Men in Black
by Scott Spencer
Knopf. 321 pp. $23.00
by Richard Ford
Knopf. 451 pp. $24.00
At one time, the American novel was (in Saul Bellow’s phrase) “an indispensable source of illumination of the present, of reflective power.” For writers like Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Wright Morris, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Walker Percy, and others, the novel provided, through plot, dialogue, and character, a way to think about the conditions of American life.
Scott Spencer and Richard Ford are two novelists who, entering mid-career, come about as close as anyone to claiming this particular mantle: at least in today’s literary culture, the two are rare for writing fiction that unashamedly offers a moral commentary upon the American present. Though neither is a true novelist of ideas, both illuminate an important strain in contemporary American attitudes toward life and what it demands of us. By coincidence, each, after a hiatus of some years, has recently published his sixth book of fiction, of which, by coincidence again, the main figure in each is a writer in his mid-forties.
Sam Holland, the writer who is at the center of Scott Spencer’s Men in Black, is husband to a beautiful wife and father to two children—a troubled son named Michael and a sweet daughter named Amanda—with whom he lives in a pleasant town north of New York City. Sam has yearned to devote himself to serious writing, which to him means only one thing: autobiographical fiction. Naturally, his work in that vein has been a commercial flop; he supports his family by turning out books with titles like Traveling with Your Pet and—his latest, which to his dismay has hit the jackpot—Visitors from Above.
Within a few days of its release, Sam’s new book, a popular account of Unidentified Flying Objects, published under a pseudonym and concluding with a prophecy about the end of the millennium, is selling so briskly that it goes into a third printing and his publisher dispatches him on a coast-to-coast promotion tour. Meanwhile, however, his personal life has begun to fall apart. His son Michael discovers a filthy letter from a mistress whom Sam has only recently discarded. The boy runs away from home, joining a band of housebreakers, while the mistress, who worked with Sam on Visitors from Above and is pregnant with their child, threatens to expose the book as a fraud unless Sam agrees to a meeting with her. Finally, Sam’s wife, Olivia, although she knows none of this, is herself vaguely unhappy—“This was not her life, not the life she was meant to have. Her real life was elsewhere, but she had no idea where”—and so she trashes the house one night and moves in with a detective from Poughkeepsie whom she has hired to track down her runaway son.
Men in Black is concerned, then, with a man’s attempt to patch his life and his family back together while coping with a success that he neither aspired to nor welcomes. Richard Ford’s Independence Day deals with a similar subject, although its crises are not nearly so dramatic.
A sequel to The Sportswriter, a 1986 novel that garnered a fair amount of praise, Independence Day takes up the life of Frank Bascombe after a lapse of five years. Though Frank says that he has now entered his “Existence Period,” during which a man learns to ignore what seems “worrisome and embroiling,” little has in fact changed: he is no longer a sports-writer, but he talks about writing itself just as much as he ever did, and still regards himself as the author of Blue Autumn, a volume of short stories that he published in his twenties. To make a living Frank now works as a realtor in his pleasant New Jersey town. His ex-wife has remarried and moved with their two children—again a troubled son and again a sweet daughter—to Connecticut. He himself is now unmarried, and only uncertainly attached.
The action of the novel takes place on the Fourth of July weekend in 1988. Frank has planned a two-day automobile trip with his son Paul to the basketball and baseball Halls of Fame, but before getting on the road he must take care of business: showing a house to Joe and Phyllis Markham, a hard-to-please couple from Vermont; checking in at Franks, a hot-dog-and-root-beer stand outside town of which he is co-owner; collecting rent on a house that he owns in the black district; and dropping by for a quick meal and visit with Sally, the forty-two-year-old divorcee he is “seeing.”
None of these encounters comes off without a hitch. To tempt Joe Markham to look at the house, Frank has to give him deep advice on life (“There’s only so much anybody can do to make things come out right. . . . You make choices and live with them . . .”). At the root-beer stand, he has to calm his partner’s fears of Hispanic bandits. Collecting rent, he nearly gets himself arrested. Sally is impatient with his noncommittal philosophy of romance (“The good mystery’s how long anything can go on the way it is”) and hustles him out the door. And as might be expected, the trip with his son ends badly, if not in disaster, when the youngster receives a self-inflicted injury. At the end Frank returns home alone, closing off his Existence Period by resolving gamely to do his best.
Both Men in Black and Independence Day portray men, in Scott Spencer’s phrase, “with some basic core of decency.” Sam Holland and Frank Bascombe struggle conscientiously, if unheroically, with the familiar problems of marriage, job, child-rearing, service to community. As their lives enter middle age—the end of the beginning, as someone once put it—they learn to accept that not everything is possible; that the true meaning of freedom is not unlimited possibility but making decisions and standing by them; that the great role in life is being a father, which entails moral instruction, the handing-down of what one has learned to accept oneself.
