Sunday, April 05, 2009

the last book I read

Independence Day by Richard Ford.

This is a sequel of sorts to Ford's earlier novel The Sportswriter which I read a few years ago. I say "of sorts" because while it features many of the same characters (most notably the central protagonist Frank Bascombe), I don't think there's necessarily any need to have read the first novel to enjoy the second one (though, just to be clear, I think you should read it).

Independence Day picks up five years after the events of The Sportswriter (there was a real-life gap of nine years between the two books); Frank Bascombe is now selling real estate for a living in the fictional town of Haddam, New Jersey (a fictionalised Princeton, apparently), living alone, conducting a slightly detached and half-hearted relationship with a woman from just up the New Jersey coast in Mantoloking, and preparing to set off for a Fourth of July road trip with his fifteen-year-old son Paul.

As with The Sportswriter the beauty of this is not so much that anything spectacularly out of the ordinary actually happens - indeed you could argue that "the ordinary" is precisely the subject matter - but the subtlety of the observation and rendering of how real people act, react and interact. These are people who have normal everyday concerns - house prices, being the victim of crime, sex, death of family members, divorce, etc. Frank Bascombe himself is an endearingly intelligent and infuriating protagonist - slightly awkward with his teenage kids, prickly and defensive with his ex-wife (referred to as X throughout The Sportswriter but in slightly friendlier terms as Ann here) and her new husband, and with an air of dreamy introspection and vagueness throughout which sometimes curdles into unthinking self-centredness, as when he has a tender conversation with girlfriend Sally from a hotel phone and then shortly afterwards attempts to pick up the hotel's female chef (though he chickens out of following through with it).

As far as narrative goes what basically happens is: Frank has a couple of tasks to complete before setting off for Connecticut to pick up Paul from his ex-wife Ann's house: attempting to close the sale of a house to an indecisive couple from Vermont and a date with his girlfriend Sally. Neither of which proceed according to plan, but which ensure that the actual road trip doesn't start until about page 260 (of a 450-page book). Once under way it becomes clear that Paul is a typical surly and uncommunicative (and unwashed) teenager, possibly with a few slightly more exotic behavioural problems on top. Frank and Paul visit the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts without incident, but their subsequent trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York ends in disaster when Paul gets hit in the eye by a baseball and has to be rushed to hospital. Ex-wife Ann rushes over to supervise and after a surprisingly non-recriminatory discussion Frank returns to Haddam for an unexpectedly quiet and reflective Independence Day.

Like John Updike and Anne Tyler, Ford could be accused of ploughing a fairly narrow middle-class furrow, but that seems a bit unfair - if you're going to have a pop at writing the Great American Novel then an American setting is pretty much obligatory. My feeling regarding the Updike comparison is that Ford's novels are a bit warmer and more generally well-disposed towards the human race, particularly Frank Bascombe who is clearly at least semi-autobiographical.

And now the obligatory ticking off of things from lists:
  • The Sportswriter is another in the Time 100 novels list I've referred to a couple of times before
  • Independence Day won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1996 - my obligatory list of ones I've read for this one goes: 1953, 1961, 1981, 1996, 2003
  • Independence Day also won the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 1996 - the list for this one goes, erm: 1995, 1996. Must try harder!

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