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Thursday, July 7, 2005

The Casual Critic — Richard Ford's Independence Day

Richard Ford's Independence Day is filled the type of prose most of us who have ever actually sat down to write the great American novel had in mind. Waxing intelligent about everything and anything under the sun, the novel offers a profile of the average Joe after life has been permanently derailed from the original planned destination.

Frank Bascombe has returned to his life in New Jersey after escaping to Florida, and eventually Europe, in the midst of a mid-life crisis brought on by the death of his youngest son and divorce (which ended The Sportswriter, a novel I read years ago but isn't necessary to understand the sequel). Living in what he calls the Existence Period, Frank has settled into life as a realtor, a part-time father, with a not-all-that-attached girlfriend, and a couple small business interests. He is eventually pulled back into the concerns of daily life over a Fourth of July weekend excursion with his teenage son who is struggling to cope with his own problems.

There seem to be numerous ways of looking at Frank Bascombe, which is no doubt at least partly why Ford took home the Pulitzer Prize for this elaborate character profile. He is at various times incredibly self-aware, hyper-sensitive, caring, incredibly funny, smart, annoying, pampas, awkward, and a pain in the ass . . . just like the rest of us. At times the first-person narration (through Frank) makes it difficult for the reader to get a true feel of reality, or at least a balanced picture of what it may be, though this is part of the profile. The reader has to rely on Frank's ex-wife Ann, and their children, for a balanced picture of Frank.

Frank's relationship with the Markhams, an awkward couple that simply cannot decide on a house due to plenty of their own issues, also offers insight into his personality. He pats himself on the back for not jettisoning them, truly wants to help them find their place in life (literally and figuratively), but at times also just wants to make his commission and move on.

I'm slightly torn about the writing in this piece, but only slightly. At times seemingly adorned to be adorned, I keep coming back to the character. He thinks about everything, so when the writing goes on and on about some awkward moment that most of us would notice but quickly ignore, it's a statement about Frank. The true power of the writing, however, may be when he expands on the nuances of the way people relate to each other, the past, and their own circumstance. It makes you think, which I find as a sign of quality in any book, movie, or the like.

Reading this book is, at times, a chore. It's a bit long, and flirts with losing it's reader on a few occasions. But, overall, it is readable, and allows the reader to delve into a character and a story they will care about. That, coupled with powerful writing, makes Independence Day more than worth reading.

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