Richard Ford,
Independence Day
(Knopf, 1995)

Welcome back, Frank. You've been missed. Sort of.

You see, I've got a distinct love/hate relationship with the protagonist of Richard Ford's Sportswriter trilogy, revisited here in the sequel to The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day. Love in that Frank's a wise, insightful man who bears many of the same hardships of your typical middle-aged fellow in stride. Hate in that he's a narcissistic, quasi-pompous prick.

Got it?

Though penned by Ford nine years after he first introduced us to Frank, Independence Day occurs just five years later in Bascombe years. (In place of Easter weekend 1983, it's now Fourth of July weekend '88).

Perhaps it's Ford's way to first live the time period, then write about it from the position of someone who has already experienced it. Pretty smart.

Five years later, and not a lot has changed. Yet a lot really has. Frank is no longer a sportswriter, but a real estate agent. His son, Paul, is a 15-year-old nuisance who needs a little tender-lovin' care. And Frank still longs for his ex-wife. (Though he now refers to her by name -- Ann -- instead of feeding us an annoying X. She's also remarried and residing states away instead of down the road).

Like The Sportswriter, Independence Day occurs over a single weekend. This time the plan is for Frank to take his son on a trip to the basketball and baseball hall of fames. At the same time, Frank juggles spending time with his new squeeze (Sally), closing a housing deal with two pesky clients (the Markhams) and more importantly overcoming a static, mid-life crisis-y life phase he codenames the Existence Period.

It doesn't sound like a whole lot is going on here. And, regrettably, some readers will go on believing that.

But that's exactly what these books are about. They're an analysis of the human condition. Of life's oddities and its changes -- for the good and the bad. Here, Ford captures so many special life moments through his colorful, detailed language.

One of my favorites occurs when Independence Day is nearing its end. At breakfast, Frank finds that he's finally breaking through to his troubled, teenage son:

Paul looks back at me across the little table, his eyes troubled by a wish for something more, for more to get in the picture -- me, possibly. But that's not possible. He is all there is.
"Have you got the hamburger in the picture?" he says, and looks stern.
"Yeah," I say, "the hamburger's in." And it is.
"That's what I was worried about," he says, then brightly, wonderfully smiles at me.
And that is the picture I will keep of him forever.

Such sweet, genuine writing. I look forward to the trilogy's final chapter, The Lay of the Land.

review by
Eric Hughes

9 May 2009

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