DIY MFA Reading List: “Independence Day” by Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s lyrical and insightful sequel to The Sportswriter begins with an aging couple’s quest for the perfect piece of property to call home. Frank Bascombe, the enigmatic ex-writer, ex-sportswriter, ex-husband, and nearly exiled father of two children, has taken to selling real-estate in his home town of Haddam, New Jersey. As Frank drives his potential clients Joe and Phyllis Markham from one disappointing piece of property to another, he slips effortlessly into a variety of roles trying to close the Markham deal – at times a salesman, philosopher, entrepreneur, educator, father figure, therapist, and marriage counselor.

It’s a good job for Frank, increasingly isolated and emotionally distant from his family and the world at large, trying to navigate what he’s labeled the “Existence Period” of middle age, an introspective stage of life characterized by Frank’s stoic, easygoing brand of cynicism:

I now think of this balancing of urgent forces as having begun the Existence Period, the high-wire act of normalcy, the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blow-up, the time in life when whatever was going to affect us “later” actually affects us, a period when we go along more or less self-directed and happy, though we might not choose to mention or even remember it later were we to tell the story of our lives, so steeped is such a time in the small dramas and minor adjustments of spending quality time simply with ourselves.

It’s Independence Day weekend, that most American of holidays, and Frank – having bought his ex-wife Ann’s Haddam home after she moved away from town, purchased a roadside hot dog and soda stand, and fallen back on what feels like a middling career in realty – is trying to cram a lot into a short few days: close the Markham sale, make amends with his girlfriend, and get rolling on a two-day road trip to both the Basketball Hall of Fame (in Springfield, Massachusetts) and the Baseball Hall of Fame (in Cooperstown, New York) with his maladjusted son Paul.

But Frank’s wanderlust is shared by seemingly every other man, woman, and child in upstate New York: hordes of optimistic weekenders hoping to get away from it all, pouring out onto the highways and beaches, bringing everything to a standstill. Frank and Paul eventually arrive in Cooperstown, where Paul’s near-tragic accident serves to jolt Frank out of what has felt like a hibernation, ready for the next stage in life and consciousness (which we’ll get to read about in the trilogy’s final volume, The Lay of the Land).

Frank Bascombe is a wonderfully complex character, coolly connecting his inner experience to broader philosophical themes, yet often frustratingly inconsistent in his behavior. Frank navigates personal relations with a kind of evasive, dime-store philosophy double-speak which allows him the luxury of commenting on life … without really getting too involved. Here’s a typical exchange between Frank and his ex-wife Ann:

I took my first sip of just-cold-enough gin. I could feel the slow exhilaration of a long, honing talk coming. There aren’t very many better feelings. “For some people the improbable can last long enough to become true,” I said.

“And for other people it can’t. And if you were about to ask me to marry you instead of Charley, don’t. I won’t. I don’t want to.”

“I was just trying to speak to an ephemeral truth at a moment of transition and trudge on beyond it.”

“Trudge on then,” Ann said. “I’ve got to cook dinner for the children.”

Ford’s seriously great novel reads like a kind of Zen koan, a meditation on the responsibility of the “thinking” individual in a desire-driven crowd of citizens. As Frank and his son Paul retrace the steps of the founding fathers on their awkwardly pressurized road trip, Ford sprinkles philosophy lessons – on Emerson and Thoreau and Franklin and Jefferson – like pit stops along the highway, highlighting Frank’s dilemma as a citizen, as a father, and as a man. As a closet intellectual and liberal, Frank has achieved his precious independence at great personal cost, having largely withdrawn from society (and his family) in his quest for a kind of numbed-out happiness.

Ford understands that the elusive nirvana laid out within the original Declaration of Independence – our inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – was originally phrased using less noble concepts, namely the “pursuit of property” … of material things. But Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson objected to such a naked affirmation of desire in the founding documents, and the result was to set the bar a little higher than many originally intended. What is happiness … and how do we achieve it?

This disconnect between our daily lives – so much of our time spent accumulating wealth and property – and the nobler aspirations of our founding fathers, can create an existential unease, an uncomfortable middle ground that Richard Ford personifies with grace and real insight, through the character of Frank Bascombe. And so when Frank and Paul arrive in Springfield to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame, Ford summons Emerson to make a point about desire and its evil twin, discontent, so prevalent in contemporary American life:

When I shut the motor off, Paul and I simply sit and stare through the saplings at the old factory husks on the far side of the river as if we expected some great sign to suddenly flash up, shouting “No! Here! It’s over here now! You’re in the wrong place! You missed us! You’ve done it wrong again!”

I should, of course, seize this inert moment of arrival to introduce old Emerson, the optimistic fatalist, to the trip’s agenda, haul Self-Reliance out of the back seat, where Phyllis had it last. In particular I might try out the astute “Discontent is the want of self-reliance; it is infirmity of will.” Or else something on the order of accepting the place providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Each seems to me immensely serviceable if, however, they aren’t contradictory.

It was Emerson who, in 1837, delivered a speech entitled The American Scholar, which has since been termed The American Intellectual Declaration of Independence, a plea for American intellectuals to strive for clarity in thought and action. Such a quest involved a rejection of traditional views, intense personal reflection … and a commitment to involve one’s “self” with the world at large. Emerson warned against the urge to withdraw, to comment from afar, and said: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

But most of the time, Frank hasn’t a clue what to do next. He’s at sea, having lost the things that once made him happy: his wife, his deceased first son, his writing career, true intimacy with family and friends. In the end, Frank functions as a conduit for the spiritual growth of others (he helps his son take those first steps on the path to adulthood, he successfully counsels his clients the Markhams to downsize their expectations and purchase a more affordable house) while remaining strangely static. Frank needs a friend, someone to coach him out of his emotional rut and get him back on track.

Frank’s best hope for salvation is his girlfriend Sally, who sees in him the possibility of growth and change. And Frank is, as always, happy to go along with her assessment, at least for the time being: “I could sense like a faint, sweet perfume in the night the possibility of better yet to come, only I had no list of particulars to feel better about, and not much light on my horizon except a keyhole hope to try to make it brighter.”

Ford finishes Frank’s poignant and moving story with an affirmation of Emerson’s quote about time, with Frank losing himself to the crush of the holiday crowds, possibly determined to become “involved” again with the world, remembering a mysterious phone call he received the night before:

And I suddenly said, because someone was there I felt I knew, “I’m glad you called.” I pressed the receiver to my ear and opened my eyes in the dark. “I just got here,” I said. “Now’s not a bad time at all. This is a full-time job. Let me hear your thinking. I’ll try to add a part to the puzzle. It can be simpler than you think.”

Whoever was there – and of course I don’t know who, really – breathed again two times, three. Then the breath grew thin and brief. I heard another sound, “Uh-huh.” Then our connection was gone, and even before I’d put down the phone I’d returned to the deepest sleep imaginable.

And I am in the crowd just as the drums are passing – always the last in line – their boom-boom-booming in my ears and all around. I see the sun above the street, breathe in the day’s rich, warm smell. Someone calls out, “Clear a path, make room, make room, please!” The trumpets go again. My heartbeat quickens. I feel the push, pull, the weave and sway of others.

I can’t wait to see where Ford takes Frank next.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.