stolen boxes of condoms, for which he had no use, from a pharmacy; he barks like a dog in memory of his dead dog and probably in memory of his dead brother, Ralph. Underneath his basket of misdemeanors and off-tone noises, he is a gentle teen-ager and will probably come to resemble his father's more acceptable waywardness. At the Baseball Hall of Fame, Paul seriously damages an eye in the batter's cage, a tourist attraction that allows one to seem to swat a ball like Babe Ruth. His mother, now remarried to a rich architect, comes up in a helicopter and takes him to New Haven for surgery.
There are many other diversions: Sally, Bascombe's girlfriend, the renters of a house he owns, old friends, and new passersby. And as always with Richard Ford, the sense of place, towns, houses, highways is luminous in lavish, observed detail.
I drive windingly out Montmorency Road into Haddam horse country—our little Lexington—where fences are long, white and orthogonal, pastures wide and sloping, and roads … slip across shaded, rocky rills via wooden bridges and through the quaking aspens back to rich men's domiciles snugged deep in summer foliage … and here, wedges of old-growth hardwoods still loom, trees that saw Revolutionary armies rumble past, heard the bugles, shouts and defiance cries of earlier Americans in their freedom swivet, and beneath which now tawny-haired heiresses in jodhpurs stroll to the paddock with a mind for a noon ride alone.
In passing it might be remarked that Ford is the first, if memory serves, to give full recognition to the totemic power in American life of the telephone and the message service. At one point he pauses at the Vince Lombardi Rest Area, across from the Giants Stadium, to check his messages. There are ten of them, listed with content, among them obscenities from Joe Markham, client. Often Bascombe will interrupt the plot to make a dreamy call to a former lover, who may not immediately place him or may be cooking dinner. In The Sportswriter the call is to Selma, a friend from his spell as a teacher at Berkshire College. In the present novel, he gets on the line to Cathy, a medical student he spent time with in France a few years back. He's hoping for "a few moments' out of context, ad hominem, pro-bono phone 'treatment.'" Ring, ring, ring, click, click, click, and the machine answers: "Hi. This is Cathy and Steve's answering mechanism. We're not home now. Really. I promise." In Frank Bascombe's world a good deal of the information necessary to move forward is given over the phone.
(Recently, in the O. J. Simpson trial, the prosecution, following week after wearying week, month after month building its beaver dam of circumstantial particulars, spent quite a lot of time with the record of O. J.'s car phone around the time projected for the murders. The record keeper for the phone company dutifully went down the list, the purpose seeming to be that the number of busy signals and no answers might slip into the mind of the jurors as yet another twig forming the rage that led to double homicide. No answer motivation.)
Independence Day, if you're taking measurements like the nurse in a doctor's office, might be judged longer than it need be. But longer for whom? Every rumination, each flash of magical dialogue or unexpected mile on the road with a stop at the pay phone, is a wild surprise tossed off as if it were just a bit of cigarette ash by Richard Ford's profligate imagination. The Sportswriter and Independence Day are comedies—not farces, but realistic, good natured adventures, sunny, yes, except when the rain it raineth everyday. The new work, Independence Day, is the confirmation of a talent as strong and varied as American fiction has to offer.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1519
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 imagination of his contemporaries in their late 40's and early 50's who are obsessed with real estate and the buying and selling of houses. It is a generation for whom real estate has become a metaphor for human fulfillment.
He takes Frank Bascombe, the main character from his third novel, The Sportswriter, and transposes him to another time, about five years later, where, having failed in his career as a writer, he is now selling real estate in Haddam, N.J., a fictional town that bears many similarities to Princeton.
Frank, Charles Johnson wrote in The New York Times Book Review, is "a character we know as well as we know our next-door neighbors. Frank Bascombe has earned himself a place beside Willy Loman and Harry Angstrom in our literary landscape."
He is a survivor of the 1960's and all its enthusiasms. "Holding the line on the life we promised ourselves in the 60's is getting hard as hell," Frank muses. In the space of four days over a Fourth of July weekend, he carries on a love affair, longs for his ex-wife and drives his son—a 13-year-old who has been arrested for shoplifting condoms and has taken to barking like a dog in memory of a dead pet—on a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. He also tries to sell a house to an unhappy couple, the Markhams. He has shown them 45, none of them "right." Frank is a forgiving man with a saintly patience.
