on 28 January 2001
The sequel to The Sportwriter, Indepenence Day is better still and a worthy Pulitzer Prize winner. Frank Bascombe's story continues with his teenage son experiencing some psychological problems due probably to the trauma of his brother's death and his parent's marriage breakup. This however is not a downtrodden situation, but one luminous with hope and tenderness. Frank shows that you don't have to be a winner to contribute to humanity and that some failure may be valuable in trying to achieve a state of grace. This book will become a classic.
on 21 January 2002
This is an extraordinary book, about what it is to be alive. Ford's sheer level of skill in using the language is a delight; reading "Independence Day" will make you love words for themselves and where they can take you. The action occupies little more than a weekend, but encompasses an epic spiritual journey, told with pace, humour, and the razor-sharp observations of people, places and emotions. Everything about the narrator, Frank, his interior life and his external world, is touchably, touchingly real, and draws you inexorably into the novel from the very first page. The suburban setting and the ordinariness of [most of] the events makes Ford's handling of abstract ideas and huge issues of life, love and belief, utterly compelling and deeply moving.
Ford's most striking - and unusual - achievement in "Independence Day" is the astonishing compassion with which he treats characters, story and theme. There are no grotesques, no stereotypes, no over-simplifications; the author takes no intellectual, emotional or linguistic shortcuts. This is a rich book, honest, entertaining, satisfying, and ultimately profoundly optimistic. Don't be put off by the length!
The second in his trilogy of novels featuring anti-hero Frank Bascombe, 1996's Independence Day sees author Richard Ford continue in much the same vein as when we left Bascombe at the close of The Sportswriter. Time has moved on to 1986, Bascombe (now 44) has completed his divorce, is still struggling to relate to his adolescent son and daughter, has a (sometime) girlfriend Sally and has ditched his writing aspirations and career in favour of a job in real estate. As in The Sportswriter, Ford's writing is skilfully observational, incisive and witty, whilst his scope here is again personal and, on the surface at least, parochial.
Over an extended Independence Day weekend, we follow Bascombe in his continued voyage of mid-life discovery and his attempts to resolve his own internal uncertainties, both in a personal and wider, social context. By placing Frank in one of the most despised of modern day capitalist milieus (real estate), Ford is able to brilliantly dissect the associated set of human shortcomings (class snobbery, racism, sexism) and the early passages of novel as Frank shows Vermont couple, the Markhams, around their potential new home are some of my favourites. Ford also continues to show his mastery of the (significant) chance encounter and those here with, variously, a rookie cop, a Negro removals man, a female chef and a long unseen relative are all brilliantly done.
Where, for me, the novel falls slightly short is in its dealings with Bascombe's family. Although the passages relating to Frank's dealings with his ex-wife and her new husband are frequently hilarious, the novel's central tragedy concerning son Paul does not have quite the emotional punch (or resolution) that I would expect it to. This is something I found on reading The Sportswriter, that Ford, whilst being an outstandingly communicator of tales of realism, does not (quite) have the emotive power of a (for instance) Cormac McCarthy or Richard Russo.
on 15 March 2015
A masterful narrative of a middle-aged American who has been trying to help his troubled teenage son from a distance and is seemingly imprisoned by a yearning for reconciliation with his former wife, Ann – who has since remarried. The story begins on Friday 1 July 1988 and runs through to Monday 4 July, the Independence Day holiday.
There is a satisfying sprinkling of encounters with characters from the first Frank Bascombe novel, The Sportswriter, but this book does work in a self-contained way too. Like in the earlier book, the descriptive language is gorgeous. (This is the third Pulitzer Prize winner I have read, and the others have this descriptive quality too.) However, I suggest the reader having to hand an electronic dictionary as numerous North American words (some somewhat archaic) will be encountered.
Like with The Sportswriter, it took a while to read myself into the slow flow of the novel, but thereafter I was hooked. In this stage of his life (the Existence Period), Frank works as an estate agent, an occupation that gives him ample opportunities to both observe the human condition and assuage his liberal leanings.
For a person who examines his life as much as Frank does, it is surprising (perhaps gratifying) that in the emotional tumble of life he cocks things up so comprehensively. That long Bank Holiday weekend, spent with his son, brings much to a head – both literally and metaphorically.
on 15 June 2010
A sort of sequel to The Sportswriter (although you don't need to read that to enjoy this), Independence Day could be Ford's greatest book of all. The almost real-time narrative, capturing life as it is lived, is simply stunning. Ford renders consciousness and what it is to think and feel, better than almost any other writer. It's funny, poignant and strangely hypnotic. You may not like Frank, the narrator, but you will find yourself seeing life the way he does, lulled by the rhythms of his thought.
