Great American Road Trip
Destination: New Jersey, (plus a little of Connecticut and Cooperstown, New York.)
Book: Independence Day (1995) by Richard Ford. This Book won PULITZER Prize for Literature AND Pen-Faulkner Fiction Prize.
Let’s hope that Richard Ford is not reading this. According to an interview in the Guardian newspaper in 2008, he does not want to be called a Southern writer, despite being born in the South. He would be even more horrified at being accused of writing travel literature, so let’s hope he does not see this. But this book is helpful in planning an east coast road trip.
In fact, while many of the settings in Independence Day are fictional and Ford is not interested in literal descriptions of place, he nevertheless sketches the American regional scene, accents, and cultural quirks, so that you would feel deja vu if you went there.
Ford’s first big hit novel was The Sportswriter: Bascombe Trilogy (1) , and the title character, Frank Bascombe returns in Independence Day with a new career as a real estate salesman. This career opens a closet full of metaphors for life. Frank, now in what he terms his “Existence Period,” ponders the risk and risk-avoidance dance of shopping for a home, the acceptance of larger uncontrollable forces (the economy) that affect life (and appreciation of property), the compromises an individual must make to find the good life.
(The Third of the series about Frank Bascombe, The Lay of the Land: Bascombe Trilogy (3) came out in 2007)
The first two books take place in Haddam, a fictional place, but you’ll see it if you drive through New Jersey far enough south of the industrial suburbs of NYC. Cooperstown, New York, on the other hand, is real and when Frank Bascombe and his son spend an Independence Day weekend there, we come to know the tourist town intimately. But the detailed descriptions of either the fictional or the real town really takes us beyond the specifics to a place we will know as Eastern Seaboard America.
Since Bascombe sells houses, we get a super close look at the lifestyle of New Jerseyites. His descriptions remind us that Jersey is not all smokey factories and freeways. It also contains leafy small villages, farmland and seashore. His descriptions are all the more interesting since he does not live in New Jersey. He once lived in New Orleans and we spotted his history there.
Here is Ford describing what Bascombe sees when he stops his car at a pull-off to stretch:
Beyond me hawks soar, martins dip, a tiny airplane buzzes, a distant hang glider like a dragonfly wheels and sways in the rising molecules..And visible on the hillside opposite, where the sun paints a yellow square upon the western gradient, a tractor, tiny but detectably red, halts its progress in an emerald field; a tiny, hatted figure climbs down, pauses, then starts on foot back up the hill he’s tractored down.
Or just taste the lush first sentence of the novel:
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.
Okay, it is not a travel guide, but Richard Ford writes about a character who spends a lot of time on the road, road trip planning, and takes a road trip with his son. All the way he is while traveling around inside his own head, trying to understand himself in this coming-of-middle-age book.
I have inserted links to Amazon books, making it easier for you to purchase Richard Ford’s books. I make a few cents from ANY Amazon purchase you make when you follow these links. And this reminder, starting in July 2012, unless I say so specifically, the books are also available as e-books, as these three are. Thank you for supporting A Traveler’s Library by doing your Amazon shopping through our links.
The photo above is used under Creative Commons license and comes from Flickr. Click on the photo for additional information.
Have you spent some time in New Jersey? Been to the shore? What have you seen?