Richard Ford

Second Look Books: Independence Day by Richard Ford (Alfred A. Knopf, $24)

This book review was first published on Sunday, July 30, 1995.

Richard Ford is no longer a “young American writer.” He is, alas, in late maturity, that time in his professional life wherein technical mastery and a defined voice no longer carry the day. If promise is youth’s bounty, then failure is maturity’s danger. In this regard, it is tempting to think of Norman Mailer and Richard Wright, men of talent and promise when young, though it was Mailer who broke new ground into an obnoxious but successful maturity, achieving a kind of emeritus status, while Wright stumbled and fell.

Ford, whose just-published “Independence Day” threatens to fail, is at a crossroads with his fiction. He is a writer whose technical mastery and patently stylized voice are every bit as elegant as Bellow or Heller, but whose themes and inspirations seem stalled.

The young Richard Ford wrote several atmospheric and strange novels. Being from Mississippi, Ford seems to possess a satanic gift with words, characteristic, perhaps, of oral traditions. He wrote about life and death, love and car bombs, explosive jealousy and bad drug deals. He wrote about lousy weather and broken hearts. He was, in a phrase, a seriously and exuberant existential writer. “The Ultimate Good Luck”, set in a nourish Oaxaca during the time of student rebellion in Mexico, may be one of the best prison novels ever written, as well as a heart-stopping action tale.

But in the late 80s, something came over Ford, and he moved his focus to New Jersey, to middle-class suburban life, to the struggle for coziness after 6 o’clock when the workday is done and the shopping malls hum. With “The Sportswriter”, Ford created a modern American male named Frank Bascombe, whose son Ralph died tragically, which led to the breakup of his marriage. Bascome was a kind of upper-caste Rabbit Angstrom, without the body language and fondness for beer. At the end of that novel, we found Frank Bascombe divorced, approaching 40, learning anew the “dating game”, and suffering the market forces of a terrible realization that life might not be worth living. Fair enough.

“Independence Day” takes up where “The Sportswriter” left off, with Frank Bascombe. Only now our “hero” is selling real estate in Haddam, N.J., is “serious” bout a woman named Sally, who thinks herself toot all at 5-feet-10, and whose left leg is an inch shorter than her right. The crux of the novel, and what passes for both plot and climax, is a trip that Frank plans to take with his son Paul to visit several sports halls of fame, including the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on July 4, Frank’s “favorite holiday.” Any novelist who sets up such a ruthlessly telegraphed set of “symbols” better deliver. Unfortunately, Ford cannot.  The action takes place in the period of a few days, and in that time Frank talks real estate with two or three clients and business associates, tries to collect the rent from a mixed-race couple who’ve occupied one of Frank’s units in a risky part of town, takes a nap on Sally’s bed and has a dreary conversation with her that leads him to think that they’re about to break up, or that he’s in love; he can’t make up his mind. Finally, Frank picks up his son for the big trip to Cooperstown. I guess the point is that it’s much too late for American baseball to come to the aid of anybody, much less Frank Bascombe and his son. But in prose it is a long hard road.

Ford’s moral effort is to define Frank’s “Existence Period,” which supposedly stands for the confusion of the white American male in late 20th-century America. It is an American where being male and white no longer resonates, and where one’s son is most likely living with an ex-wife in another state and undergoing one form of therapy or another. Paul is the novel’s most lively and interesting character, having the sense to be at least alienated from the America that Reagan created, and that New Gingrich promises to perfect. Paul barks like a dog, creates elaborate and sometimes dirty puns. Suicide stares up from the table at Paul and Frank Bascombe tries to do the decent thing.  But Frank is kind of dull, too much so to be of real interest. The construct known as the Existence Period often boils down to baleful platitudes about choice: “A market economy, so I’ve learned, is not even remotely premised on anybody getting what he wants. The premise is that you’re presented with what you might’ve thought you didn’t want, but what’s available, whereupon you give in and start finding ways to feel good about it and yourself.”

In all that Frank Bascombe does and says, and in most of the relationships he establishes—even with his son Paul—there is a kind of wary distancing. Sure, it’s tough to relate to kids today, especially those who’ve achieved their own negative ground. But Frank actually takes on the protective coloring of superficiality, and no matter how Ford dresses up his character’s philosophy; it amounts to repression and cowardice. Here is Frank on “other people”:

The truth is, however, we know little and can find out precious little more about others, even thought we stand in their presence, hear their complaints, ride the roller coaster with them—only in a flash or a gasp or the slam of a car door to seem them disappear and be gone forever. Perfect strangers.

I have no doubt that Richard for is not advocating for Frank Bascombe. He probably thinks he is revealing some kind of truth about white males at the crossroads of this immeasurably bonkers culture. Still, it is annoying to find Frank hiding at home in Haddam while his son is in surgery up in New Haven, annoying to hear lecture after lecture from Frank about the ways and means of real property,and especially galling to hear Frank profess “love” for his sweet Sally when there is not an ounce of passion in the man’s body.   As Ford writes, it is one of the themes of the Existence Period that “interest can mingle successfully with uninterest in this way, intimacy with transience, caring with obdurate uncaring.” And maybe that’s the way it is in late 20th-century America. Maybe it’s all too true.

But here’s what I want. I want Richard Ford away from all this fetid introspection, self-help, money-grubbing and analysis. I want him back in the world of action and consequence. I want him out of the suburbs where every color is beige. I want Ford wandering in the swamps where the shumard oaks cast shadows on the tannic water, and there is not a fescue lawn in sight.