A masterpiece. If anyone can recommend any other authors this good (other than Martin Amis, Don DeLillo and Brett Easton Ellis), please do.
on 5 May 2014
I'm afraid I have to support the minority with a thumbs down on this one. I discovered Richard Ford via Canada, which impressed me with its unusual plot and his sensitive handling of it, and I wanted more of his stuff. Unfortunately, Independence Day, albeit written 20 years earlier, is very different indeed and I'm annoyed I went and bought the whole damn trilogy (Independence Day is the second part).
I have no issue with the "plot", for want of a better word, which other reviewers have already summarized. As an account of a few days in the life of a middle-aged American divorcee it was reasonably interesting. It's just that what fills the book are the protagonist's endless musings and digressions. Some of these serve to deepen our understanding of this person's life but some of them get pretty philosophical and, I have to say, impenetrable in parts. While there's not a lot of dialog in the book, some of the conversations, particularly with the women in his life are in this vein. Although at least some of this is satire, I suppose, it does get very tedious. I finished it but I was tempted not to bother in parts.
Independence Day (as you might expect from the the title) is a very American book and is hard to identify with for a Brit like me - not a criticism of course, but an observation nonetheless. Written in the first-person about everyday life in contemporary USA it's littered with unfamiliar slang, jargon, references to celebs I've never heard of etc. Still, I've enjoyed many other books of this kind e.g. John Updike's Rabbit series, Richard Russo's Straight Man (brilliant, by the way).
I can imagine the Americanness of this book striking some kind of a chord with U.S. readers, but a Pulitzer Prize? The glowing praise from the British press is even harder to reconcile. Some of the blurb on the cover is just baffling. "It is nothing less than the story of the 20th century itself ... an epic" The Times - to quote one of the more bizzare comments.
It wouldn't get a prize from me anyway. It gets two stars because it is quite well written.
on 24 March 2016
As a sequel to “The Sportswriter” this clearly shares many of the same characters, themes and places. Like its predecessor it rolls along nicely, maybe a little slow for some, as it’s middle aged protagonist encounters many a splendid and strange thing over the 4th of July period. It’s filled with some of Ford’s splendid and insightful observations, humour and introspection. Although I enjoyed this and recommend it as a fine read, I still think it just fell a bit short of “The Sportswriter” but still a well written and enjoyable follow up.
on 8 December 2012
Richard Ford is such a great writer, I have lost the urge to read anyone else until I have worked my way through his books. (Independence Day is my third).
on 10 March 2009
I've just completed Richard Ford's Pulitzer Prize-winning `Independence Day', and I have to admit it left me a bit cold. The novel forms the middle part of a trilogy of large-ish books (beginning with `The Sportswriter' and ending with `The Lay of the Land') narrated by a notionally ordinary American suburbanite, Frank Bascombe, a divorced former novelist turned real estate salesman (known in the US as `Realtor'). For the large part of the novel I felt disadvantaged for not having started with the earlier novel, as I struggled to get to grips with Bascombe. Through his incredibly lucid and articulate eye, Bascombe is a chronicler of Anywhere, USA, in a way that bears comparison to Updike's Rabbit series. But even if Bascombe is a first person to Rabbit's unruly third, he is in many ways a less knowable character - very much attuned to his surroundings, an astute observer.
In an interview with Richard Ford, Phil Hogan of The Guardian summarized the novels as:
"... structural siblings, in that each covers a day or two in the company of an ordinary man with things to do .... But he's not that ordinary and it's via Frank's ultra-attuned musings - on passing minutiae, on the road ahead, on the struggle of every man to transcend his own anxious circumstances - that the deluge of America itself pours in and expands the book's purpose to bursting point".
I agree with this, but I'm not entirely convinced by Ford's assertion in the same interview that:
"... people have rich interior lives. People have possibilities that we don't, on the basis of convention, ever accord to them. Who are we to say someone who works on the railroad isn't going to have a rich interior life? That seems to me to be cynical about human beings".
