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Independence Day by Richard Ford

Independence Day (1995)

by Richard Ford

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Frank Bascombe (2)

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[Independence Day] is the second of four Frank Bascombe novels written by Richard Ford. This one garnered the Pulitzer Prize for 1996.

The story takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, with flashbacks stretching that three-day time frame. In the seven-year interval since [The Sportswriter], when their son Ralph died of Reye's and Frank and his wife Ann divorced, Ann has remarried. With the two surviving Bascombe children, she's moved from Haddam, New Jersey to Deep River, Connecticut where her new husband, Charley O'Dell, is a successsful architect. Frank's gone into residential real estate sales. When his wife put her house on the market, Frank bought it and at the same time sold his to the Haddam Theological Seminary. In addition to his residence, he owns two rental houses, side-by-side, in a predominantly black neighborhood of Haddam, and an interest in a roadside root beer stand. He's got a girl-friend, Sally, who lives at the Jersey shore, but he seems ambivalent about her.

Frank begins his narrative:

{T}o anyone reasonable, my life will seem more or less normal-under-the-microscope, full of contingencies and incongruities none of us escapes and which do little harm in an existence that otherwise goes unnoticed.
This morning, however, I'm setting off on a weekend trip with my only son, which promises, unlike most of my seekings, to be starred by weighty life events. There is, in fact, an odd feeling of lasts to this excursion, as if some signal period in life—mine and his—is coming, if not to a full close, then at least toward some tight¬ening, transforming twist in the kaleidoscope, a change I'd be fool¬ish to take lightly and don't. (The impulse to read Self-Reliance is significant here, as is the holiday itself—my favorite secular one for being public and for its implicit goal of leaving us only as it found us: free.) All of this comes—in surfeit—near the anniversary of my divorce, a time when I routinely feel broody and insubstantial, and spend days puzzling over that summer seven years ago, when life swerved badly and I, somehow at a loss, failed to right its course.

Frank's relationship with his 15-year-old son, Paul, drives the plot. Paul's mother is concerned by his antipathy toward Charley, his menu of tics, and his behavior. Paul was caught shoplifting.

Two and a half months ago, just after tax time and six weeks before his school year ended in Deep River, he was arrested for shoplifting three boxes of 4X condoms ("Magnums") from a display-dispenser in the Finast down in Essex. His acts were surveilled by an "eye in the sky" camera hidden above the male hygiene products. And when a tiny though uniformed Vietnamese security person (a female) approached him just beyond the checkout, where as a diversionary tactic he'd bought a bottle of Grecian Formula, he bolted but was wrestled to the ground, whereupon he screamed that the woman was "a goddamned spick asshole," kicked her in the thigh, hit her in the mouth (conceivably by accident) and pulled out a fair amount of hair before she could apply a police stranglehold and with the help of a pharmacist and another customer get the cuffs on him. (His mother had him out in an hour.)

In response, Ann set up several sessions for Paul with a psychiatrist in New Haven. She sent him to a "an expensive health camp" where therapists and camp counselors observed him closely but discretely and wrote reports about him. Among their other observations, Frank writes, is that Paul is

intellectually beyond his years (language and reasoning skills off the Stanford charts) but was emotionally underdeveloped (closer to age twelve), which in their view posed "a problem." So that even though he acts and talks like a shrewd sophomore in the honors program at Beloit, full of sly jokes and double entendres (he has also recently shot up to 5' 8", with a new layer of quaky pudge all over), his feelings still get hurt in the manner of a child who knows much less about the world than a Girl Scout.

Frank chews this and other observations and opinions passed along by Ann. He mulls thoughts and opinions culled from daily telephone conversations with Paul.

In a way his "problem" is simple: he has become compelled to figure out life and how to live it far too early, long before he's seen a sufficient number of unfixable crises cruise past him like damaged boats and realized that fixing one in six is a damn good average and the rest you have to let go—a useful coping skill of the Existence Period.

The "Existence Period," by the bye, is Bascombe's term for, as he says, letting "matters go as they go." Throughout his narrative, Bascombe exposes his caution, his indecision, his reluctance to commit, to engage, yet also his need to be in control. He is, for now, he thinks, going through the motions, remaining aloof and disconnected. He's "existing."

