Thursday, February 22, 2007

Good Ford

Last year Richard Ford wrote a third novel to follow after his earlier books The Sportswriter and Independence Day, and I thought I would read these all back-to-back-to-back. I've got the new one, The Lay of the Land, on hold at the public library (situated, conveniently enough, right across the street from the office), so if it's a good citizen whose copy is due back on the 26th, I should be in on that pretty shortly. In the meantime I just finished Independence Day, which I'd first read during college for a sociology course about suburbia.

(That was the one course at school I thought was complete b.s., incidentally, so I'm happy to have taken something meaningful away from it. It was taught by a young visiting professor who had us watch a bunch of movies—Blade Runner = not particularly trenchant as social commentary, by the way—and would do things like assign a week's reading out of the same journal issue, none of it particularly pertinent to suburbia. I guess we also got an interesting talk from the writer of The Slums of Beverly Hills, who was really bitter about how the producers punched up her ending to be optimistic and sentimental.)

Anyway, Richard Ford: a commanding, scintillating authorial presence. The Sportswriter is a fine, limber book, which Independence Day doesn’t build on so much as pick up, electrify, and blow up into a multifaceted reworking of the central character, Frank Bascombe. Ford writes Bascombe with an uncanny grace & balance, crafting the man to be in his element (that being the suburban New Jersey of the 1980s) even when coming a bit unhinged. Bascombe’s struggles are made on his own terms, for the most part, in a life with regrets but without a sense that he’s gone terribly wrong or facing forces beyond his understanding. (With a couple of key exceptions; this is the overall sense I get, though.) There’s no confrontation with a foreign, impossible-to-understand cataclysmic something that forces an alteration of his views or desires, and I think this is a good and rare thing in a story. Instead it’s a portrayal of part of a long, gradual, and generally affirming working out of things, with the key being that Frank Bascombe is written robustly enough to be a character whose life seems to extend into the past and future beyond that part. It’s a bell-clear and charismatic first-person voice, too, comprehensively thoughtful but shaded with a couple of gradually revealed blind spots.

What Ford also spectacularly provides is a symphonic treatment of event and conversation, constant deft touches of changing emotional light, and enough sensory imagery to ground these slow complex observations in the real world. Characteristic scenes set up a conversation (or just as likely, a phone call) with each line of dialogue shaded with a paragraph of thought, plus an ambient observation: a train whistle sounding over the back yard; a water skiier on the river next to the interstate being driven on. Most of the first hundred pages of Independence Day take place on a real estate showing, and it’s pretty exhilarating to read Ford drawing the animating spirit out of this kind of event—and making sure to note, without putting too fine a point on it, the embodiment of American life contained in it.

That’s my reaction to the atmospherics of the two books—there’s obviously a lot more to chew on thematically & plotwise, but there’s not much utility in my trying to hash any of that out here. In any case, I do recommend that you read these if you haven’t yet. I am looking forward to the new one quite a bit.

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Note: Scene spoiler in the comments.


Blogger Pete said...

The scene where the kid steps in front of the pitch in the batting cage is one of my favorite sequences in any American novel.

2/26/2007 6:48 PM  
Blogger Jack said...

Yes, it's something else. And a pretty believable account of kind-of-under-control teenage nihilism. I love how afterwards at the hospital his ex-wife comes helicoptering in to take care of things, too.

2/26/2007 7:27 PM  

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