In a sense, realtors have something in common with used-car salesmen. Both provide essential services and may earn decent money, yet there's something less than entirely respectable, even faintly risible, about what they do. Certainly nobody grows up yearning to peddle tract homes or previously owned sedans. Yet adult life arrives with its inevitable surprises, and suddenly there you are.
Frank Bascombe, the narrator and protagonist of Richard Ford's widely praised 1986 novel The Sportswriter, is just such a fellow. Frank once had a fine marriage, three kids, and a promising literary career. But his oldest son died, the marriage collapsed in sorrow and recrimination, and he hit the road covering ball games for a national sports magazine without ever much caring who won or lost. Now it's five years later, and in Independence Day Frank has become a real estate agent in suburban Haddam, N.J. No hack journalist anymore, but an honest, diligent, reasonably successful albeit extravagantly embittered real estate agent.
In keeping with his desire to be usefully engaged and stave off despair, Bascombe provides us with a minutely detailed, often witty account of a moderately disastrous three days July 4th weekend 1988 in which he almost sells a house, almost breaks up with his lover, argues with his ex-wife, leaves an unpleasant message on an ex-lover's answering machine, broods over the murder of a stranger in a motel where he spends a lonely night, then almost takes his emotionally disturbed 15-year-old son on a visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame before a terrible accident occurs.
What Independence Day amounts to is perhaps the most vivid literary depiction of a man hovering on the edge of clinical depression since Joseph Heller's Something Happened. Alas, Heller's novel was all but impossible to read for pleasure, and readers are apt to come to the same conclusion about Ford's.
Too often the reader is left feeling as frustrated as Bascombe's ex-wife, Ann. ''Every time I talk to you I feel like everything's being written by you,'' she tells him. ''Even my lines. That's awful, isn't it? Or sad.'' And what's saddest is that for all his extravagant self-pity, Bascombe, rather like the novel itself, is a fellow whom one badly wants to like. B