Richard Ford Essay - Critical Essays

Richard Ford American Literature Analysis

Ford’s theory of fiction arises from what the poet Wallace Stevens called the “rage for order.” Ford sees life as essentially chaotic and the writing of fiction as the act of taking the often disordered material of experience and creating a new setting, atmosphere, and order for it. His discontent with the way life is, he states, leads him to attempt to find an alternative. Thus, he says, fiction has moral implications because it implies hope of a better future, a better existence. The moral element of his work involves his concern with the proper responses to certain situations, the good or evil of a character’s deeds, and a concern for how those deeds will shape a character’s future. His final test for good art concerns the idea of unification, a belief that somehow the novel or the story may restore order to an otherwise chaotic and destructive pattern of existence. Although he professes a distrust of ambiguity, the endings of his works, like those of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James, may lead two equally sensitive readers to two contrasting interpretations of the actions and responses of the characters.

While Ford has denied any religious implications or unified view of the world in his works, more than one critic has insisted that such elements are to be found there. Certainly, people in his novels and stories ponder more than most fictional characters the ethical significance of their acts and the acts of others. In contrast to those contemporary authors who believe in no ideal existence beyond the immediate reality, Ford portrays people who, in the face of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, find hope for the future, a belief in love, and a recognition of the importance of human relationships.

In addition, certain recurrent themes, optimistic in their tone despite the stark environment and the often disturbing nature of the action, are to be read in Ford’s work. There is a continuing concern with loyalty among people, with courage, and with the ability to accept whatever fate hands one, however hard it may be. In this respect, Ford’s work seems similar to that of Ernest Hemingway, although it is finally more optimistic.

Ford has insisted that “drama arises from individuals attempting to accommodate to an environment or to a place where they want to be, need to be, or must be.” This relationship of characters and setting is reflected in work after work of Ford’s. His protagonists often are placed in some alien environment in which they attempt to find an identity as well as a sense of belonging. In A Piece of My Heart, for example, the two protagonists, Robard Hewes and Sam Newel, men from different backgrounds and with different personalities, find themselves for two quite different reasons living on an uncharted island in the Mississippi River. Out of the conflict between the two men and their new environment, both the drama of the story and the philosophical theme develop.

Despite the fact that only one of his novels and a few of his stories have southern settings, the influence of the region of his birth on Ford’s work is apparent in several elements: a belief in the significance of place in life and fiction, a particular kind of moral vision, and the issues and themes he has chosen to employ. He has commented on more than one occasion that, despite the variety of his residences through the years, he still considers himself a Mississippian and likes southerners for a variety of reasons, a major one being that they often speak in a way that does not truly reflect their minds. The discrepancy between a character’s words and his actions, a major concern of many twentieth century authors, is also evident in much of his fiction.

Ford’s interest in character is as wide-ranging as his use of settings. In A Piece of My Heart, for example, Sam Newel is a law-school graduate who is trying to make sense of his life, while Robard Hewes is a laborer drawn to the new environment by his lust for a young woman. The Sportswriter’s protagonist, Frank Bascombe, on the other hand, is established in an occupation; despite the earlier death of a son and his subsequent divorce, he manages to enjoy life, though he senses that something is missing. In marked contrast, The Ultimate Good Luck has a protagonist who finds himself in an alien environment, Mexico, trying to effect the release of his brother-in-law, who has been imprisoned for drug dealing.

Ford’s fascination with Sherwood Anderson’s short stories, one of the major influences on his work, grew out of his love of two Anderson works, “I Want to Know Why” and “I’m a Fool.” In both stories, young men endeavor to come to terms with growing up and discovering the many confusing facts of life. Most Ford stories and novels could be subtitled “I Want to Know Why,” for his characters are always engaged in an attempt to find answers to many questions: What are human beings? What is their purpose? What is their place? What should they do? How can they find direction for their lives?

