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Barbara Ehrenreich on Richard Ford’s ‘Independence Day’

Robert Hale/Shutterstock

Most reviewers of Independence Day have concluded that Richard Ford is one of the great American writers of our time. Surely they underestimate him. Anybody who can keep the reader going through 451 pages about a holiday weekend in the life of a New Jersey realtor—a weekend in which nothing much happens except for some pitstops at the Baseball Hall of Fame, the Vince Lombardi Rest Stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, and other locations that I experience, even in literary form, as personal hell—is more than a great writer of our time. He may be the greatest writer of all time.

Tolstoy, after all, had the Napoleonic wars to keep us going. Conrad had imperialism; Steinbeck, the Depression; and Morrison has mined the African American experience. Maybe that was because they couldn’t really write. Maybe the message from Ford and his celebrators is that a real writer doesn’t need History. A real writer can handle a subject so intrinsically boring that the mere contemplation of it is a provocation to wrist-slitting. He can take days spent in holiday traffic and the showing of suburban houses to an unhappy couple from Vermont and dress all this in prose so gorgeous that the reader decides, tentatively at least, to live after all. Ford’s next novel could be about dry-walling or data entry or developing a filing system for an insurance broker’s home office in Akron. It doesn’t matter. Everyone will love it, because, for dead-on dialogue and a perfect rendering of small-town and suburban distractedness, writing doesn’t get much better than this.

It’s perfectly evident that the Markhams haven’t looked in life’s mirror for a while .... Vermont’s spiritual mandate, after all, is that you don’t look at yourself, but spend years gazing at everything else as penetratingly as possible in the conviction that everything out there more or less stands for you, and everything’s pretty damn great because you are. (Emerson had some different opinions about this.) Only, with home buying as your goal, there’s no real getting around a certain self-viewing.

This isn’t the only instance, to be sure, in which technical perfection has been achieved in a medium of communication only to find out we don’t really have much to say. Log onto America Online, and you will be impressed by the abundance of colorful options and the ease of navigation from icon to icon, not to mention the accumulated knowledge of chemistry, physics, computer science and materials science that has made it possible for 3 million people to get together via the modem and the silicon chip. But click onto one of AOL’s numerous chat groups and you’ll find your fellow telecommunicants typing in terminally vapid entries such as “So is it raining there in Baltimore?” or “What exactly is the subject here?”

There are hints in his new novel that Ford is alert to the higher imperatives of content and historical context. In The Sportswriter, to which Independence Day is the sequel, Ford’s hero Frank Bascombe inhabited a world that was just large enough for his personal tragedies and philanderings and not an iota of anything else. In his sportswriter phase, Frank connected to his fellow humans only through sex, in the case of women, or, in the case of men, through the boy-bonding, faux-heroic realm of sports; nothing else, and certainly not the events of his time, ever intruded. So it is a surprise to find, from the very beginning of Independence Day, faint evidences of a world beyond Frank Bascombe. We learn that he has a political affiliation (“yellow dog Democrat,” even liberal), that it is 1988 and the summer of the Dukakis-Bush race, that the ‘87 stock market meltdown has had an unpleasant effect on property values.

In fact, there are hints throughout the book that we may be onto something even larger than Haddam, New Jersey, where Frank plies his trade—that there may be, yes, a metaphor afoot. He describes himself at one point as “an arch-ordinary American.” He is reading, and trying to get his 14-year-old son to read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Carl Becker’s The Declaration of Independence, works that he describes engagingly as not “a bit grinding, stuffy or boring, the way they seemed in school, but brimming with useful, insightful lessons applicable directly or metaphorically to the ropy dilemmas of life.” And of course this is the July Fourth weekend, when even the dopiest townships rouse themselves for a moment to reflect on America’s violent and audacious origins. The inquisitive reader begins to feel that she may be on the trail of some grand American themes, such as Where America Is Headed or at least What It’s Like to Live in America Now or (at the very least) What It’s Like to Be a Guy in America Now.

