Saturday, May 28, 2016

Independence Day by Richard Ford

I have a theory. A good novel will tell you what it’s about in its opening pages. Not who the characters are or what’s going to happen in its plot, but what it’s about.

A sad fact, of course, about adult life is that you see the very things you’ll never adapt to coming toward you on the horizon. You see them as the problems they are, you worry like hell about them, you make provisions, take precautions, fashion adjustments; you tell yourself you’ll have to change your way of doing things. Only you don’t. You can’t. Somehow it’s already too late. And maybe it’s even worse than that: maybe the thing you see coming from far away is not the real thing, the thing that scares you, but its aftermath. And what you’ve feared will happen has already taken place. This is similar in spirit to the realization that all the great new advances of medical science will have no benefit for us at all, though we cheer them on, hope a vaccine might be ready in time, think things could still get better. Only it’s too late there too. And in that very way our life gets over before we know it. We miss it. And like the poet said: “The ways we miss our lives are life.”

This is on page 5 of Richard Ford’s Independence Day, and I flagged it as soon as I read it. This painful reality of “adult” life, that no matter what, it’s already too late to fix anything, is absolutely the central theme of the novel.

And it’s typified by the experiences of our first person narrator, Frank Bascombe, a former sportswriter and now a real estate agent, a former husband, now with an ex-wife, a teenage son, and a middle-aged girlfriend. Independence Day paints an odd time in Frank’s life, something he himself calls his Existence Period, a time with no past and no future, where anything can happen but isn’t likely to.

But on any day I can rise and go about all my normal duties in a normal way; or I could drive down to Trenton, pull off a convenience-store stickup or a contract hit, then fly off to Caribou, Alberta, walk off naked into the muskeg and no one would notice much of anything out of the ordinary about my life, or even register I was gone. It could take days, possibly weeks, for serious personal dust to be raised. (It’s not exactly as if I didn’t exist, but that I don’t exist as much.) So, if I didn’t appear tomorrow to get my son, or if I showed up with Sally as a provocative late sign-up to my team, if I showed up with the fat lady from the circus or a box of spitting cobras, as little as possible would be made of it by all concerned, partly in order that everybody retain as much of their own personal freedom and flexibility as possible, and partly because I just wouldn’t be noticed that much per se. (This reflects my own wishes, of course--the unhurried nature of my single life in the grip of the Existence Period--though it may also imply that laissez-faire is not precisely the same as independence.)

This provides the double meaning of the title (another probable pre-requisite of any good novel). The plot involves Frank’s preparation for and participation in an extended Independence Day weekend trip with his son, but it’s also an ironical comment on the nature of Frank’s independence. Despite the apparent capability of doing anything, he is so benumbed by the structures and conventions of his adult life that he is incapable of mustering the energy to do much more than go through the motions. If his life can take him so drastically from place to place, especially in a manner unforeseen and undesired, it’s better not to hope or actively engage in the business of living.

Frank has plenty of fears. There are fears about his son, who is beginning to manifest some antisocial behaviors.

And who could help wondering: is my surviving son already out of reach and crazy as a betsy bug, or headed fast in that dire direction? Are his problems the product of haywire neurotransmitters, only solvable by preemptive chemicals? … Will he turn gradually into a sly recluse with a bad complexion, rotten teeth, bitten nails, yellow eyes, who abandons school early, hits the road, falls in with the wrong bunch, tries drugs, and finally becomes convinced trouble is his only dependable friend, until one sunny Saturday it, too, betrays him in some unthought-of and unbearable way, after which he stops off at a suburban gun store, then spirits on to some quilty mayhem in a public place? (This I frankly don’t expect, since he has yet to exhibit any of the “big three” of childhood homicidal dementia: attraction to fire, the need to torture helpless animals, or bedwetting; and because he is in fact quite softhearted and mirthful, and always has been.) Or, and in the best-case scenario, is he--as happens to us all and as his mother hopes--merely going through a phase, so that in eight weeks he’ll be trying out for lonely end on the Deep River JV.

