By Richard Ford
Alfred A. Knopf, $24
Reviewed by Allen Barra
Richard Ford, Mississippi-born, deserves credit for being the first man to try to set The Great American Novel in New Jersey.
Much of Independence Day takes place in Haddam, N.J., a fictional town identified by Ford in his 1986 novel, The Sportswriter, to which this novel is a sort of sequel: "Settled in 1795 by a wool merchant from Long Island named Wallace Haddam, the town is a largely wooded community of twelve thousand souls set in the low and rolly hills of the New Jersey central section, east of the Delaware. It is on the train line midway between New York and Philadelphia, and for that reason it's not so easy to say we're a suburb of _ commuters go both ways." The simplest geographical point would be Princeton, located precisely between two hotbeds of American independence, New York and Philadelphia, but to identify it that way would give the novel intellectual vapors that Ford doesn't want.
It's been four years (in novel time) since Ford's protagonist Frank Bascombe quit his job as a writer for a New York sports weekly. It's 1988 on the eve of the Bush-Dukakis election, the relevance of which is never quite established. I have a feeling Ford set it in that period because it's the last time he saw that part of New Jersey. Anyway, he gets it all down right.
Ford likes the small, almost indistinguishable towns of central New Jersey with their hint of Revolutionary-era architecture and "third-growth hardwoods where no animal is native." What he really seems to like about them is the feeling of, well, independence that they give him. That is, he doesn't feel oppressed or tied down by their "place"-ness. As he puts it, "having first come to life in a true place, and one as monotonously, frankly, itself as the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I wouldn't be truly surprised that a simple setting such as Haddam _ willing to be so little itself _ would seem, on second look, a great relief and damned easy to cozy up to." Or, as he says in another context, "Place means nothing."
This sounds a little too glib, like the author is trying to sell us a concept with the same bland philosophy with which Bascombe sells houses (Frank's new profession, by the way.) Sample: "You don't sell a house to someone, you sell a life." Actually a sense of "place" is the one undeniably concrete thing the novel has going for it: The Haddam Bascombe lives in is real in a way the backwoods Mississippi of his first novel is not. A Piece of My Heart's steamy sex-and-sudden-violence bowled over some critics when it appeared in 1976, but today much of its dialogue seems cutely pretentious and the atmosphere curiously second-hand. Independence Day definitely shows that as a novelist Ford has deepened and matured. Perhaps, like Bascombe, he finds the hilly New Jersey landscape liberating.
What he does not seem to find it is stimulating. Ford winds all the springs of his plot tight: Frank is about to depart with his bordering-on-delinquent teenage son for a male-bonding tour of the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame; his ex-wife, much to Frank's dismay, is preparing to remarry; he's fighting an ongoing battle with two potential customers who have rejected 45 consecutive houses (and "would both rather be dead than anywhere that's available to them"); and decision time is at hand with Sally, the attractive blonde widow with whom Frank has been spending time. This is an awful lot of plot to resolve, and Ford gives himself an awful lot of room to play in, but by the time the book ends, I found myself struggling to remember if Ford had resolved any of it _ in other words, had he allowed any of his characters to achieve a kind of independence?
I'm pretty sure he didn't. With Ford it's not always easy to decide. Here's Sally to Frank: "Life seems congested to me. Something's crying out to be noticed, I just don't know what it is, but it must have to do with you and I. Don't you agree?" Bascombe, or Ford, just doesn't seem to know how to tell us what it is. Here's Sally again: "I always think about the Fourth of July as if I need to have something accomplished by nowThe fall just seems too late. I don't even know late for what."
Independence Day is gravid with references to freedom, but no one seems inclined to work toward achieving it, or even to figuring out what it is. All the plot diversions and traveling seem to shake up the characters' lives, but when things settle, everyone seems back in their rut.
A few years ago in Vanity Fair, James Wolcott wrote a famous put-down of Ford which helped shape an image of Ford as a macho writer. The characterization is unfair. Ford's trademark isn't macho; it's malaise. Bascombe is an intellectual masquerading as a real estate salesman, and until Ford comes to terms with that, Frank isn't going to be able to sell anyone a life, least of all himself.
Allen Barra is a staff writer for the Village Voice.