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Independence Day is touted as Richard Ford’s bid for entry into the front ranks of American novelists, but it’s a curious choice to achieve such honors: It’s long, nothing much happens, and it’s set in New Jersey. This last item is of no small import—Ford, Mississippi born, deserves credit for being the first man to try to set the Great American Novel in the Garden State.
Much of Independence Day takes place in the fictional town of Haddam, N.J., which many critics are having a hard time placing. Actually, Ford identified it well in his 1986 novel, The Sportswriter, to which Independence Day 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, which is precisely between the two hotbeds of American independence, New York and Philadelphia, but to identify it as such would give Independence Day intellectual vapors (Edmund Wilson, Scott Fitzgerald, et al.) that Ford doesn’t want. His protagonist, Frank Bascombe, seems to seek out companions for their lack of intellectual stimulation.
It’s been four years (in novel time) since Frank quit his job as a writer for a glossy New York sports weekly. In an oft-quoted line from Ford’s 1986 The Sportswriter, Frank decided that “It is one thing to write about sports, but it is something quite different to live a life”—that is, you can’t participate in life while sitting on the sidelines. But in Independence Day, Frank has simply traded one set of sidelines for another: He now sells real estate, and puts more thought and energy into selling homes than into stabilizing his own life.
This sequel opens on the eve of the 1988 Bush/Dukakis election, the relevance of which is never quite established. Ford tightly winds all the springs of his plot: Frank and his bordering-on-delinquent teen-age son are about to leave on a bonding excursion to the basketball and baseball halls of fame; Frank’s ex-wife, much to his dismay, is preparing to remarry; two potential homeowners have rejected the 45 houses Frank has shown them (and “would both rather be dead than anywhere that’s available”); and decision time is at hand with Sally Caldwell, the widow with whom Frank has been spending time.
This is an awful lot of plot to resolve, and though Ford spends a lot of time playing with it, he never resolves it. He doesn’t allow his characters to achieve his title’s independence; they don’t have any purpose outside their functions as satellites for Frank’s gloomy worldview.
What Independence Day does have going for it is a strong setting: Frank’s Haddam is real in a way the backwoods Mississippi of Ford’s first novel, A Piece of My Heart, is not. Heart‘s steamy Southern sex-and-sudden-violence bowled readers over when it was published in 1976, but today much of its dialogue feels cutely pretentious and the atmosphere curiously secondhand. Independence Day shows that Ford has deepened and matured as a novelist.
Frank likes the small, almost indistinguishable towns of central New Jersey, with their hint of Revolutionary War-era architecture and “third-growth hardwoods where no animal is native.” What he really enjoys about his environment is the feeling of, well, independence that it gives him. That is, he can’t feel oppressed by New Jersey’s “place”-ness. As he puts it, “…having come first to life in a true place, and one as monotonously, lankly itself as the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I couldn’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.”
But even for a salesman, Frank is a little too glib. He hawks his “place” concept with the same bland philosophy with which he sells houses. “You don’t sell a house to someone, you sell a life,” Frank opines. But how can it be a “life” without a sense of “place”? Having already established that “place” is an illusion, Ford can offer his characters only emotional vagabondism. This is fine with Frank, who doesn’t notice that everyone else around him finds it oppressive.
Perhaps, like Frank Bascombe, the author finds the New Jersey landscape liberating. But he clearly doesn’t find it stimulating. Independence Day is gravid with symbols of and references to freedom and independence, but no one is much inclined to work toward achieving it, or even toward figuring out what it is. Plot diversions (a woman Frank hated is murdered, Frank’s son gets picked up on a shoplifting charge) shake up the characters’ lives, but afterward everyone gets back into their ruts. Independence Day reads like a picaresque novel where the characters move around a lot but go nowhere.
A few years ago in Vanity Fair, James Wolcott wrote a put-down of Ford that utilized the novelist’s own interviews against him. Wolcott compiled Ford quotations (“I don’t walk. I hunt. Something dies when I stroll around outside”) and helped shape an image of Ford as a macho Jim Harrison type. The characterization is unfair. Ford’s trademark isn’t macho, it’s malaise. Until Ford comes to terms with that, Frank isn’t going to be able to sell anyone a life, least of all himself.