By Richard Ford
Alfred A. Knopf, 448 pp., $24
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. 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 Markham's, however, is pushed aside by a family crisis involving his ever-more-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.