God only knows, right? Really knows?

This passage sets a common precedent for much of the inner dialogue of the novel. Question, question, question, softened by a dose of reality, and then dismissed with a set of hands thrown up at the end. Is he a monster? Probably not. But who can tell?

There are fears about the intentions of others.

The truth is, however, we know little and can find out precious little more about others, even though we stand in their presence, hear their complaints, ride the roller coaster with them, sell them houses, consider the happiness of their children--only in a flash or a gasp or the slam of a car door to see them disappear and be gone forever. Perfect strangers.

This (cleverly, I think) comes after forty or more pages of exposition on two of Frank’s real estate clients--Joe and Phyllis Markham. So many pages so early in the novel, in fact, that I was beginning to think that the novel was going to be about the Markhams (it isn’t). Having Frank call them perfect strangers after telling us so much about them helps shake the foundation we think he is building, and gives us deeper insight into the rules that govern his Existence Period.

And there are fears about his own death, as likely as not, in squalor and obscurity--either like Clair, a younger real estate agent Frank had a brief fling with, murdered in a seeming random event while showing properties; or like an unknown father staying at the same motel as Frank, his room broken into and killed for his valuables.

And as I lie in bed here, still alive myself, the Fedders blowing brisk, chemically cooled breezes across my sheets, I try to find solace against the way this memory and the night’s events make me feel, which is: bracketed, limbo’d, unable to budge, as illustrated amply by Mr. Tanks and me standing side by side in the murderous night, unable to strike a spark, utter a convincingly encouraging word to the other, be of assistance, shout halloo, dip a wing; unable at the sad passage of another human to the barren beyond to share a hope for the future. Whereas, had we but been able, our spirits might’ve lightened.

Death, veteran of death that I am, seems so near now, so plentiful, so oh-so-drastic and significant, that it scares me witless. Though in a few hours I’ll embark with my son upon the other tack, the hopeful, life-affirming, anti-nullity one, armed only with words and myself to build a case, and nothing half as dramatic and persuasive as a black body bag, or lost memories of lost love.

Suddenly my heart again goes bangety-bang, bangety-bangety-bang, as if I myself were about to exit life in a hurry. And if I could, I would spring up, switch on the light, dial someone and shout right down into the hard little receiver, “It’s okay. I got away. It was goddamned close, I’ll tell ya. It didn’t get me, thought. I smelled its breath, saw its red eyes in the dark, shining. A clammy hand touched mine. But I made it. I survived. Wait for me. Wait for me. Not that much is left to do.” Only there’s no one. No one here or anywhere near to say any of this to. And I’m sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.

But none of these fears--as pressing and as sublimely expressed as Ford offers them--cause Frank to act. Because that’s not what this novel is about. Near the end of the novel, while at the Baseball Hall of Fame with his son, Frank bumps into his own step-brother, Irv, the product of a union between Frank’s mother and her second husband, someone Frank hasn’t seen in years. Irv shows Frank a photograph he continues to carry around.

“It’s us, Frank,” Irv says, and looks at me amazed. “It’s you and Jake and your mom and me, in Skokie, in 1963. You can see how pretty your mom is, though she looks thin already. We’re all there on the porch. Do you even remember it?” Irv stares at me, damp-lipped and happy behind his glasses, holding his precious artifact out for me to see once more.

“I guess I don’t.” I look again reluctantly at this little pinch-hole window to my long-gone past, feel a quickening torque of heart pain--unexceptional, nothing like Irv’s catch of dread--and once again proffer it back. I’m a man who wouldn’t recognize his own mother. Possibly I should be in politics.

“Me either really.” Irv looks appreciatively down at himself for the eight jillionth time, trying to leech some wafting synchronicity out of his image, then shakes his head and re-snugs it among his other wallet votives and crams it all back into his pocket, where it belongs.