To deal with Paul's teen-year crisis, Frank uses the holiday weekend to take a father-son road trip, from Connecticut to Springfield, MA to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame, then to Cooperstown, NY to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. The trip starts off well enough, but starts to unravel, then runs into catastrophe in Cooperstown.

When the novel was published two decades ago, Michiko Kakutani, then the New York Times's regular reviewer commented: "Although Frank's existential gloom and talent for self-pity can sometimes make him an irritating (not to mention long-winded) narrator, Mr. Ford expertly opens out his story to create a portrait of middle age and middle-class life that's every bit as resonant and evocative of America in the 1980's as John Updike's last Harry Angstrom novel, [Rabbit at Rest]."

Did I like [Independence Day]? Of course. Why go on at length if it stinks?
  weird_O | Nov 3, 2015 |
"Independence Day" is the second book of Richard Ford’s trilogy which won him the coveted Pulitzer Prize and sent many surprised readers out to purchase the by-passed book 1- "The Sportswriter".

As "The Sportswriter" ends, protagonist Frank Bascombe is a divorced bachelor, struggling in a job he really doesn’t like, drifting from one short term relationship to another with women he barely knows… yet he wastes no time to declare his love. The reader, along with those women, quickly realizes Frank may not even know the meaning of the word. His primary goal is instant gratification… in other words- sex, sex, sex.

"Independence Day" picks up 6 years later when Frank Bascombe is 44 years old and still a bachelor drifting from relationship to relationship. He justifies his behavior by claiming to be in the “existence period” of his life... life after crisis- just being- going nowhere because his past is holding him back. He is still whiny, small-minded, immature, hostile, resentful, sarcastic, and abrasive… pretty clearly a jerk.

Frank’s opinion about marriage; “Marriage means a relationship you have with the one person in the world you can’t get rid of except by dying,”

His reaction when calling Cathy- an old girlfriend he hasn’t spoken with in 4 years- and upon receiving a recorded greeting, “This is Cathy and Steve’s” residence... Frank leaves a brief message ending with, “By the way, you can tell Steve for me that he can kiss my ass, and I’d be happy to beat the shit out of him any day he can find the time. Bye.” I think the publisher got it all wrong when referring to Frank in the back page blurb as “a decent man”.

Bascombe has neither learned from his mistakes nor shown any improvement since life in "The Sportswriter". Richard Ford has, however, shown tremendous improvement in his writing skills. His descriptions of small town rural America are wonderful and he follows John Updike’s lead in pointing out the social and political issues of the time, bringing a sense of reality to the story. It is amusing that he uses quirky contemporary slang words like “faflooey” (meaning up-in-smoke... like most of his relationships), “shittaree” (like eatery- but a poor establishment), and “jeez Louise”.

On the negative side there are several issues. The plot moves along slowly and Frank lives a pretty dull life. The dialogue is just awful: pretentious, vague, cryptic, and so obviously scripted. And Ford’s liberal preachy commentary (sometimes presented as Frank’s thoughts, other times verbal) comes across as philosophical babble and intellectual preaching. Some news for you Richard Ford. Just because Frank is a Democrat and rents apartments to black people does not make him a decent guy! If Frank Bascombe was a good guy, Richard Ford certainly didn’t convince this reader. He barely persuaded me to finish the trilogy... but then again, why not give it a try. The final book is "The Lay of the Land". ( )
  LadyLo | Aug 2, 2015 |
Frank Bascombe is a palooka writer out of Haddam, New Jersey who takes his son on a trip to the baseball hall of fame for the Fourth Of July. Although hyper observant he is wrong about his situation about as often as Jake Gittes from Chinatown is. He's also a first rate loser, but none of these issues really comes up in the guileless English prose that sets out this tale. He may not be special. He may not even be likable (I don't know if I'd want him as a friend), but he is a celebration of the average and the everyday. In that sense he stands for something.

