Most helpful positive review
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A brilliant internal monologue
on May 21, 2002
I agree with the reviewer (...) who raved about Richard Poe's brilliant reading of an unabridged, audio version of this book. Having read many of the divergent opinions listed here by Amazon readers, and remembering some of my own struggles to read authors like Tim Parks (whose narrators internalize much of the story and who digress often), it occurs to me that perhaps this story is better enjoyed on tape. I couldn't wait to get in my car every day and listen to Poe's witty, heart-felt rendition of Ford's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Independence Day is essentially an internal monologue, set on the long July 4th weekend of 1988. It is a sequel to Ford's earlier novel The Sportswriter, which I have yet to read, but I never got the impression I was missing anything due to lack of familiarity with the earlier novel. The protagonist is Frank Bascombe, a divorced, well-educated former sportswriter who now makes his living selling real estate in the affluent New Jersey town of Haddam, while supplementing his earnings with a couple of rental properties he owns in the town's African American neighborhood.
Bascombe is at something of a mid-life crisis. We learn that he has lost a son, and while he has been divorced from his wife for years, he still has feelings for her and secretly hopes for a reconciliation. At the same time, he is seen carrying on a half-hearted affair with a presumed widow whose husband left years earlier and never came back. Bascombe has planned to spend the long weekend with his troubled teenage son Paul, who is apparently battling some sort of mental illness or depression; for some unknown reason Bascombe decides to pick up his son in Connecticut, and drive to the basketball and baseball halls of fame in Springfield, Mass. and Cooperstown, N.Y.
Although quite a bit happens over the course of the three days, the novel is not necessarily plot-driven, and after you finish reading it (or better yet listening) you don't remember what happened nearly as much as you remember the characters themselves. In that respect it reminded me a little of a book like Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool, which I loved, although I now remember few details of the story. Frank's uneasy alliance with Paul, his guilt over taking him and not his sister away for the weekend, and his struggles to maintain his sanity over a long, stressful weekend were classic and very richly drawn by Ford. We learn Frank's thoughts at every turn, whenever he confronts another character, and at times the thoughts are brilliant, sad, funny or all of the above. For example, while trying to give his disinterested son a civics lesson on the meaning of Independence Day, Paul feigns confusion and asks a question or two, which the narrator Frank knows were really meant to mock him. Paul delights at ridiculing the hall of fame during the trip, while narrator Frank tries to keep up appearances and generate enthusiasm for displays like "Bob Lanier's shoes" while leafing through the color brochures.
There is an undercurrent of sadness and tragedy in the book, including Frank's own lost child and divorce, the earlier murder of another realtor at Bascombe's office, and even the death years earlier of a family pet in an accident, which still troubles Paul. However the novel has an upbeat tone about it, as if Frank has benefitted from therapy and is destined to look on the bright side even as other characters accuse him of being hard and uncaring. There is also plenty of humor in the book, made all the funnier by narrator Poe's excellent renditions of the character voices. Frank tries desperately to sell a house to a picky Vermont couple, and his partner in a strange "birch beer" and hot dog stand remains vigilant with his shotgun, ready to blast some suspicious Mexicans who he believes want to rob him.
All in all, the book has a voice which I found refreshing and amazingly true-to-life, with observations and asides that often had me laughing out loud or shaking my head at their poignant truth. I don't know from experience what thoughts abound in the head of a middle aged, divorced father who is estranged from his kids and who desperately wants to connect with them before it is too late, but I suspect Ford, in writing this book, got them exactly right. I recommend it highly, especially the audio version narrated by Richard Poe.