From fourth estate to real estate

Can Richard Ford's new novel live up to his earlier brilliance? Independence Day by Richard Ford Harvill, pounds 14.99
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Like all the best writers, Richard Ford has taken some big risks with his new novel, risks that are only sharpened by the book's being "long-awaited", as the parlance has it. The entire conception is a bold gamble, as the sequel to The Sportswriter, the new work immediately invites comparison with one of the finest novels of recent years. This time, Ford has added some florid embellishments of his hero, Frank Bascombe. And he has raised the bar a little higher by making the first half of the book about as uneventful as can be.

On page 156 Bascombe reflects: "You simply reach a point at which everything looks the same but nothing matters much. There's no evidence you're dead, but you act that way." Up to this point, very little has happened. Bascombe has explained how he became an estate agent (or "Residential Specialist") and has shown a bad-tempered couple of unpleasable hopefuls round a house. He has reflected on his new philosophy of life, which amounts to not making a big deal of anything. He has introduced us to his new girlfriend, with whom he has a three-quarters-hearted relationship. And he has received (and been winded by) the news that his ex-wife is getting married again. We can tell that life is going to bite him in the face and stir him up, but at this stage it is hard to see what good this will do. It will just give him another sore tooth to dab at with his restless, inquisitive tongue.

In The Sportswriter, Bascombe was a novelist-turned-sports-journalist musing on the break-up of his marriage and the death of his son. It seemed at the end that he was beginning to lean away from the past and press his face against the window of the future. "The only truth that can never be a lie, let me tell you," he wrote,"is life itself - the thing that happens." And the first sentence of Independence Day suggests that Balcombe has indeed managed to put his troubles behind him. "In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems." It sounds as if he has tucked into a good life, one in which the grass is green and the water sprinkler always works and all the men are strong and all the women are pretty. It sounds, in short, most unlike Richard Ford's world, and sure enough, on page two, our hero is mugged.

But that first sentence is, nevertheless, a telling departure. There aren't many careless languorous gods in Ford's earlier works and few begin with anything like this lyrical, honeyed evocation of place. The Sportswriter sprang into life with a modest, unambiguous statement of fiction. "My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter." There wasn't much doubt that the subject was a person. But this time he is more obviously a vehicle for an inspection of modern American manners. The action takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, and in most important ways is an excursion on independence; ex-spouses writhe in their new-found freedom, children twist painfully away from the embrace of their parents, couples strive to locate the uncertain limits of modern life.

If Bascombe seems a less dramatic figure in this larger landscape, it might be because his dilemmas are (for fans) old news; he is still grappling with the same heartaches. This time he is a real estate agent - one of the pleasures of both books that the hero actually has a job. Bascombe resists the temptation to think about his life as if it were a house, sagging on its old foundations, with a couple of jammed windows and a front door that lets the rain in. As a realtor, part of his role, he thinks, is to introduce his clients to reality. But so far as we are concerned, he is a window overlooking contemporary America. Like most lives, his is full of encounters with strangers, and the book is a catalogue of American types; good old buddies, former hippies, angry blacks, helpful neighboursand the occasional sexy little minx. On the whole, though, Bascombe views his clients with a detchment verging on distaste, and lets his mind drift to the same things that have already haunted him through one novel.

And this is what makes this such a fine book, and such a sad one. In the biggest risk of all, Ford has written a sequel that refuses to forget the past. The accumulated sorrows in Bascombe's life cannot simply be blinked away: they continue to dampen his spirits and hamper his chances of happiness. The younger man had a dogged optimism that the bad times would surely pass, he is older now, and less inclined to hope for an upturn. He strives to be happy with his lot, but in truth is not even resigned to it. He has a good ration of misfortunes to chew over, misfortunes rendered poignant by their being of an ordinary kind; failures of nerve, failures of love, failures of ambition and faith. And once again he ends bravely, eyes front. Whether he really does catch the Zeitgeist, only time will tell. The book is quite concerned with the busy affairs of the world, the flow of news from faraway places and the commotions of finance and politics. But Bascombe himself is not much interested in such things. He's more worried about what to say to his ex-wife when next he sees her. You keep hoping he'll stop fingering the scab, the way you wish you could play the violin. But you know it will never happen, and you know that's the truth.