Mr. Ford makes virtual poetry out of real-estate nomenclature in Independence Day: "1,900 sq. ft. including garage," he writes, in a kind of song, "three-bedroom, two-bath, expandable, no fplc." The words "unsolvable structural enigmas, cast-iron piping with suspicions of lead" take on a gently ominous tone; "grounded wall sockets" and "Ten-four on a 30-year fixed, plus a point, plus an application fee," have a kind of melody. He meditates lovingly on "belvedere," "oriel," "aluminum flashing" and "soffit vent." For Mr. Ford, these are words you can roll your tongue around and relish.
Mr. Ford is 51, tall, with longish, straight, thin gray hair, pale blue eyes and a high domed forehead. At the moment, he owns a town house here with an interior courtyard and a gallery overlooking Bourbon Street; sometimes he works in a room that was part of the residence's old slave quarters. He also owns a bungalow in Montana, where his 1988 collection of short stories, Rock Springs, was set. A native Mississippian, he leases a big white plantation house in the Mississippi Delta as well so he can stay close to his roots.
"Whenever we go to a town," said Mrs. Ford, a 40-year-old urban planner and former model, "Richard really likes to go to the real estate office. We've lived in so many places that our best friends are Realtors."
Mrs. Ford is executive director of the New Orleans City Planning Commission. "Her interests made it seem to me that the business of how land is used is a fit subject for one's concerns," Mr. Ford said.
"Some people think of real estate salesmen as sleazeballs and shysters," he went on. "A profession in which a human being finds shelter for others is in fact important. Real estate agents are in the business of helping us all find ways to realize our dreams."
"I'm also sensitive to the fact that these are desperate human situations," he added. "If you have a balloon mortgage, it's a nightmare!"
At one point in Mr. Ford's book, Frank Bascombe observes, "You don't sell a house to somebody, you sell a life."
It was in 1991, when he had just finished two novellas, that Mr. Ford realized from his notebooks that Frank was speaking to him again. "I was on the sniff of a book," he said. "A feeling about the Northeast overtook me. It seemed fragrant in a way. I took a month and went up to Princeton and rented a room in a bed-and-breakfast."
He had lived in Princeton from 1976 to 1982, while Mrs. Ford was teaching at New York University and Rutgers. He had worked as a sportswriter then and taught writing at Princeton University.
To research Independence Day, he drove around New England and New York State registering his impressions in a tape recorder. He made numerous trips to Cooperstown because "I wanted to see it in different seasons."
"My job as a writer was to find language for that which did not seem to invite it," Mr. Ford said. "To describe Connecticut Route 9 was the challenge of a lifetime. To describe U.S. Route 7 between North Ridgefield and Danbury as seen at night, in the work of a writer, is equal to Edward Hopper painting," he said with a laugh.
Itinerancy is in his blood. His father was a traveling salesman for a starch company, and Mr. Ford was born in the middle of his route, in Jackson, Miss. He grew up across the street from a house where Eudora Welty had lived. When he was little, his mother pointed Ms. Welty out to him: "I could tell from the tone of my mother's voice that being a writer was something estimable."
"Mississippi is very kind to its writers," he said. Today he and Ms. Welty are close friends.
Mr. Ford was an only child. He was also dyslexic. "My mother stood over me and made me learn to read," he recalls. Being dyslexic may even have helped him as a writer: "It makes me pore over words, sound words out in my mind."
The South of his childhood was a culture of "mouthing and punning, a lot of play on words, disrespectful jiving about our elders," he said. "I began to realize how much pleasure there was to language."
When he was 16, his father died, and he spent some time in Little Rock, Ark., with his grandparents. At Michigan State University, he met Kristina Hensley, a daughter of an Air Force pilot who had herself moved every three years. He tried law school but dropped out after less than a year. He went on to study writing with E. L. Doctorow at the University of California, Irvine.
His first two novels were A Piece of My Heart, about the rural South on the cusp of modern life, and The Ultimate Good Luck, about drug dealers in Mexico. All of his novels have a common thread: the men are wry, wistful, vaguely melancholy, the women viewed mostly through the prism of the men's needs.
