Mid-Life

#52 Independence Day by Richard Ford (1996): Mid-life, Motorcycles & Motorhead (but no aliens)

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

You know I’m born to lose and gambling’s for fools
But that’s the way I like it, baby
I don’t wanna live forever
And don’t forget the joker

– “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead

I know, I know. It’s been months since my last Pulitzer Schmultizer! column. I feel bad about that. And, honestly, I have no excuses. In fact, I have less than no excuses because I actually left my last job in October and didn’t start my new one until January. I had grand visions of knocking out a bunch of Pulitzer reviews during my break. I was going to knock out so many that I’d have them backed up just waiting for the perfect time to post them. But alas, I filled up my time with other activities and before you know it three months passed and I’m already in a new year. Viva la 2016.

But although unintentional, regret over things unfinished is a very apropos theme given the story I’m about to tell that I started to write back in the fall. You see, there was a Saturday in October when I found myself in a deserted parking lot, slightly hung over at 6:30am, next to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet with 20 total strangers. And again, although I have no excuses, I do slightly blame Lemmy Kilmister.

There is a good chance you don’t know Lemmy. He was the front man for Motörhead, a metal band that played music most people don’t listen to, and played it long enough ago that many more people have either forgotten or are too young to remember. But when I was 12, my friend Drew went to London with his parents on vacation and came back with Motörhead’s Ace of Spades album. When he put in on, I stared at the album cover, half of me wanting to be in the band and the other half wanting to get into a fetal position and hug my Snoopy doll.

On stage, Lemmy was all bronchial rasp, singing into a microphone stand that towered above him, tilting down to his weather beaten face with his mutton chops and oh so present warts. And off stage, he was exactly the same. Lemmy didn’t have a stage persona. As Dave Grohl once said: “Fuck Elvis and Keith Richards, Lemmy’s the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Lemmy’s a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend.” And like with many things in life, Dave was right. A kid once asked him if he got hangovers, to which he answered: “To get hangovers you have to stop drinking.”

It seems silly now, but to a 12 year-old in suburban Phoenix, Lemmy was the coolest guy that ever lived. Lemmy drank a bottle of Jack Daniels per day and slept with 2,000 women. And I was convinced – even though now I’m not sure where I got the idea – that Lemmy rode a motorcycle. Hence, someday I would ride a motorcycle. Key word: “someday.”

But life is life and a thousand other things happened. I grew up, went to college and then law school, got a job, fell in love, got married, went to more school, had two kids and adopted a third, and got five more jobs (not necessarily in that order). And that’s just the big stuff. I also (not necessarily in this order) visited 23 countries, bungee jumped, scuba dived, took salsa, guitar and swing dance lessons (twice), got stranded in Tijuana (once), lived with at least 7 pets (not including fish), climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, ate rotting shark in Iceland, did a triathlon, threw up in at least three public restrooms (and at least one of which was a women’s room), earned a brown belt in a Vietnamese martial art called Cuong Nhu, and was nearly arrested at least 5 times. To be clear, I was innocent in each instance. In my free time, I also read every single Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. And that still isn’t even scratching the surface. The good news is that I didn’t drink a bottle of Jack Daniels per day OR sleep with 2,000 women. The bad news is that is also never learned to ride a motorcycle. And then, snap, I was middle-aged.

A few posts ago I discussed my mid-life crisis and how it has spurred me to try new things. Turns out, it also spurs you to try old things. Go figure.

I guess that isn’t that surprising, as mid-life brings about the discomfiting realization that your remaining time on earth is less than what you’ve already lived. Sounds a little morbid, but you realize that death is now clearly on this side of one’s narrative rather than some faraway, remote, abstract endpoint. And so it makes perfect sense that it is during this time that people pause and reflect on where they have been and where they are going. Or, put another way, it triggers two related but distinct realizations: “I’m not young anymore” and “I won’t live forever.”

For the most part, “I won’t live forever” is motivating. Granted, it is motivation by the fear you aren’t going to live forever, but taking stock of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’d like to go is helpful in making thoughtful decisions about your future. This thinking, as I’ve mentioned, leads to saying “yes” more often, as well as some unfortunate yet inspirational coffee mugs and posters of soaring seagulls that say things like “this is the first day of the rest of your life.” That’s growth. Sort of.

The “I’m not young anymore” can be a little trickier. Despite all of the things that you absolutely can do when you hit mid-life, you realize there are absolutely things that would aren’t going to do. Like win Wimbledon, fly a fighter plane, or be President. When you focus on what you haven’t done, you tend to make impulsive decisions designed to make one last mad dash to recapture youth. Like learning to ride a motorcycle.

So somewhere in my middle-aged brain remained the acorn of an idea planted all those years ago while listening to Motörhead and looking at a picture of Lemmy: I needed to know how to ride a motorcycle. I’m the first to admit, it makes little sense for a middle-aged man with three kids. Regardless, the desire was there and it continued to gnaw at me until I found myself, hungover, in the deserted parking lot at 6:30 am next to an aircraft carrier with 20 total strangers (the hangover part was pure coincidence). Believe me, people have had worse ideas in their mid-life crises.

