Independence Day: A Novel by Richard Ford (Vintage, $16.00, 464 pages)
“A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to on the horizon.”
“I’m the man who counsels abandonment of those precious things you remember but can no longer make hopeful use of.”
The genre of the suburban angst novel was likely created by John Updike’s 1960 novel Rabbit Run. That was the story of Harry (Rabbit) Angstrom, a superb athlete and high school basketball star who finds that his life has peaked at the age of 26. Angstrom’s solution was basically to run away from the obligations of adulthood and family.
Updike has certainly received a great deal of praise as one of the best American writers; although to me each of the three books in the Rabbit trilogy came off as flat and tired. Updike’s genius may lie in the fact that this was precisely what he intended.
Move ahead to the year 1995 and second-time author Richard Ford (The Sportswriter) moves the category along by leaps and bounds with the release of Independence Day. Come the new year, this novel will be 20 years old but it reads as if it was written just last month. Frank Bascombe, a divorced former newspaper sportswriter, is living in his ex-wife’s house attempting to get by as a realtor. This at a time when there’s a significant (early 90’s) recession, rapidly falling real estate values and high unemployment levels. Employment down, building down, rents low, cost to buy high: “… dug in for the long night that becomes winter.” Sound familiar?
Bascombe has decided that the best times in his life have – like his former spouse – left him behind. “Why should you only get what you want? Life’s never like that.” So Bascombe simply resolves to get through, to keep living, during his self-titled Existence Period.
At first the reader – not knowing any better – accepts Frank Bascombe as a depressed 53-year-old man who thinks things like, “When you’re young, your opponent is the future. When you’re not young, your opponent’s the past and everything done in it…”. But eventually we realize that Frank’s actually an optimist – “It’s my experience that when you don’t think you’re making progress that you’re probably making plenty.”
As we read this 451-page novel, we see that Bascombe is making progress in pushing the re-start button on his life. He’s not a bad person, really, it’s just that he has his own way of looking at things – one of the small points on which his ex-wife and his troublesome girlfriend can agree on. Like a writer, he looks at things and sees something different from real actual life. “You might never have been quite as happy as you like to believe you were.”
Bascombe is often let down, unfortunately, by the other people in his life, like one of his post-divorce female partners: “… she had very little facility for actually thinking about me and never in the time we knew each other asked me five questions about my children or my life before I met her.” Yet we somehow sense that Frank will be blessed with the victory of what Bob Dylan called “simple survival.”
How good, exactly, is this piece of American literature? In 1995, The New York Times included it in the year-end list of best books. As 1996 began, Ford was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for Independence Day. This Frank Bascombe novel (like John Updike’s Rabbit books) was part of a trilogy, but don’t worry about what came before or after.
Independence Day was Ford’s singular masterpiece, his van Gogh, his Sunflowers painting. Or The Starry Night.
This is essential reading. Highly recommended.