The two books were not commercially successful. "The first two novels didn't go into paperback at a time when you could put snow tires into paperback," he said. "I felt they were as good a books as I could write; this is the world talking to you!" So in 1981, he decided to "hang it up."
"I wasn't downcast," he said. "I don't take being a writer for granted." He wrote for Inside Sports but lost the work when the magazine was sold. He was still living in Princeton, and "I thought, 'What am I going to do?' Maybe write a book about a guy who's a sportswriter." The Sportswriter, set in New Jersey, was written in Montana after the Fords left Princeton.
"Richard always writes backward," said Mrs. Ford, who plays an integral part in his work. After finishing a novel, he sometimes reads the entire work aloud to her, though Independence Day, a 700-page manuscript, was too long for that.
They even go bird hunting together. "We spoil each other," he said of their relationship. Still, he often spends weeks apart from his wife so he can concentrate. "When Kristina walks into the room, everything changes. I have to get up and see what she's doing. I have to erect a barricade around myself."
They have no children. "I'm not crazy about kids," he said. "It's easier to imagine them than to raise them yourself." But in Frank Bascombe's son, Paul, Mr. Ford has imagined an awkward, rude, unwashed teen-ager with vividness. "The condition of 15-year-olds in American culture is not a secret," he said. "It's in the American air."
For the moment, Independence Day has emptied Mr. Ford's novelistic reservoir, so he is writing a screenplay. Next winter he plans to write a novella and an essay about his father. "If I could find something else to do, I could not do it," he says of his writing. "Nothing is promised to me."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2332
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 finished. It was going to be about an ex-Marine in Tangiers, a place Frank had never visited but which he 'assumed was like Mexico'. In his late thirties, with the abandoned manuscript in a drawer, Frank looks back with bemusement at these efforts to sound 'hard nosed and old-eyed about things'.
This is an accurate enough diagnosis of what was wrong with Ford's first two books, A Plece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck, both of which were published in Britain only in the wake of the success of his third, The Sportswriter. A Plece of My Heart was swamped by low-lit contrivances, by loading the banal with a freight of what Frank comes to call 'hard emptinesses':
'I ain't hot,' he said, keeping his head sealed against his wrist and spitting in the dust.
She got quiet, and he decided to let things be quiet awbile.
'I'm waitin,' she said.
'What're you waitin on?' he said …
She sat staring straight out at the long curve in the road, breathing deeply.
Set in Oaxaca—a place like Tangiers?—The Ultimate Good Luck is harder ('Quinn wanted the money put away fast') and emptier: 'Money gave him nerves. It was too important to fuck with.' Quinn is a Vietnam vet (naturally) who, in the opening pages, takes a girl he's just met to a boxing match. 'He wanted this fight to be over and better fighters to come in, and so did the Mexicans.' The boxer has an eye put out but Quinn doesn't even blink. After the fight the girl sucks him off in his room, and after that there's a lot of bad-ass chat and some shooting. In both these early novels, incidentally, cigarettes are not 'put out' or 'stubbed out' but 'mashed'.
According to Frank Bascombe, the problem with his earlier stories was that he could always 'see around the sides' of what he was writing, just as we can see around the sides of what Ford was doing in his first books: when male American writers take us to a boxing match, it's generally so we can watch them squaring up to Hemingway. Writing about sport, though, Frank hit on a style that was entirely his own, 'a no-frills voice that hopes to uncover simple truths by a straight-on application of the facts'. That was Hemingway's intention too, of course, but by now Papa's has become a frill-a-minute legacy; sparseness has itself become ornamental. No, this is an ambition that all writers have to fulfil—unfrill—for themselves. For Ford this was the discovery of writing frankly, or Frankly. If anything of Hemingway survives into this phase of Ford's writing it is what John Cheever (himself an influence) claimed you could sniff in all of Hemingway's work: the smell of loneliness.
Ford had always been a writer with a message, in the sense that there was always a mood, a resolution, his fiction was drawn towards; he wanted to put over a generalised sense of the way things tended. But he had done this through people (like the hero of Bascombe's unfinished novel) on the edge of things. With Frank Bascombe he was able to realise this ambition through a man who was in the middle of everything: born in the middle of the century, middle-class (Ford's earlier protagonists were drifters), suburban, stalled in the middle of life's journey. Born into 'an ordinary modern existence in 1945', he is 'an ordinary citizen' living the 'normal applauseless life of us all'. Years ago, in the Marine cadets, he was 'somewhat more than average'—and still is in the sense that his is an achieved ordinariness, an ordinariness Ford renders with extraordinary precision.