It’s more of the same. Almost 400 pages in, and Frank is still not acting, still not recognizing his own past, still not envisioning his own future. And for those of us like Irv, actively trying to connect the gossamer threads of our own lives together into some kind of coherent narrative, being confronted by such ennui and inaction, we can’t help but feel embarrassed, as if we secretly fear Frank has figured something out that has eluded us.

But, of course, he hasn’t. My theory about novels has a second part to it. A good novel tells you in its opening pages what it’s about. And a great novel sums up that theme in its closing pages in a way that isn’t forced or clumsy. That’s a real challenge for Ford in Independence Day, since it is essentially a novel about existing, about not reacting, about never taking risks.

The best “summing up” comes a few pages before the end, when Frank is watching parachuters in an air show on the titular Independence Day.

I climb out of my car onto the grass and stare at the sky to glimpse the plane the jumpers have leaped free of, some little muttering dot on the infinite. As always, this is what interests me: the jump, of course, but the hazardous place jumped from even more; the old safety, the ordinary and predictable, which makes a swan dive into invisible empty air seem perfect, lovely, the one thing that’ll do. This provokes butterflies, ignites danger.

Needless to say, I would never consider it, even if I packed my own gear with a sapper’s precision, made friends I could die with, serviced the plane with my own lubricants, turned the prop, piloted the crate to the very spot in space, and even uttered the words they all must utter at least silently as they go--right? “Life’s too short” (or long). “I have nothing to lose but my fears” (wrong). “What’s anything worth if you won’t risk pissing it away?” (Taken together, I’m sure it’s what “Geronimo” means in Apache.) I, though, would always find a reason not to risk it; since for me, the wire, the plane, the platform, the bridge, the trestle, the window ledge--these would preoccupy me, flatter my nerve with their own prosy hazards, greater even than the risk of brilliantly daring death. I’m no hero, as my wife suggested years ago.

This is Frank Bascombe--and perhaps this is also Richard Ford, and the writer than lives within. Neither nostalgic for the past nor dreaming of the future, but always preoccupied with the everlasting present, the place few others pay any attention to.

Inside the Craft

As earlier mentioned, Frank Bascombe was a sportswriter (the Sportswriter in a previous Ford novel), so when he starts talking about what he misses about the craft, my ears really perk up, listening carefully for Ford’s own voice instead of Frank’s.

Sometimes, though not that often, I wish I were still a writer, since so much goes through anybody’s mind and right out the window, whereas, for a writer--even a shitty writer--so much less is lost. If you get divorced from your wife, for instance, and later think back to a time, say, twelve years before, when you almost broke up the first time but didn't because you decided you loved each other too much or were too smart, or because you both had gumption and a shred of good character, then later after everything was finished, you decided you actually should’ve gotten divorced long before because you think now you missed something wonderful and irreplaceable and as a result are filled with whistling longing you can’t seem to shake--if you were a writer, even a half-baked short-story writer, you’d have someplace to put that fact buildup so you wouldn’t have to think about it all the time. You’d just write it all down, put quotes around the most gruesome and rueful lines, stick them in somebody’s mouth who doesn’t exist (or better, a thinly disguised enemy of yours), turn it into pathos and get it all off your ledger for the enjoyment of others.

Writers don’t actually do that, do they?

And should someone actually recognize themselves in these half-baked short-stories? Recognize and resent the gruesome and rueful lines you have put in their mouth? The way Frank’s ex-wife Ann does in Independence Day?

Indeed, I often tried telling her that her contribution was not to be a character but to make my little efforts at creation urgent by being so wonderful that I loved her; stories being after all just words giving varied form to larger, compelling but otherwise speechless mysteries such as love and passion. In that way, I explained, she was my muse; muses being not comely, playful feminine elves who sit on your shoulder suggesting better word choices and tittering when you get one right, but powerful life-and-death forces that threaten to suck you right out the bottom of your boat unless you can heave enough crates and boxes--words, in a writer’s case--into the breach.

Serious business, this writing of half-baked stories. In them, writers grapple with forces capable of destroying them.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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