“If we knew how much people needed us and how much we needed to be needed,” Sam Holland finally realizes in Men in Black, “then we would not act for ourselves alone.” “It’s ennobling,” says Frank Bascombe in Independence Day, “to help others face their hard choices, pilot them toward a reconciliation with life.” Hard-earned wisdom, in both cases.
Or is it? To begin with Spencer’s Men in Black: Sam Holland, it is true, nearly wrecks his marriage and nearly loses his son, and only by a kind of miracle does he recover from his fatal absorption with his literary career and get his life back on course. Yet on closer inspection the miracle looks cheaply bought, after all, and the hard-earned wisdom only another gloomy facet of the moral sentimentalism that Sam shares with the novelist whose creation he is.
That sentimentalism masks (as sentimentalism often does) an unmistakable callousness, in this case of a peculiarly literary kind. Sam urges his pregnant ex-mistress to get an abortion; she does, and the incident is dispensed with in a half-sentence: Sam weeps in his bed until he falls asleep, then does not give the matter a second thought. Now contrast this with his attitude, as a “serious” writer, toward his best-seller about UFO’s. Sam regards this innocuous potboiler as a moral horror, a sin far greater than the abortion of a child, going so far as to compare the book—in terms of the far-reaching social damage he imagines it can do—to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
At a book-signing in Atlanta, Sam gets a close-up look at the people to whom Visitors from Above appeals. “My readers,” he confides,
had casts on their feet, Ace bandages on their ankles, patches on their eyes; they received radio signals through the fillings in their teeth; they needed to lose weight, gargle; they had lost their meager inheritances in pyramid schemes; they wouldn’t mind selling you mail-order shoes or Amway kitchen cleansers; they rattled around the country on secondary roads where the gas and food were cheaper; they tested their cellars for radon; they called the Culligan Man; they watched the Christian Broadcasting System; they looked for stores that still sold eight-track tapes; they lived near electric-power-line towers the size of the Washington Monument; they had guns.
This is supposed to be a comic passage, but its comedy depends entirely on class snobbery. Because he is a member of the liberal class, which does not read books on UFO’s or eat cheap food, Sam Holland, we are being told, is by definition a better person than the (probable) anti-Semites who watch the Christian Broadcasting System and own guns. No wonder, in the end, that all it takes for Sam’s family to take him back, his mistress conveniently to disappear, and his moral crisis to end in his favor is an apology and a resolution to do better. He may have made a mistake or two, but, at bottom, nothing essential was ever wrong with him.
Frank Bascombe causes less visible damage than Sam Holland (perhaps because, as a novelist, Richard Ford is less interested in sheer action than is Scott Spencer), but he does his share. Like Sam, he is isolated and inattentive to others, absorbed in his own affairs. At a younger age, in The Sportswriter, this inattentiveness had contributed to a suicide, when Frank—itchy to escape to his girl—failed to respond to a friend’s distress. Now, in Independence Day, Frank cannot figure out why his latest girlfriend does not jump at the chance to snag him, and seems unaware that he gives very little of himself—to her or anyone else, including his children. Yet he too is a “decent” person, and again one of whom his narrator wholeheartedly approves; indeed, Ford obviously looks upon Frank Bascombe as his alter ego, a vehicle for delivering individually wrapped insights into literature, recent history and politics, life, love, and the present condition of American reality.
The sum of these insights is pretty thin. Like Sam Holland in Men in Black, Frank is a liberal, if in a more partisan sense. He dislikes Ronald Reagan, is contemptuous of patriots and of any “Grenada-type tidy-little-war,” keeps a LICK BUSH election sticker on his car, and hopes the new strip mall in town will go bankrupt so the land can be turned into a people’s park or a public vegetable garden. “Holding the line on the life we promised ourselves in the 60’s,” he sighs, “is getting hard as hell.” Exactly as with Sam Holland, these are the sentiments which make up the ground of his decency, a decency which to Richard Ford clearly has everything to recommend it, but which just as clearly lacks anything resembling a moral center.
And where would such a center come from? Frank is a man without settled principles. Although he “worships” at a Presbyterian church (the ironic quotation marks are his), he does not believe in God. When his ex-wife urges him to “do something a little more wholeheartedly,” he shrugs: “my view is that I do the best I know how.” Yet the best Frank Bascombe knows how is all he knows, or wishes to know; and that crippling, complacent limitation is, finally, the trouble not only with him (as his ex-wife rightly sees) but with the book of which he is the hero.
Between Scott Spencer’s Men in Black and Richard Ford’s Independence Day, the former is the better novel; at least it displays some narrative energy. Ford’s book is sustained not by a plot or even by a story but by one man’s “voice,” and in the end the man is not particularly interesting. That both men are significant, however, and perhaps even, in their pallid way, emblematic of their American moment, cannot be denied. We live, after all, in an age of reduced expectations, not necessarily a bad thing in itself, and decency (considering the alternatives) is hardly to be sneered at. But just as in life it takes more than protestations of decency to turn good intentions into moral behavior, so in art it will take deeper talents than these to restore the American novel as (in Bellow’s words) “an indispensable source of illumination of the present.”