Independence Day, by Richard Ford. Alfred A. Knopf. 451 pp. $24.
If we are in fact living through one of the great flowerings of American social fiction, as I believe we are, is it not strange that we are hard-pressed to single out those novels that sum up the era or to anoint one or two signature writers as our laureates Consider this representative list of the social novelists who are currently out there and more or less actively writing. In no particular order, they are: Dorothy Allison, Barbara Kingsolver, Madison Smartt Bell, William Kennedy, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, E. Annie Proulx, Tim O'Brien, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Ann Phillips, Richard Ford, Robert Olin Butler, Thomas McGuane, Amy Tan, Russell Banks, Robert Stone, Richard Russo, Louis Begley, Jane Smiley, Richard Price, Tom Wolfe, Norman Rush, John Edgar Wideman, Charles Johnson, Leslie Marmon Silko, and James Welch.
And yet, who among these or among the previous generation of writers could be thought the defining writer of our day, the Twain, the Melville, the Dreiser, the Hemingway? Philip Roth John Updike? Tom Wolfe? The Nobel Laureates, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison? I would be hesitant to say so, though maybe such a foreshortening of statures is only the normal distortion of perspective that prevents us from seeing greatness plain when it is so close at hand. But, for the moment, it does seem we are not quite in a golden age of fiction. I don't think it unreasonable, however, to take this for a silver age, with gifted and ambitious writers in abundance and a body of work that, collectively, will hold its head up with that of any era, including the American Renaissance, or the spasm of modernism that gripped literature just after World War I, or the age of Bellow-Styron-Mailer-Baldwin-Capote, which is now ending.
In short supply is the great tragic theme. Tragedies on the epic scale--the Russian, the Jewish, the Polish, the Rwandan scale--haven't befallen the United States since the Civil War. If there is any note we find it unnatural to strike, it is the note of utter ruin and, with it, the pity and terror that come from knowing how easily we slip into savagery. This absence of a single national tragedy has undoubtedly sharpened the profile of minority writers, African-American and Native-American in particular, whose tragic histories remain livid in memory and inscribed in the ongoing crises in their cultures. Such writers seem paradoxically to be privileged with catastrophic histories, much as, two generations ago, Jewish writers once appeared to be privileged by the Holocaust. Toni Morrison is not the most writerly author in America, but it was not for her mastery of the formal tools of fiction that she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993. It was in recognition of her stubborn engagement with slavery, one of the black chapters in American history. When her novel Beloved was published in 1987, there may have been a dozen other novels to stand alongside it in terms of writing alone, but scarcely any touched similar bottom in the nightmare of history.
But what, we may ask, are other writers doing for bedrock while the African- and Native-Americans are exhuming their histories? Are all others consigned to the minor leagues of the merely individual or purely anecdotal, being connected to no major horror save those they can work up by research--as Madison Smartt Bell has just done with All Souls' Rising, his novel of the slave rebellion in Haiti-or conjure up out of the collective unconscious, where Dracula, Freddie, and velociraptor are alive and well, and evil is just greasepaint and spirit gum and film noir lighting]
I would suggest that al American writers share a certain bad news in common, news bad enough to be the great subject of our time: the decline and fall of America, and if it is not always there as a theme, it seems to be everywhere as a gray nimbus of foreboding. One sees writers either captive to the temper of decline or trying to tame it into material. …