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True-blue eyes; writer who's read

Richard Ford has eyes the color of his faded jeans.

That's just color I'm talking about _ as to intensity, the word faded doesn't apply. If the light is right and Ford happens to fix you with an unblinking gaze, the beam of cold blue is a little spooky, as though he had been body-snatched by aliens. But Ford also has a Southerner's easy good manners, and the odds are slim that he'll stare you down, especially if you've come to talk about his new book, Independence Day (see review at left).

Ford's high-voltage eyes are worth pondering.They're not really any more significant than someone else's out-sized proboscis, but centuries of windows-of-the-soul baggage can trip you up when you meet a writer splendidly equipped to cast a penetrating glance. Ford is so seamlessly comfortable just being a regular guy _ low-key, unassuming, ordinary _ that the eyes, set in a lean handsome face, look like a tip-off, the hint that betrays a fierce nature or an unstable artsy temperament. This is, after all, an acclaimed author. "Sentence by sentence, Richard is the best writer at work in this country today," Ford's friend Raymond Carver announced in the New York Times shortly before his death in 1988. You can't help scanning Ford's slim, six-foot person for signs of talent (as a writer or as a friend) imposing enough to provoke that kind of praise.

Of course it's the book that counts, not the look.

The critics' applause began in earnest with the publication in 1986 of Ford's third novel, The Sportswriter whose narrator, 38-year-old writer Frank Bascombe, has given up literature for the sturdier prop of sports journalism.

Now, nine years later, Bascombe is back. (In the interval Ford has published two books, a lavishly praised collection of short stories, Rock Springs, and Wildlife, a short novel.) Independence Day picks up more or less where The Sportswriter left off.

Though he's still minutely monitoring Frank's inner life, Ford has broadened the horizon and packed the surrounding landscape with a carnival profusion, the sights and sounds of an American moment. Says Ford, "The concerns this time are more public."

I ask questions about how he sees Bascombe, and he obliges with courteous answers ("In a spiritual way, I'm probably very much like Frank"), but makes it clear my approach isn't congenial to him. "I'm a sentence guy," he says, a faint echo of Carver's praise. "I believe in the sanctity of sentences. Rather than sit around as some writers do and talk about characters as though they were people, I think about sentences. I once heard a famous writer say, "my characters don't do things like that.' I thought to myself, What a silly thing to say. As though all your characters lived together in a small house someplace in Upstate New York and whenever you wanted to write a novel you went up and visited them."

Whenever he finds himself half-convinced that a character like Frank is "somebody speaking for me," Ford reminds himself that it's "just the effect of a concatenation of sentences." It's a point that momentarily rouses him to stiff seriousness: "When an author pretends like his characters have some kind of separate existence, I always think they're renouncing responsibility. That's what it means to be an author. You are the authority. You did it."

Ford has been married for 28 years (his wife, Kristina, heads the New Orleans planning commission). He divides his time among houses in New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta ("It's on the Yazoo River," he says with a native's pride in the folkloric name), and Montana. At one time or another he has lived all over the country. "The stuff about America," he says, "I come equipped with. I'm not the Ur-American, but I'm one of them."

Adam Begley is a writer who lives in Delevan, Wis.