For a time in the early 1980s, Richard Ford gave up writing fiction. His first two novels, A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck, had sold poorly and been remaindered. After starting a new project an editor told him to abandon the manuscript, a quietly lyrical account of a failed novelist writing for a national sports magazine, recently divorced, mourning the death of his firstborn and striving vainly, in the aftermath of these events, to recover a coherent sense of himself. That book was The Sportswriter, which won wide praise when it appeared in 1986, sold many thousands of copies and established its narrator, Frank Bascombe, as one of the more distinctive voices in contemporary American fiction. Since that success Ford has proved to be a fitful writer. His nine books, published during the past thirty years, are set in a variety of locales–there doesn’t seem to be a state in the union he has missed–and concerned with a variety of predicaments, such as murder, theft and pettier crimes, adultery and adolescence. Each decade, though, he has faithfully returned to Bascombe, writing a pair of sequels to The Sportswriter: Independence Day (1995), the first book to be awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and, most recently, The Lay of the Land.
When the trilogy begins, Bascombe, who is nearing his thirty-ninth birthday, announces that he has “avoided ruin” in spite of being separated from his wife and losing his son Ralph to Reye’s syndrome. If he has survived, he doesn’t seem much the better for it. The only live faculties in Bascombe, it is clear, are the defensive ones, and in The Sportswriter he is prone to what he terms “seeing around,” a method of deflecting grief by willing every emotion mutable. “If I was mad or ecstatic, I always realized I could just as easily feel or act another way if I wanted to,” he says. This apathy makes Bascombe at times a volatile figure, vulnerable to sudden shifts of emotion; far more often, though, he is simply arrested, having no reason to act on feelings he does not view as genuine or lasting.
Independence Day presents a Bascombe who in some respects is different. He has become a wealthy realtor and is further removed from his divorce and Ralph’s death; he no longer speaks in the subdued voice of The Sportswriter but bellows forth in long exhalations. (“Writing sports, as anyone can tell you who’s ever done it or read it, is at best offering a harmless way to burn up a few unpromising brain cells while someone eats breakfast cereal, waits nervously in the doctor’s office for CAT-scan results or mulls away dreamy, solitary minutes in the can.”) Yet he still shuns risk and attachment, and will not commit himself in a significant way to anything or anyone. His attitude toward pain and turbulence is no longer to “see around” them but to remove himself from their path. “The worst thing about regret,” he admits in Independence Day, “is that it makes you duck the chance of suffering new regret just as you get a glimmer that nothing’s worth doing unless it has the potential to fuck up your whole life.”
So for two decades Bascombe preserves a tidy, circumspect bachelorhood, keeping himself resolutely partitioned from the flux and gust of life. Children, his ex-wife, girlfriends, a Divorced Men’s Club to which he once belonged: The question asked by every one of his botched dalliances and affiliations–whether or not he can authentically connect with another human being–is answered, over and over and over. No, he cannot. His story is one of permanent recoil, and this intransigence seems to bother even Ford, who said he hoped the close of Independence Day would signal a reversal of sorts. Ideally, that is, when Bascombe returned from a Fourth of July vacation during which his son Paul was violently injured, he would realize that he could no longer live according to so strenuous a code of guardedness and isolation. The book’s title and doctrine, Ford explained in interviews, were ironic: True independence brings not self-sufficient exile, as the American tenet of individualism holds, but its opposite, and entails a willingness to love and be depended on by others.