Emptiness, here in the suburbs, is not hard but delicate, manageable even. The Sportswriter opens on Good Friday, when Frank and his ex-wife meet at the grave of their dead child. The whole book circles around the loss (of child, of wife, of literary ambition) and the 'terrible searing regret' that underwrites—but is all the time threatening to undermine—Frank's accommodation with the everyday. Not least among the novel's remarkable achievements is the way that, for Frank, acknowledgment and evasion are indistinguishable from each other. Ford sustains a tone in which numbness, comfort, desolation and contentment are present in equal measure. This complex of antinomies generates tremendous, unrelieved suspense—we never know where the consequences of the smallest actions will end—which leaves the reader of this awful almost-comedy in an appropriately compounded state of relaxed and exhausted admiration.
The sequel, Independence Day, finds Frank in his so called 'Existence Period'. Having abandoned serious writing for sports journalism, he has now given up sportswriting to sell real estate. He's in his forties, still living in Haddam, New Jersey (in his ex-wife's house), going about his unremarkable business: collecting rent—or trying to—on a house he owns, showing properties to a couple of increasingly wretched clients, and preparing, as in The Sportswriter, for a holiday weekend away. Not, this time, with a 'lady friend' but with Paul, his troubled teenage son.
Since Ford locates the novel so precisely, on a Fourth of July weekend in 1988 with elections looming, you think initially that Frank, like John Updike's Rabbit, will serve as some kind of litmus test for America's larger fortunes. This turns out not to be Ford's intention, or at most it is only tangential. He battens everything down, anchors the details of every action to a particular historical moment, because he needs to hold his novel tightly in place while simultaneously allowing Frank's monologue to drift where it will. A digressive novel by most standards, The Sportswriter was, by comparison, wire-taut. It hummed. Ford's version of suspense in Independence Day is to leave things hanging. He seems to pay out the narrative willy-nilly, carelessly, haphazardly. When calamity strikes and the novel snaps, the wrench is even harder because of all the apparent surplus that has been piling up in harmless coils and loops. Only then do you realise that the narrative rope has been measured out inch by inch.
It's a risky business, though. At times Independence Day nudges too close to the ordinariness it depicts. When Frank advises us of every twist and turn of his itinerary—'up to 80, where untold cars are all flooding eastward, then west to Hackensack, up 17 past Paramus, onto the Garden State north (again!), though eerily enough there's little traffic; through River Edge and Oradell and Westwood, and two tolls to the New York line, then east to Nyack and the Tappan Zee, down over Tarrytown'—we switch off, let it wash over us without registering where he's going. Whisking us off on a 'bystander's cruise' through town, he succumbs to what is either an exhaustive short (or a highly abbreviated long) hand:
past the closed PO, the closed Frenchy's Gulf, the nearly empty August Inn, the Coffee Spot, around the Square, past the Press Box Bar, the closed Lauren-Schwindell Office, Garden State S & L, the somnolent Institute itself and the always officially open but actually profoundly closed First Presbyterian, where the WELCOME sign out front says, Happy Birthday America! ∗ 5K Race ∗ HE Can Help You At The Finish Line!
As narrator, in other words, Frank is carrying some extra weight these days, suffering a little middle-page spread. Not that it bothers him. In his semi-resigned way he's actually pretty chipper, 'larrupping' down the ole highway, heart going 'ker-whonk' as he notices a girl sway 'waaaay back' on her heels. When prose is as easy on the ear as this you have to attend carefully lest, lulled by the lope of Frank's voice, you miss important turns (of phrase, of action). In the itinerary passage quoted earlier, it turns out, there were none; but it is by tailgating the quotidian like this that Ford captures these interludes, too vague and drifting even to be termed states of mind, the aggregate of which gives the Existence Period its characterless character.