Which leads us to Independence Day by Richard Ford, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, and a tale of mid-life crisis poster child Frank Bascombe. Sadly, this is not the book the movie Independence Day was based on. If you’re expecting aliens, explosions and rousing speeches, you won’t get them here. Instead, you get Frank. Like John Updike’s Rabbit, this is not Frank’s first appearance in print as he debuted as the angst-ridden antihero of Ford’s highly praised 1986 novel, “The Sportswriter.” Frank, who was 38 when we first met him, is now 44 years old and has abandoned sports-writing and returned to conservative Haddam, New Jersey, to live in the home of his ex-wife, Ann, and work as a realtor.

Frank is not in a good space and is exhibiting some textbook mid-life crisis thinking: he believes that life’s choices are limited, that getting old is humiliating, and that the nearness of death is downright terrifying. He has entered what he calls his “Existence Period,” “the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blowup,” a sort of holding pattern characterized by “the condition of honest independence.” He’s drifting through his forties, and throw in a few non-trivial bumps in the road — a deceased child, the divorce he hasn’t been able to recover from, and a brutally murdered ex-girlfriend – and Frank is the definition of a hot mess.

But despite his hot-messness, Frank has some goals. First off, he’d like his son Paul to come live with him so he can straighten some things out. Much, much easier said than done. To say Paul’s got some issues is an insult to issues. Paul has never recovered from the death of his brother; occasionally barks like a dog; and has been labeled by a team of therapists as intellectually beyond his years yet emotionally underdeveloped. He has recently been arrested for shoplifting three boxes of Magnum XL condoms (so he’s also either set in that department or delusional) and is being taken to court by the female security guard who captured him, who is accusing him of assault and battery.

His two other goals seem somewhat mutually exclusive. On one hand, he wants a second chance with his ex-wife Ann, which seems highly unlikely since she feels that he “may be the most cynical man in the world.” And there’s also the small matter of her remarriage. On the other hand, Frank also wants to form a “more serious attachment” to his girlfriend, Sally, but here too there are problems as evidenced by Sally’s confession: “Something’s crying out to be noticed, I just don’t know what it is. But it must have to do with you and I. Don’t you agree?”

Amidst all this, Frank is also tackling two more minor problems. First, he’s trying to collect rent from Larry McLeod, a black former Green Beret, and his white wife, Betty, who live in one of two houses Frank owns in Haddam’s solitary black neighborhood. At the same time, he’s been shepherding two “donkeyish clients,” Joe and Phyllis Markham, through 45 houses and is urging them to close on a place located next to a minimum-security prison. These story lines are so boring I almost fell asleep writing the summary.

So with all this going on, you would expect more to be going on. But there is only the thinnest of story lines in the 451 pages of Independence Day. As we’ve seen with some of the other Pulitzer winners toward the bottom of the countdown, the novel often bogs down in the repetitive description of place and setting. The majority of the book is Frank driving around the Northeast in his Crown Vic and having conversations with various characters, with whom he generally tries to share moments of meaningful human connection, with varying degrees of failure. Some events, such as Frank’s effort to collect rent from the McLeods, or the mysterious murder of his realtor/girlfriend, lead oddly nowhere. Others, such as Frank’s meeting with Sally, are at best inconclusive (Sally hopes someday he’ll “get around to doing something memorable”), or at worst, depressing in their inconclusiveness (the Markhams lose the house they were looking at to a Korean family and Frank’s effort to help his troubled son veers toward tragedy and irreparable loss).

But maybe that’s the point. A good plot as we traditionally think of it will take us for a ride through a series of events. But this would violate Frank’s basic belief that “you can rave, break furniture, get drunk, crack up your Nova and beat your knuckles bloody on the glass bricks of the exterior wall of whatever dismal room you’re temporarily housed in, but in the end you won’t have changed the basic situation and you’ll still have to make the decision you didn’t want to make before, and probably you’ll make it in the very way you’d resented and that brought on all the raving and psychic fireworks.”

This isn’t a novel about conflict or rupture or surprising and unexpected turns of events. It’s certainly not about the invasion of aliens on the 4th of July. It’s really just about living inside someone else’s mind while he goes about a fairly dull weekend, and Ford somehow does a surprisingly entertaining job of capturing the banality and desperation of mid-life suburban self-creation. Moreover, it isn’t entirely depressing. By they novel’s final scenes, Frank has managed to take his first tentative steps from the Existence Period toward a sense of community and the possibilities of the “Permanent Period,” which he defines as “that long, stretching-out time when my dreams would have mystery like any ordinary person’s; when whatever I do or say, who I marry, how my kids turn out, becomes what the world — if it makes note at all — knows of me.”

Frank Bascombe is like the anti-Lemmy Kilmister. Lemmy, for better or for worse, was a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend until the day he died, which anecdotally happened in December, while I was on my work break, not writing my blog posts. Such self-realization is rare, but it is hard to imagine that Lemmy had any self-doubts as he made his way through middle age. In contrast, Frank was full of self-doubt, and spent his days wanting life to mean just a little something more than existence. Maybe he should have tried motorcycle lessons.

Speaking of which, I loved my motorcycle lessons. As the day wore on and my hangover wore off, I couldn’t help but smile as I wove through cones or learned how to shift. It was fun. But maybe more importantly, I put Lemmy’s ghost to rest and realized that I’m not going to buy a motorcycle. I just wanted to know that I could ride one. In case aliens invade us. On Independence Day.