Thursday, October 23, 2008

Richard Ford

Richard Ford, Independence Day (New York: Vintage, 1995). 451 pp. Paperback. $14.95.

By coincidence, two different friends—both physicians, but otherwise dissimilar—happened to ask my opinion of Richard Ford within days of each other. I replied that I don’t think very much of him. To explain why, I am posting my review of Ford’s Pulitizer Prize-winning novel, which originally appeared in Commentary in November 1995.

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A sequel to The Sportswriter, a 1986 novel that garnered a fair amount of praise, Independence Day takes up the life of Frank Bascombe after a lapse of five years. Although Frank says that he has now entered his “Existence Period,” during which a man learns to ignore what seems “worrisome and embroiling,” little has in fact changed: he is no longer a sportswriter, but he talks about writing itself just as much as he ever did, and still regards himself as the author of Blue Autumn, a volume of short stories that he published in his twenties. To make a living Frank now works as a realtor in his pleasant New Jersey town. His ex-wife has remarried and moved with their two children—a troubled son and a sweet daughter—to Connecticut. He himself is now unmarried, and only uncertainly attached.

The action of the novel takes place on the Fourth of July weekend in 1988. Frank has planned a two-day automobile trip with his son Paul to the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame, but before getting on the road he must take care of business: showing a house to Joe and Phyllis Markham, a hard-to-please couple from Vermont; checking in at Franks, a hot-dog-and-root-beer stand outside town of which he is co-owner; collecting rent on a house that he owns in the black district; and dropping by for a quick meal and visit with Sally, the forty-two-year-old divorcee he is “seeing.”

None of these encounters comes off without a hitch. To tempt Joe Markham to look at the house, Frank has to give him deep advice on life (“There's only so much anybody can do to make things come out right. . . . You make choices and live with them . . .”). At the root-beer stand, he has to calm his partner’s fears of Hispanic bandits. Collecting rent, he nearly gets himself arrested. Sally is impatient with his noncommittal philosophy of romance (“The good mystery’s how long anything can go on the way it is”) and hustles him out the door. And as might be expected, the trip with his son ends badly, if not in disaster, when the youngster receives a self-inflicted injury. At the end Frank returns home alone, closing off his Existence Period by resolving gamely to do his best.

Frank Bascombe struggles conscientiously, if unheroically, with the familiar problems of marriage, job, child-rearing, service to community. As his life enters middle age—the end of the beginning, as someone once put it—he learns to accept that not everything is possible; that the true meaning of freedom is not unlimited possibility but making decisions and standing by them; that the great role in life is being a father, which entails moral instruction, the handing-down of what one has learned to accept oneself.

“It’s ennobling,” he concludes, “to help others face their hard choices, pilot them toward a reconciliation with life.” Hard-earned wisdom.

Or is it? Although Frank Bascombe causes little visible damage, he does his share. He is isolated and inattentive to others, absorbed in his own affairs. At a younger age, in The Sportswriter, this inattentiveness had contributed to a suicide, when Frank—itchy to escape to his girl—failed to respond to a friend’s distress. Now, in Independence Day, Frank cannot figure out why his latest girlfriend does not jump at the chance to snag him, and seems unaware that he gives very little of himself to her or anyone else, including his children. Yet he is a “decent” person, and one of whom his narrator wholeheartedly approves; indeed, Ford obviously looks upon Frank Bascombe as his alter ego, a vehicle for delivering individually wrapped insights into literature, recent history and politics, life, love, and the present condition of American reality.

The sum of these insights is pretty thin. Frank is a liberal, in a conventionally partisan sense. He dislikes Ronald Reagan, is contemptuous of patriots and of any “Grenada-type tidy-little-war,” keeps a LICK BUSH election sticker on his car, and hopes the new strip mall in town will go bankrupt so the land can be turned into a people’s park or a public vegetable garden. “Holding the line on the life we promised ourselves in the 60’s,” he sighs, “is getting hard as hell.” These are the sentiments which make up the ground of his decency, a decency which to Richard Ford clearly has everything to recommend it, but which just as clearly lacks anything resembling a moral center.

And where would such a center come from? Frank is a man without settled principles. Although he “worships” at a Presbyterian church (the ironic quotation marks are his), he does not believe in God. When his ex-wife urges him to “do something a little more wholeheartedly,” he shrugs: “my view is that I do the best I know how.” Yet the best Frank Bascombe knows how is all he knows, or wishes to know; and that crippling, complacent limitation is, finally, the trouble not only with him (as his ex-wife rightly sees) but with the book of which he is the hero.

Ford’s book is sustained not by a plot or even by a story but by one man’s “voice,” and in the end the man is not particularly interesting. That he is significant, however, and perhaps even, in his pallid way, emblematic of his American moment, cannot be denied. We live, after all, in an age of reduced expectations, not necessarily a bad thing in itself, and decency (considering the alternatives) is hardly to be sneered at. But just as in life it takes more than protestations of decency to turn good intentions into moral behavior, so in art it will take deeper talents than Ford’s to restore the American novel to (in Saul Bellow’s words) “an indispensable source of illumination of the present.”