Frank's voice also proves surprisingly flexible. With no perceptible change of gear it can cry out like Rilke before gliding back into the humdrum:
My heart has begun whompeting again at the antiseptic hospital colours, frigid surfaces and the strict, odourless, traffic flow yin-yang of everything within sight and hearing … And everything's lugubriously, despairingly for something; nothing's just for itself or, better, for nothing. A basket of red geraniums would be yanked, a copy of American Cage Birds magazine tossed like an apple core. A realty guide, a stack of Annie Get Your Gun tickets—neither would last five minutes before somebody had it in the trash.
Lucky American writers, for whom the dominant narrative voice of literature is so close to the lives of the people within the narrative! 'Every time I talk to you I feel everything's being written by you,' complains Frank's ex-wife at one point. 'That's awful. Isn't it?' Skew things round a little, though—everything Frank writes sounds as if it could have been said by someone in the book—and it becomes anything but awful. Think of the hoops James Kelman has had to wedge himself through to close the gap between narrative and dialogue; then think of Ford and that all-accommodating, middle-of-the-road voice that is equally at home either side of inverted commas.
As in The Sportswriter, much of the action of Independence Day involves Frank chatting with people he bumps into. Characters—even those with walk-on parts like Mr Tanks, the removal man, his wristwatch 'sunk into his great arm', or Char, the cook with whom Frank almost gets something going—step into the book and are instantly, vividly present. They don't even have to be present to be present: when Frank phones through to check messages on his answering machine, a deserted motel lobby is suddenly jostling with six or seven people, all breathing down his neck. (Ford, as far as I know, is the first novelist to have tapped the potential of this relatively recent technological innovation; I'm surprised Nicholson Baker hasn't made a whole book out of it.)
I mention these messages because of the way they reveal Ford's skill at conveying entire lives in very few words. (Nothing in The Sportswriter is more suggestive of the gulf/bond between Frank and the world than the exchanges with his near-suicidal acquaintance Walter Luckett, each of them finishing everything they say with the other's Christian name.) He also has an uncanny ability to make what characters say somehow contain the light or weather that surrounds them. A gesture is implied by a voice, a state of mind by a gesture. In Wildlife, the fine short novel Ford published in 1990, between the two Bascombe books, the teenage narrator sees his mother on the phone to her lover, 'winding the phone cord around her finger and looking at me through the door as she talked to him'. The new book is dense with moments like this, where the psychological dynamics of a scene are inherent in a few simple movements—as when Frank is ferrying around a couple of housebuyers who are close to 'realty meltdown':
'Maybe we should think about renting,' Phyllis says vacantly. I have her in my mirror, keeping to herself like a bereaved widow. She has been staring at the hubcap bazaar next door, where no one's visible in the rain-soaked yard, though the hubcaps sparkle and clank in the breeze. She may be seeing something as a metaphor for something else.
Unexpectedly, though, she sits forward and lays a consolidating mitt on Joe's bare, hairy shoulder, which causes him to jump like he'd been stabbed. Though he quickly detects this as a gesture of solidarity and tenderness, and lumpily reaches round and grabs her hand with his … It is the bedrock gesture of marriage, something I have somehow missed out on, and rue.
The journey made by Frank and his son both locates Independence Day quite consciously within the tradition of the American novel and implicitly tugs that tradition towards Ford's own preferred territory. From Haddam they head to Cooperstown, to the dawn, as it were, of the American novel, where James Fenimore Cooper's name is preserved in dozens of variants of the Leatherstocking Giftshop or the Deerslayer Inn, where Frank and Paul spend the night. Frank is struck by the geography involved in their journey from Haddam, by the way that 'in three hours you can stand on the lapping shores of Long Island Sound, staring like Jay Gatz at a beacon light that lures you to, or away from, your fate; yet in three hours you can be heading for cocktails damn near where old Natty drew first blood—the two locales as unalike as Seattle is to Waco.'
And in the middle of these two literary poles, of course, is Haddam, New Jersey, where Ford stakes his own claim to literary greatness. It's tantamount to his saying—to making exactly what the book's title commemorates: a declaration—that he is right up there. I would not dispute the claim: it's not just that Ford deploys the he-did-this, she-did-that traditional tools and qualities of the writer's art so abundantly; also, and perhaps more important, he reminds us that these qualities are themselves difficult to surpass. You can go beyond them but you cannot better them.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040
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 Sportswriter, has moved Frank Bascombe, his narrator and protagonist, from sports magazine journalism into the real-estate business. For the realtor, if he has moved his science to the level of art, is part social historian, part character analyst. He daily redraws the line of the shifting American Frontier—charts the highways, Shop Rite malls, suburban enclaves, shrines, motels, trailer parks, and honky tonks which speckle the skin over the American soul—and matches this particular acre with its two-bedroom clapboard bungalow with this particular migrant family's dream.
