David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Richard Ford’s “Independence Day”

Richard Ford's 'Independence Day'This book review was originally published on Critics’ Choice on August 8, 1995.

In 1986, Richard Ford created one of the most vivid characters of late 20th-century fiction with Frank Bascombe, the easygoing protagonist of his novel The Sportswriter. Bascombe, a middle-aged journalist and divorcee, stood out for his remarkable commitment to living comfortably and decently in the face of tragedy and disappointment. “Things sometimes happen for the best,” said Bascombe, even after his young son died from a debilitating disease and his marriage disintegrated and he drifted to a life of lessened expectations.

Now Ford has brought Frank Bascombe back for another round in Independence Day, and what a sequel it is. With its Proustian pace and its wide thematic territory, Independence Day is, if anything, a better book than its predecessor. You can’t ask for much more in summer reading: a thick, absorbing narrative that quietly slides into profundity and social critique without your even noticing.

It’s 1988, and Bascombe has quit sportswriting. He’s now involved in selling real estate while running a small business on the side. His wife (referred to as “X” in The Sportswriter, here she inexplicably is given a name, Ann Dykstra) has remarried and moved from the comfortable suburbs of Haddam, New Jersey. Frank, meanwhile, has moved into his ex-wife’s former house where he silently observes the decline of the neighborhood.

Independence Day takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, and Frank has a full itinerary. He’s trying to sell a last-minute home to the Markhams, a bitter older couple that feels caught up in an economy about to go bust; he’s trying to resurrect what seems like a dead relationship with a casual lover; and he’s accompanying his troubled fifteen-year-old son Paul to the basketball and baseball halls of fame.

Paul has reached a point in his life where he needs a bit of fatherly wisdom. He’s recently been caught stealing a package of condoms, and he’s taken on the disturbing habit of barking to make himself feel better. Plus he’s unhappy with his mother’s choice in second husbands and convinced that he’s to blame for the destruction of the former Bascombe family bliss.

But Frank isn’t in the best condition to lend his son some much-needed support. He’s going through what he calls “the Existence Period,” a stage in life where his practice is to “ignore much of what I don’t like or that seems worrisome and embroiling, and then usually see it go away.” Can this straight-arrow lost soul gather up the energy to steer his son on the right track when he himself is no longer sure where it is or how to get there?

No one could accuse Richard Ford of rushing things in Independence Day. (Bascombe spends fifty pages alone narrating his house tour with the Markhams.) But those who can float with the tide will find a brilliant and absorbing underbelly to Independence Day that makes it one of the most accomplished novels of the year.

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  1. M. A. Rubinstein on June 28, 2012 at 9:42 am  Chain link

    I read the first two of the Ford Bascombe trilogy over the course of last two weeks of June. Each is poerful, but taken togther they are a stunning picture of an everyman (sort of) and the America of the 1980s. They are also explorations of a writer’s soul and sensibility. I usuall tend to see the autobiographic aspect of a given writers work as well as he or she’s sense of place as a charcter in the larger whole–see much of Roth and the key works of the Taiwanese author, Li Ang. I see this here as well , for me at least, these books are profound works that educate the reader willing to work through them and absorb them. I have emerged a better person, more aware of the world writ large, which, as specialist in one given part of East Asia, Taiwan, I do not usually tend to do. Lay of the Land and the other earlier works of Richard Ford are next for me, even as I finish pieces of my own work–an edited volume and a biography. Deep and powerful and yet comprehensive didatic fiction as found in The Sports Writer and Independence Day, provide the knowledge base and sense of possiblities I need to move ahead with my own work. For this I thank the author and hope to say that to him in person when he begins his new role as a Columbia University professor in the fall of 2012.

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