Much of the power of Ford’s work lies in his remarkable control of style. In an era when many fiction writers seem unconcerned about the exact meaning of words, Ford’s prose employs diction as exact as Hemingway’s, a finely tuned use of language that often startles with its force. Ford has several times expressed in interviews and articles his desire to avoid irony, that is, never to speak indirectly but to attack his subject head-on, using concrete words to evoke images that are immediately identifiable and not subject to misinterpretation. The reader finishes a Ford novel with the sense of having been led deep into the consciousness of a character, sometimes quite different from the reader, and of knowing that character as intimately as a family member, a friend, or one’s own self.

The Sportswriter

First published: 1986

Type of work: Novel

A decent, caring man moves through the confusing events of his life searching for the right action, the right attitude, the haven of rest.

The Sportswriter is one of Ford’s most acclaimed novels, the one that firmly established him as a major American writer. Ford asserts that the novel was written in answer to his wife’s question, “Why don’t you write a book about someone happy?” His intention was to produce a protagonist without irony who always says what he believes. Frank Bascombe is a failed novelist turned sportswriter, which he thinks of as not “a real profession but more of an agreeable frame of mind, a way of going about things rather than things you exactly do or know.”

The “sport” of this novel is life itself, with the games grown-up boys play employed as metaphors for actions and ideas much more important than weekend pursuits in stadiums and gymnasiums. The Sportswriter bears some resemblance to Walker Percy’s Christian existential fiction, although Ford denies any religious intention. Frank is an “anticipator” who dwells in the realm of possibilities, a typical trait of southerners, according to Percy. Frank is also a man who values life for its own sake, despite the despair that is part of it, and who puts a premium on mystery, that element of life one cannot explain. Though he is a decent man, his life would be judged by many standards to be a failure: His marriage ended in divorce, his current love affair is on the rocks, two previous careers have been unsuccessful, and his choice of sportswriting as a substitute is almost accidental.

Nevertheless, Frank has never lost the ability to hope: “I’ve always thought of myself as a type of human weak link, working against odds and fate,” he says, “and I’m not about to give up on myself.” The death of one of his three children has left him vulnerable but never pathetic. He is a modern antihero, so credible that it is easy to empathize with him and almost impossible not to sympathize with his plight.

This is a novel of character rather than action; there is a suicide and a humorous scene in which Frank is briefly trapped in an outdoor phone booth that is attacked by a young man in a car, but the action is generally subdued. Ford’s portrayal of characters is grounded in a keen perception of human weaknesses and virtues. The Sportswriter is a philosophical novel that comments on life in general and modern American life in particular. The style is subtle, often poetic, filled with aphoristic statements, as when Frank states, “Writers—all writers—need to belong. Only for real writers, unfortunately, their club is a club with just one member.”

Rock Springs

First published: 1987

Type of work: Short stories

The ten short stories in Rock Springs portray protagonists attempting to understand themselves and their relationship to the often hostile environments in which they dwell.

Rock Springs is a collection of stories Ford wrote during the 1980’s. There are no heroes in the traditional sense in these short works, nor are there villains. Some readers might be inclined to label the characters “victims,” for certainly the environment and the influence of other people determine the characters’ actions, often for the worse. Yet Ford should not be confused with the naturalistic authors of the early 1900’s who portrayed hapless human specimens under a microscope.

Though the situations in which characters find themselves seem, for the most part, not of their own making, rather than being dehumanized or victimized, they become more credible and sympathetic. Many are loners struggling to find some meaning in limited lives lived out against harsh environments. In the title story, Earl, the narrator, is a petty criminal fleeing bad-check charges in Montana with his girlfriend and his daughter. As his troubles mount—his car breaks down and his girlfriend decides to leave him—he experiences a self-revelation. He comes to see himself as a victim of happenstance, unable to take charge of his life: “There was always a gap between my plan and what happened, and I only responded to things as they came along and hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble.” Like many Ford stories, “Rock Springs” concludes as it begins, with a question that remains unanswered.

Like several protagonists in the stories, Les, the narrator of “Communist,” is a teenager. On an illegal expedition to hunt migrating Siberian geese with his mother, Aileen, and her friend Glen, he acquires a...

(The entire section is 4341 words.)