Great American literature has always been, for the most part, the literature of great American guys: Ishmael, Huck Finn, Natty Bumppo, Jake Barnes. Traditionally, the guy genre wrestles with a single huge dilemma: the guy’s responsibility to settle down into domesticity versus the lure of the unisexual world of adventure. A cozy hearth versus a high-country campsite, the Little League versus the bullring, hunting whales versus selling real estate. And the classics of American literature, as Leslie Fiedler observed, come down squarely on the side of the whales. Domesticity is an audition for the grave, civilization a female plot to keep men plodding along in their traces. Real men break loose and escape on whatever conveyance presents itself: a raft or a whaling ship or an old car. Only a wuss would live in a house, much less make a career of selling them.

Fiedler observed all this disapprovingly, taking it as evidence of some longstanding guy problem with “mature heterosexuality.” And, in tune with the “adjustment psychology” that dominated post-war pronouncements on the human condition, a new genre arose, a genre in which guys settle–not without a struggle, but sooner or later and once and for all. The classic, or sub-classic, example is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which the hero is led to the final illumination that it’s a damn fine thing to be a corporate cog if you have a nice house and family in the suburbs to come home to. Henceforth, in Cheever and Updike and Roth, it is the duty of heroes to renounce heroism. Sex takes the place of the great maritime and riverine adventures. Real men test their mettle on lawn maintenance and the intricacies of post-monogamous marriage.

Not that it’s been a simple temporal progression. While Updike was tucking his heroes into bedroom communities, Kerouac revived the Melvillian unisexual romp. Guy-writers such as Jim Harrison and the early Tom McGuane posit some mythical outdoor woman-free space where a man’s deeds still signify in the old heroic sense. On the whole, however, the settling genre has come out ahead. For one thing, it fits in nicely with American fiction’s general retreat from anything that could be called a “public” theme. We don’t have a lot of recent fiction about union organizing or Mexican immigrants or the effects of corporate downsizing (and any fiction on these or similar themes that does appear is likely to be blown off as “political”). American fiction, for the most part, has come indoors and closed the shades behind it.

In the genre of the settling male, the hero must put up some resistance, so that there will be a modicum of suspense. Will he “mature”? At first Frank Bascombe would seem to be a hard nut to crack, a typical mid-’80s case of intimacy-phobia complicated by a full-blown fear of commitment. As soon as anyone gets close to him, or threatens to get close to him, his nimble mind scampers off into some safety zone of detached speculation. Having conceded the words “I love you” to his girlfriend, he starts wondering how the conversation would be going if he’d put the word “don’t” in front of the verb. He loves his children (who are living with his ex-wife) less ambivalently, but he has a hard time fixing them in his mind. In a scene that I found truly harrowing, Frank “forgets” that his seriously disturbed son has disappeared for several hours into the darkness of the strange town where they are staying for the night and starts hitting on the inn’s busty, tough-talking cook.

In Independence Day, however, the usual tension of the novel of settling—will he, for Chrissake, grow up?—is oddly aborted from the start. Usually, the genre has its hero come to see that all kinds of hideous compromises, including mindnumbing forms of employment, are redeemed by the love of a good woman and pert enough kids. But Frank has settled into the job entirely on his own, without the straitening influence of a houseful of dependents. Divorced and possessed of over a million dollars before the book begins, he could have done anything—returned to his forsaken calling as a fiction writer or, if he so desired, gone floating down the Mississippi in a yacht. He might even have moved, grown-up style, to within commuting range of his kids’ new home in Connecticut. But no, he comes back (after a brief, offstage period of drifting) to dull old Haddam, New Jersey, and takes up realty, hoping, he tells us in the classical idiom of the genre, that “I might find myself, if not in the warp of many highly dramatic events, reckless furies and rocketing joie de vivre, still as close to day-to-day happy as I could be.”

Stranger yet, he chooses to live in the house just vacated by his ex-wife and children. The familiar substitutes for the family. This choice of residence reminded me of an incident in The Sportswriter, in which a sort-of friend and fellow member of the Divorced Men’s Club commits suicide after his cri de coeur is brushed off by the slippery Frank, and Frank, by way of mourning, goes and visits the poor fellow’s empty apartment. Somehow, physical structures are easier to deal with than their residents. Realty beats reality. It lets you enter deeply into the lives of people like the would-be homebuyers from Vermont, but in a relationship mediated entirely by issues of square-footage and adequacy-of-wiring.