This novel, as opposed to its prequel, The Sportswriter, is about the Existence Period for Mr. Bascombe. He has moved on from sportswriting to realty with a little landlordship and proprietorship. I'm glad to see he's moved forward in some oblique fashion and he's willing to refer to his ex-wife by her proper name now. Her name is Ann, by the way. She's remarried now and Frank predictably doesn't like her new spouse. He also doesn't like his son much, Paul, who is tackling the "unbearable bastard" phase of his teen years.

Frank Bascombe appropriately surrounds himself with unlikable people, though they're unlikable in different ways. There's the hotheads McLeods, pussyfooting Joe Markham, and shotgun toting fool Karl Bemish. Ann's new husband, Charley O'Dell, is likable and actually appropriately disliked by Frank. Don't think Frank doesn't have a squeeze of his own, either. Sally Caldwell is his girlfriend and he, of course, starts to wonder if he wants her or wants his wife. He leans toward her but he's too indecisive to move forward. Hence Existence Period. I wouldn't trade places with Frank for a million bucks.

But the novel is well written. Frank's voice is so real you can actually hear him talk as you read, or at least I can. Having a character like that means you as a writer are definitely doing something right. Frank Bascombe may be a loser, this book may be arguably boring, but Richard Ford writes with incredible empathy and not quitting on this man deserves an award in itself. ( )
  Salmondaze | Jul 1, 2015 |
A depressed REALTOR describes a modern, old roots New England town -- eerily similar to my own. Frank, a lost, self-absorbed, white guy going through the motions of life, walks us through three days on a holiday weekend. Independence Day is a very good book technically, in that it conveys a slice of life. I do get it. I feel it, a vapid suburban existence with all the trappings of 'success" but none of the soul. I get it, yes, thank you for reproducing it with words - wow that's craft, art, whatever. But I don't want it.

I want mystery and comedy, characters who transcend or who succumb to their problems both profound and trivial, rather than mire in them. I am interested in stories of true desperation and struggle, and not in the whining of a white guy living a straitened life, whose moment of passion arrives during his son’s medical emergency – a hit to the eye by a fast pitch baseball machine in a batting cage. Oh god. Even that is not a crisis of major proportions, though it become so in this book.

Depression sucks, and Frank is depressed, and thus a pain in the ass to be around. He has more than the rest of the world -- a roof over his head, lots of clean, cheap water, heat, electricity; kids he COULD love, talents he COULD use, a stable society in which he CAN do whatever the hell he pleases without fear of prison, torture, harassment. Depression is a waste of time, and so, no matter how good this book might be technically, I dumped Frank as a depressed fiction who I don't need or want in my life. No time to waste on Frank, sorry.

I don't accept that Frank represents suburban life or that Independence day is an accurate social portrait. To me, Frank represents Frank. And if he is more common than I believe it should be no wonder that religion has had such a revival; religion has feeling, and passion and depth compared to this guy's desperate, robotic, salesman success formulas. To me he is Willy Loman without the grave sin, without the passion. He is neither Everyman, nor a "typical" suburban guy. ( )
  grheault | Jan 30, 2014 |
The book is set in summer of 1988 but its 44-year-old narrator refers to "negro" neighborhoods and "Negros" and it makes me itch.

Also the current owner of a house he's trying to sell is named "Houlihan."

It's disconcerting.

I'm almost done. Ford writes of the same everyday foibles that Russo writes of but with none of Russo's charm. Frank Bascombe is more like Rabbit Angstrom than Sully or even William Henry Deveraux Jr. And thus, eh.
  ljhliesl | May 21, 2013 |
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In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, langorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679735186, Paperback)

A visionary account of American life--and the long-awaited sequel to one of the most celebrated novels of the past decade--Independence Day reveals a man and our country with unflinching comedy and the specter of hope and even permanence, all of which Richard Ford evokes with keen intelligence, perfect emotional pitch, and a voice invested with absolute authority.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:50 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

In this visionary sequel to The Sportswriter, Ford deepens his portrait of one of the most indelible characters in recent American fiction. In the aftermath of his divorce and the ruin of his career, Frank Bascombe now sells real estate, as he masters the high-wire act of "normalcy". But during the Fourth of July weekend, Frank is called into sudden, bewildering engagement with life.… (more)

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