The American everyman

INDEPENDENCE DAY by Richard Ford, Harvill pounds 14.99
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IT takes a small age to read the first page: with loving slowness, Ford's eye turns and floats over the sleepy haze of an early-morning town in New Jersey in July, taking in still-shaded lawns, a lone jogger, a rattling commuter train, Honduran workmen out before the heat, a high school band drilling for the Fourth, all the while sentences running dreamily on and on until, dazzled but exhausted, you absorb their last glowing detail. Only 450 pages to go.

Ford has decided to write a State of the Union novel. His ambition is there in his title, in his date of publication (the same) and, more importantly, in his story of a typical American father looking for meaning in his life and his country on that most sacred of American dates. Ford's is a labour rarely attempted nowadays - some would say this reluctance is a good thing - because middle-aged white males like him are less confident in their ability to gather up America's polarising peoples and perspectives into a single vision. But Ford has found a way. First, as John Sayles did in his film City Of Hope, he limits his story to a few characters in a few places over a short period; then, with ambitious, technicolour language, he illuminates his chosen fragments into a national panorama.

The narrator and central figure is a 44-year-old real estate salesman called Frank Bascombe, an "arch-ordinary American". Ford based his previous big novel, The Sportswriter, around a younger version of the same Everyman; now Bascombe has an ex-wife, a delinquent son and a demanding girlfriend. He spends a few days in 1988 driving around New Jersey and New York state trying to satisfy all of them.

Ford makes this all seem like epic poetry. Even the smallest interlude becomes an epiphany: Bascombe, lying in bed at his girlfriend's beach house waiting for her to get back from work, hears "barely moving air and surf-sigh, the low scrim of radio notes and water subsiding over words spoken in whispers".

The actual plot is slight, just Bascombe nudging his workaday life along, via a difficult house sale to a couple of despairing ex-hippies, a few pining conversations with his ex-wife and a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame to stir his son from apathy. The real action is in Bascombe's head, where mid-life memories, imaginings and existential musings form a flashing stream. Partly it's his intelligence, too restless and perceptive to focus on one thing for long: ringing his girlfriend from a public phone to say he loves her, he can't stop imagining the lives of all the other callers.

Yet Bascombe's archetypal over-awareness comes from his job as well as his head. "Most Americans will eventually transact at least some portion of their important lives in the presence of realtors," writes Ford in his modern, jargony American; he uses this idea to make Bascombe an all- seeing social observer. He knows the material contours of his hometown, the racial property divides and the sad new blue-collar suburbs, and he knows the mental contours too, the triumphalism of the rich investors and the desperation of poor buyers - most poignantly the ex-hippie couple, dropping down the price and status scale amid "the cannibalistic financial forces gnashing and churning the world".

Bascombe's beliefs are caught, too, between deal-by-deal realpolitik and a vaguer urge to do good (he's a liberal Democrat) by selling people a new start. He buys a pair of undervalued old houses in the black part of town, rents them out to tenants in need, collects the profits - and agonises when he's seen as the exploiter. In fact, his worries are most of the book. Occasionally this gets too much, with Ford unreeling yet another Bascombe free-association about "the Existence Period" while the story idles.

But most of the time Bascombe's dilemmas are compelling. And Ford's descriptive writing is so beautifully concrete - recording the "sharp Coke-bottle poink" of bat striking baseball outside the Hall of Fame - that each little event lingers in the mind. The America of this book is both utopian, pure (neat small towns, the Fourth of July as "an observance of human possibility", Bascombe's scorn for European attempts to understand his country) and harassed, fraying. Ford expresses the lyricism, menace and banality of his country with as much force as Thomas Pynchon's own Eighties epic Vineland, minus the latter's kooky lapses. In the end, as Bascombe finds peace on the Fourth after a series of crises, Ford, like Pynchon, edges towards a faith that people, and specifically American people, will pull through together. You almost believe him.