Seems like a case of ordinary commodity-fetishism, in which dead objects loom larger than persons—but it’s a little less commonplace than that. What Frank craves, what he requires, is the ordinary itself. He’s a settler all right but in a landscape so sparsely populated that the nonhuman details—the billboards and the turnpike exit signs and the strip malls—almost take over. If he can’t focus on the humans in his life, it’s partly because he’s dazzled by the suburban detritus all around.

I must emphasize that the ordinary here is enlivened by no existential darkness or menace. There’s real and there’s real, and Ford’s real is thoroughly innocent of the hyper- and the ir- and the sur-. Everything in this universe is just as it seems, as banal and soul-crushing as a Sunday afternoon spent shopping for garden tools. And despite some vague twinges of regret, this is all that our hero seems to want.

Possibly this is one more version of “disappearing into your life,” the way career telephone company bigwigs, overdutiful parents and owners of wholesale lumber companies are said to do and never know it. You simply reach a point at which everything looks the same but nothing matters much. There’s no evidence you’re dead, but you act that way.

Is there something here that Ford wants us to conclude about the state of the American soul? Well, like the rest of the settling genre, Independence Day is about a post-heroic America, where the memory of heroism lingers only in the play-world of sports. You would never know, from Frank’s musings or from most real-life observations of the Fourth of July, that our collective independence was won through a bloody struggle against one of the world’s great superpowers. “Best maybe just to pass the day as the original signers did ... ,” he concludes, “in a country-like setting near to home, alone with your thoughts .... “ The only real heroism that the novel seems to ask of Frank is that he make contact, like any decent father, with his son, which he does, sort of, by the end. This is nice, but it isn’t going to free any colonies.

Maybe there are some larger conclusions waiting to be excavated, as the July Fourth and Emerson themes would seem to suggest, such as: Democracy in Peril as Suburban Torpor Swallows All Notion of Citizenship, or Feckless Guys Would Like to Come Home But, Due to the Tyranny of Materialism, Will Settle for House. But Ford is even more of a slacker than his protagonist when it comes to the big issues. The Declaration of Independence, which Frank was planning to take up as a text with his son, is forgotten. Emerson, whom I expected to pop up at some point and make a pitch for the intense, morally engaged life, gets left in the back seat of the car. The Fourth of July collapses limply into an opportunity “to contemplate what we’re dependent on ... and after that to consider ways we’re independent or might be, and finally how we might decide—for the general good—not to worry about it much at all.” In the end, even reality floats away anticlimactically, with Frank opining, apropos of nothing in particular, that it’s “not that commanding a metaphor.”

So what has been going on here for all these hundreds of pages? There is the writing, of course, which is probably enough to motivate most of Ford’s readers. And there are clues that perhaps, in some occult sense, it is Frank himself, the lapsed fiction writer, who is doing the writing. In several places realty is likened to writing, if only as “something to do.” At one point Frank’s ex-wife accuses him of writing his life instead of living it; and who, if not a writer or an English professor, would judge his occupation for how it works as a “metaphor”? Which would mean that Frank’s less-than-heroic life is redeemed, according to the conventions of the settling genre, by the splendor of his sensibility, the sheer richness of his perceptions.

Never mind that he never actually writes them down. Never mind, too, that he may be, as his son puts it, “a complete failure.” Who could disagree? The examined life is worth living even in a realty office in Jersey, and so is the cursorily examined life, and so is the life which, due to the pressures of survival, leaves no room for even the most perfunctory perusal. But there is a significant difference between the kind of life that we read (and write) about and the kind of life that we actually live: we have a lot more choice about what we read (and write). And when all is said and done—in this case, much more is said than done—I’d rather spend my time with a more spirited and interesting guy than Frank.

I worry that it’s Richard Ford, and not just Frank Bascombe, who’s been settling. Real estate and upper-middle-class anomie are themes that no doubt come naturally to the successful, middle-aged professional with more than one home. But it would be nice to see Ford’s painterly talents applied to something larger than a teacup or, in this case, a New Jersey State commemorative plate. Don’t settle, I say. Ditch Frank and, next time around, take a few chances.

Image via shutterstock.