When we left Frank Bascombe in Easter week six years ago, he was thirty-eight, a Haddam (Princeton), New Jersey, recently divorced father of a boy and girl and a dead son whom he and his ex-wife (called "X") still mourned. He was a good, though rootless, man, a seeker who struck others as having a "sense of ethics," though he consistently denies having the admirable traits which others perceive. Then he was ready for a fling in Florida with Cathy Flaherty, a Dartmouth student who admired his writing. We liked Frank, perhaps because he didn't judge, and we thought he might like us; and we wondered—hoping—whether he would return to his wife and to the serious fiction from which sportswriting had distracted him.
When we pick him up this 1988 fourth-of-July weekend, Frank is forty-four, and he and the nation which he both embodies and meticulously observes have, like an untended piece of property, gone down. Bush and Dukakis are squabbling for the presidency; Frank's wife Ann has married a rich, sixty-one-year-old architect, who "knows Bush," and taken the children to Connecticut. Frank has moved into Ann's former house in Haddam, has had his fling with Cathy in France, had another affair with a black real-estate partner who was later raped and murdered, keeps a girlfriend Sally in Mantoloking, and strives to apply his Good Samaritan instincts to real estate, taking good care of his two properties in a black neighborhood and dealing fairly and patiently with a thuggish client couple from Vermont. His plan: "to do for others while looking after Number One." Friends describe him as "sweet" and "priestly"; but we like him a little less. Perhaps as a sign of how American culture has coarsened, so has Frank's narrative vocabulary, and he occasionally addresses us in a vulgar lingo—of which The Sportswriter was relatively free.
Though Independence Day opens with Frank's seriocomic analysis of the Haddam real-estate business as the town gears up for the holiday weekend, the novel's focus soon becomes Frank's troubled fifteen-year-old son Paul. Frank fears the boy, once a lover of pigeons, may have killed a grackle just for kicks. Paul has grown fat, sloppy, and injury-prone, been arrested for shoplifting condoms, slugged his stepfather, and wrecked the family car. He goes around barking for his long-dead dog, and, in banter with his father, likes to talk dirty.
By his own lights as good a parent as he can be, Frank plans to "rescue" the boy by taking him on a holiday tour of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. He will impart his fatherly wisdom, and, at the same time, by having Paul read the Declaration of Independence and Emerson's "Self Reliance," and by chatting in the car about Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, he will enlist American history in his struggle for the boy's salvation. Ironically, Frank is also reverting to sports nostalgia, which Ford eviscerated in The Sportswriter, as if Cooperstown were an American Mecca, or Rome, or Lourdes, where exposure to the Great Pastime in its purest form could heal the scars of death and divorce.
Displaying again his astonishing mastery of New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York roadmaps—their physical as well as moral landscapes—Ford sweeps us in a four-day whirl through an election-year America which de Tocqueville foretold—filled with ambitious men but empty of lofty ambitions: Where Roy Rogers is not a cowboy hero but a fast-food joint on the Jersey Turnpike, where virtually everyone is divorced, where murder is almost as commonplace as the car alarm whining and whooping in the night, where the suspicious-looking Mexican youths cruising by your hot dog stand really are getting set to rob you, where the neighborhood cop or the "polite" security guard with the gold stud in his ear symbolizes not security but the intimations of the coming police state.
And where, especially if we have read Ford's other books, we sense a catastrophe lurking around the bend. Yet Ford's men and women, though they suffer from the American virus of excessive individualism, yearn to be connected. In one startling, yet plausible, surprise, Frank's long-lost Jewish half-brother appears like a biblical angel at a moment of crisis to remind him of the hidden continuity that has linked his life. Though they celebrate "independence," Ford's characters are obviously dependent on one another, as if each one were a bird with one wounded wing who by hooking up with the other birds could flutter to safety. The implements of their connectedness—cellular phones, gas station pay phones, voice mail, helicopters, sex manuals, the Trenton Times, a discarded volume of Frank's short stories, routes 1, 91, and 84, and a people-mover in the Basketball Hall of Fame arena from which the tourists shoot baskets—are hardly spiritual. But occasionally they make possible what Ford terms that "Sistine Chapel touch," when two fingertips meet, and Richard Ford continues to create, in this stunning book, what William Dean Howells stated as his own goal, a "literature worthy of America."
