We first met Frank Bascombe in Richard Ford's 1986 novel "The Sportswriter." Ford returned to the character in 1995 with "Independence Day."
Frank is older and has left the world of sportswriting to become a real estate agent in New Jersey suburbia. He has a decent career, an ex-wife, a pretty girlfriend, a stable financial situation, a nice home (bought from his ex-wife), and a troubled teenage son.
While this book provides no straightforward plot, it takes the reader through a holiday weekend inside and outside Frank's mind as he navigates the different parts of his life.
He begins by showing houses to a prospective customer who cannot make up his mind after dozens of showings and accuses Frank of everything from dishonesty to homosexuality.
We see Frank struggle with his romantic relationship. Girlfriend Sally does not know how to handle Frank's attempts to keep her at arm's length.
We see his frustration with his ex-wife, who has remarried a man that both Frank and his son Paul abhor.
And we travel with Frank and Paul to the Basketball and Baseball Halls of Fame as they try and fail to establish a decent father-son bond.
Ford creates a memorable character and reveals that character through his thoughts. The entire book is written in the first person and the present tense, giving readers the impression they are eavesdropping on Frank's thoughts as they pass through his mind. Frank is drifting through his privileged life, trying to convince himself that he is content.
Outwardly, Frank is calm and polite - even to those who are rude and abusive. He almost always says the right thing; when he does not, he is immediately aware of his mistake. But inwardly, he despises nearly everyone, holding them in contempt. He is a nihilist who observes and interprets the world but seems to exist outside of it. He combines cynicism and angst so that the reader feels sympathy for him. A lifelong Democrat, Frank is frustrated by the poor 1988 campaign run by Michael Dukakis (Historical Note: Bush handily defeated Dukakis in the fall election.)
Anyone else would long since have abandoned the racist, unreasonable husband who refuses to like any of the houses Frank shows him, but Frank takes it all in stride.
The road trip with the intelligent but troubled son is the most interesting part of the story. Paul has been disruptive and violent lately, including assaulting a security guard and striking his stepfather with an oar. Paul shows symptoms of autism and Tourette syndrome. His nearly constant sarcasm places him on the wrong side of the line between funny and annoying.
Frank attempts to connect with him, but his own faults make this problematic. The father is self-absorbed and indecisive. Within 36 hours, Frank considers asking his ex-wife to remarry him, confesses his love to his girlfriend, tries to pick up the young chef at a Cooperstown motel, and drunk dials his old sweetheart.
The story finishes on July 4 - American Independence Day - but it is also about Frank's struggle for Independence from his past.
"Independence Day" won Ford the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. It is a classic episodic novel told with humor and sensitivity.