These two novels are about Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged man living in New Jersey. The Sportswriter begins a few years after the death of one of his children, and by the end of Independence Day, you've followed him for the next eight or so years. These are two of the greatest books about grief. Bascombe doesn't sit in a corner and weep, but you know that his life has been affected by that loss. He used to be married; he used to have a family. It's also incredibly accurate and illuminating about how men think. At the end of the first book, Bascombe wonders if one effect of life is to cover you in a residue "of all the things you've done and been and said and erred at." In that instant, the veil lifts, and he feels a sense of being free again. But he also realizes that this lightness won't last. And, worse, that it might not come again.
Frank and April Wheeler are a young married couple who've moved from Greenwich Village to the suburbs. They consider themselves intellectuals, and they've left the city with regret. The way they justify it in their hearts is to assume that they are better than their neighbors. But one night, while with another couple, Frank tells a story, and in the middle he realizes he's told it before. It's an awful scene—a moment when Frank and April come to terms with what their life really is and how fully they've compromised their dreams. They try to reclaim one: to live in Paris. But that fantasy is only a reprieve, and when the moment passes, the reality sinks back down.
On the face of it, this is an account of what happened to Chris McCandless, a 20-something who made his way to the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer admits he is also exploring something inside himself through the story of this young man's life. He's trying to figure out what makes certain people go to a place where there isn't any protection. What's so beautiful is the last anecdote: The parents travel to the spot where their son died, and it gives them peace. The mother leaves a box of food, with a note: "Call your parents." This isn't a book about someone looking to die; it's about someone who wanted to live and had to test himself. I think everybody has some of that inside of them.
I just love this book. When I was halfway through it—right around when one of the three daughters tries to talk to her father and he goes out into a storm—I was like, "Oh my God, this is King Lear." I was so impressed with how Smiley was able to take such a classic tale and put it in rural 20th-century Iowa. It's beautiful, it's crushing, it's everything King Lear is—and it's effortless. I was blown away by the imagination, intellect and talent it must have taken to do that.