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1244
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. Ford's new novel Independence Day, published by Alfred A. Knopf, may think that the author is one of them. He's not. And his closest friend in real estate, Mr. Wilkinson, hasn't even read his book. But the New Orleans-based Mr. Ford says that if his protagonist, Frank Bascombe, strikes a responsive chord, the author has done his job. That he did it so well springs out of a lifelong interest.
"My father, who in many ways had come up in the world from small-town life in Arkansas, thought that looking for houses meant progress," Mr. Ford said. "When I was a little boy in Jackson, Miss., we moved into the middle of town. Later, my father began to want to move to the suburbs. So every Sunday we'd pile into the car. We looked at all kinds of houses—houses under construction, model homes, even floor plans. My father equated that with a better life, and it became quite clear to me that looking at houses represented people's good aspirations for themselves."
So when Mr. Ford was looking for a new occupation for Frank Bascombe, also the protagonist of his critically acclaimed 1986 novel, The Sportswriter, real estate came to mind. "The first thing I always have to know is what a character does for a living." Mr. Ford said. "I guess that proves what a middle-class guy I am.
"Real estate worked for me because Frank could do it with very little formal training, it was something one could learn by doing, and it could be accomplished well with good instincts and good will, both of which are Frank's strengths."
Mr. Ford has said that real estate marks the intersection of business and the American dream. "I wanted to write a large novel that was really about the entire country," he said. "Realty is not a metaphor; it's a literal thing in the book. It became clear to me that exploring these issues—shelter, money, as well as our sense of well-being and placement on the planet—I could write a book that had in it an inquiry about the American spirit. Frank's professional philosophy is encapsulated by the business motto that realty is the true American profession engaging hands-on with the fundamental spatial experience of life: more people, less space, fewer choices."
The holiday weekend described in Independence Day covers a broad cross-section of American society and human relationships along with lengthy ruminations about real estate and the American dream in the late 80's. Frank shows a Vermont couple a house in his home town of Haddam, N.J., which bears a strong resemblance to Princeton; tries to collect rent from the racially mixed couple occupying his rental house; visits his business partner at their hot dog stand; spends an evening with his lady friend at the Jersey shore; goes to his ex-wife's house in Connecticut to pick up his troubled son for a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., before heading home for the holiday celebration.
Critics have praised Mr. Ford's attention to the details of Frank's professional life—from his familiarity with the psychology of buying and selling to the trunk of his Crown Victoria filled with yard signs. But Mr. Ford says that while he has known many real estate agents over the years, "I'm writing about a guy who's a realtor, not trying to make a portrait of reality."
"If it's persuasive I'm glad," he added. "But I'm making somebody up. I'm not trying to peg a typical realtor."
Mr. Ford said that when he married his wife, Kristina, the executive director of the City Planning Commission of New Orleans, they lived in many places and in many houses. "So I know what houses cost in virtually any city and whether I could afford to live there," he said. "I enjoyed doing this. It became a sort of divertissement."
So did the language of real estate and architecture, which lends such color to Independence Day. "I've always been interested in architecture and the lingo of architecture," Mr. Ford said, "When we bought our first house in Princeton, I had the 'Dictionary of Architecture,' and I went around the house looking at all the parts. The language of architecture—words like corbel, bracket, threshold, lintel, and soffit—is so wonderful and imaginative. And sometimes the terminology of realty is hilarious, those expressions like 'eating into your down.'"
The Fords have owned five houses. "I don't think that's so very many," Mr. Ford said. "But I've lived in many more and I must have looked at a jillion others. I've toured large parts of the earth with realtors, and I've always seen these as potentially good relationships, possible friendships. After all, days spent with a realtor are part of a person's life."
These days aren't always pleasant, as Mr. Ford's wickedly funny portrait of the Markhams, Frank Bascombe's clients, demonstrates. After looking at 45 houses, they're at the point of what Frank calls "realty death." But, as he asks himself and the reader, "What more can you do for wayward strangers than to shelter them?"
