Frank Bascombe has entered his Existence Period. It’s that time in his life when he is unconnected to those around him, cut off from his ex-wife and two children who have decamped to Deep River, uncommitted to the current woman he is seeing, and fundamentally distant from himself. He tools around Haddam, New Jersey, in his large automobile, encased in a kind of protective shell, observing, noting, scoping out the particulars of properties he may be in line to shift in his new career as a realtor, idling at the curb and in his own life. But the Existence Period is unstable, bound to collapse at the first sign of real emotion, whether that be despair or hope in the face of tragedy. And tragedy is definitely lurking. Everywhere.
A momentous Fourth of July weekend descends into a nightmarish world of crazed house purchasers, senseless murder, self harm and mutilation, and the constant threat of violence meted out by others or oneself (if one’s impulses are given free rein), which is met by vigilance in the form of patrolling police, private security, metal bars on domestic windows, handguns, or mace. Or it is allowed to overwhelm one, washing through one’s life like a purging torrent. And there is little doubt that Frank, loquaciously professing platitudes and realtor buzz to stoke up the confidence of himself and his clients, is not up to the challenges that he is about to face. Little wonder that it seems highly likely that his Existence Period is about to come crashing to a close.
Once again Richard Ford’s writing is a marvel of density and light. He effortlessly draws the reader into claustrophobic inducing proximity to Frank’s mutable conscience and visceral encounter with his environment. Much of what we encounter here is remembered experience—a lot of ground has been covered between the end of The Sportswriter and the time of Independence Day. But how much of that reported experience is dependable? Frank is such a cocktail of conflicted emotions and aspirations overlaid with jaw-dropping rationalizations. A reader can’t help but begin to feel sorry for him (even if he isn’t especially likeable). You begin rooting for him to break the surface of his supposedly placid Existence Period even if doing so may destroy him.
And break through he does, though not in any way he would have planned or wished. And change does look set to come to Deep River and to Haddam. Crazed homebuyers transform into peaceable renters. The literally barking mad are rendered merely speechless. And Frank looks hopefully toward his next period, which may, he tells himself, be his Permanent Period.
Riveting reading. Highly recommended.