Yes, the interior life is rich, but Bascombe's - failed writer or not - seems so hyper-articulate, so authorial, that it expands moments into page-long treatises. Translating the inner life to page probably shouldn't read like 'Independence Day', and I felt that the novel's exhaustive precision lacked the kind of abstraction that can give first person narratives their veracity. Sometimes Bascombe's rather hyperverbal self-analysis reads more like the musings of a shrink than `ordinary joe', which might have been more potent if we were given license to distrust what he says. For example, he is incredibly frank about his role in the world:
"... after my former life came to a sudden end and I suffered what must've been a kind of `psychic detachment' ... I had been uneasily aware that I had never done much in my life that was honestly good except for myself and my loved ones (and not all of them would agree with that) ... I'd probably contributed as little to the commonweal as it was possible for a busy man to contribute without being plain evil".
In passages such as this Bascombe is the opposite of the unreliable narrator, there is no reading to be made between the lines. It sounds, intentionally I imagine, as if he has reached some stark conclusions about himself, which - although very negative - don't invite revision. By contrast, Ford asserts that:
"If Frank were a person, and you met him, and he sold you a house, he wouldn't seem like this guy on the page. He would seem like a totally embedded, insignificant character."
It seems that by emphasizing his normalcy, Ford ignores the fact that Bascombe must be a relatively detached person, very much on the outside looking in. Frank's girlfriend in the novel, Sally, seems to have a better measure of the man, describing him as "the most cynical man in the world", "too smooth" and "non-committal", all sentiments that could be shared by the reader. Ford continues,
"Frank Bascombe is not there to be approved of, or to be found always consistent - since none of us is - but to be provocative or persuasive, to please you with his felicities and inquiring mind."
I agree that people are not particularly consistent, but it strikes as rather convenient that Bascombe's slippery nature should be accounted for in this manner. Bascombe is indeed particularly cynical for a man who sells real estate, a subject which the narrator dissects with compelling clarity:
"the realty dreads ... originate not in actual house buying, which could just as easily be one of life's most hopeful optional experiences; or even in the fear of losing money, which is not unique to realty; but in the cold, unwelcome, built-in America realization that we're just another schmo, wishing his wishes, lusting his stunted lusts, quaking over his idiot frights and fantasies, all of us popped out from the same unchinkable mold".
Badcombe speaks about his profession as if he were an academic on the subject, not just someone who fell into it after the disintegration of his writing career. At one point he finds a client, Joe Markham, in a state of depression:
"Joe may be verging on a major disorientation here - a legitimate rent in the cloth. This actually appears n text-books: Client abruptly begins to see the world in some entirely new way he feels certain, had he only seen it earlier, would've directed him down a path of vastly greater happiness - only (and this, of course, is the insane part) he inexplicably senses that way's still open to him ..."
Thus Bascombe is not really the ordinary guy Ford wants us to believe in, but rather a writer forced into existence as an ordinary guy. But if Bascombe's perceptive skills really belong to him, not the author, then you would think this interior self would be more frustrated than it is. Indeed for a man who refers to his unworried drifting into middle age as the `Existence Period', Bascombe is highly self-aware and doesn't appear to lie to himself. His struggles with his ex-wife, girlfriend and son are not intermingled with any grand delusions about his abilities as a father ("fatherhood by itself doesn't provide wisdom worth imparting") or a partner.
It is my unsubstantiated suspicion that American writers (from Roth to Updike and DeLillo) are normally better at addressing modern life that their British counterparts when because they don't distinguish between literary and non-literary subjects. Many British writers avoid the everyday because the everyday is not considered as worthy a subject as more important historical periods. However, when James Kellman won the Booker for `How Late it was, how late', it was branded as a disgrace by one of its own judges, mostly it seems because it contained a lot of swearing. The conservative publishing establishment couldn't accept that a book written in the interior voice of a Glaswegian drunk was deemed a worthy literary subject. I can't help but feel that Independence Day, while often illuminating, rather fails to create the kind of authentic inner-voice that made `How Late it Was, How Late' (for example) a masterpiece. A little too arch for my liking `Independence Day' is a nevertheless strikingly written and vivid account of modern (late 80s) America.
on 27 April 1999
Ford is in many ways a wiser, sharper and more profound version of Nick Hornby, and someone who writes like a poet not a journalist. This novel captures the balance of a characters' life as, in his 40's, he realises it is not what he asked for. A book about men but not strictly a men's book; a book about fatherhood, responsibility, irresponsibility and the desire to be the best you can while realising you'll never be what you should. Poignant, sharp, beautiful.