Mr. Ford knows what emotional baggage attends the issue of shelter. "Realty becomes sort of gathering and rallying point for all basic human desires and anxieties and pains and frustrations and joys," he said. His own history reflects those complex emotions. "What the house I'm living in right now means to me is freedom," he said, referring to his house in Chinook, Mont. "It's a small bungalow in a rather remote, tiny town on the northern high line of Montana. It's a place I can go and just be in a wonderful community in a purely anonymous way and be free.
"My first house in Princeton was probably our first act of superficial adulthood. And that house we owned in Missoula, Mont., I considered our real estate disaster."
That 5,000-square-foot house, with an indoor swimming pool, was on 100 acres. It required a year's renovation, and the Fords lived in it for only a year before selling it.
"It's basically the nicest house in Missoula, but it was too remote," Mr. Ford said. "I like to be down amongst people, though I think the French Quarter may be too much amongst them. But from that experience in Missoula I learned—oh, my God!—the terrible anxiety of owning a house I didn't want to own and wanted to get rid of."
"Our house in the French Quarter is really Kristina's dream house and I hope I survive it," Mr. Ford said. The elegant New Orleans home was the last of some 45 houses the Fords looked at before settling there in December 1989. "Yes, you could say I was at the point of realty death when we settled on Bourbon Street," he said.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 683
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 tradition of consciously merging stories with ideas.
American literature through the late 19th century, as represented by Hawthorne and Melville, for example, repeatedly gives us writers engaged with balancing these elements. The works of Emerson, too, remind us that the American reading public once had a taste for the direct exploration of ideas in essays. Emerson's words and ideas emerge often in Independence Day as do those of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and de Tocqueville's Democracy in America.
Independence Day begins with Bascombe closing up the details on a private rental, trying to close a company sale on a home, seeing his current romantic interest, preparing to pick up his troubled son from his former and now remarried wife and celebrating the nation's birthday with his son by visiting nearby basketball and baseball halls of fame. The holiday weekend has almost as much thinking as driving. Ford persistently reminds us that we are going somewhere and seeing something on this holiday journey.
Consciously political, the narrative reflects the disappointment, strained hope and confusion of life in the late 1980's. Ford sets the novel during the summer before the Democratic National Convention that nominated Governor Dukakis of Massachusetts. The author explains, "I came to sense how badly misled Americans had been by Ronald Reagan and that the choices in the election of 1988 were not a good set of choices." Contributing to this atmosphere is Haddam, N.J., a place remarkably like Princeton with its university the site of an early congress, its seminary a powerful presence and its affluent residences a contrast with its poor and minority neighborhoods.
Bascombe may work as a character who represents Ford's ideas and experiences, but he is not an Everyman. The cosmic and conscious first person ("I myself, Frank Bascombe") brings us into this story, this vision of American life that seeks an ideal amid the flora and fauna of self-interest and materialism. The poet Whitman is successful in creating an epic voice in "Song of Myself" because he emphasizes the vision itself in its varied and organic parts. Bascombe is too much an individual whose particulars and accidentals obscure the universals. In creating Bascombe, Ford reaches into the epic tendency in American culture to make a statement about this vast and challenging land. The details of Bascombe's life come in vivid and unrelenting force, allowing readers to see only parts of themselves in the character, but not enough to cause them to identify with Bascombe.
The story in its meandering is simple. In space, we go a short distance; in time, a long weekend. For a lengthy novel we encounter a limited number of characters. The situation is conventional for contemporary American life: a divorced parent exercising visitation rights with a child. The complications emerge from the protagonist's past as it affects the present, especially in the father-son relationship. Ford tells a good story (he is an especially accomplished writer of short fiction), but the landscape of the narrative provides the garden for his and Bascombe's generally liberal and often "politically correct" thinking. Events nearly always lead us into an exploration of larger and less concrete realities.
Readers of Walker Percy's novels will find here a familiar tension between narrative and idea. Independence Day, its title pregnant with meaning, suggests a summer novel, but it is fictional inquiry into things that matter, a work at the edge of philosophy but far enough away that its art still lives.
Last Updated on February 9, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 44
Weeks, Linton. "A Novel Hit the Jackpot." The Washington Post (17 April 1996): pp. C1, C24.
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