Richard Ford 1944-
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Ford's career through 2002. For additional information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 46 and 99.
Considered one of the finest fiction writers of his generation, Ford is best known for his novel The Sportswriter (1986) and its sequel Independence Day (1995). Ford was the first author to receive both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for the same novel, Independence Day. He is celebrated for his portrayal of everyday contemporary middle-class American life. His central thematic concerns include loneliness, alienation, male-female relationships, family life, the yearning for human connection, and a sense of disappointment in the American dream. His protagonists are restless, alienated, unremarkable men, incapable of sustaining emotional commitments to women. While troubled and deeply flawed, Ford's characters are ultimately both sympathetic and optimistic. Ford has been compared to Ernest Hemingway for his laconic, masculine prose, to Walker Percy as a Southern writer, and to Raymond Carver for his minimalism and style of “dirty realism.”
Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on February 16, 1944, and grew up directly across the street from the celebrated Southern writer Eudora Welty. Ford and his mother often accompanied his father, a traveling salesman, on his many road trips. When not taken on these trips with his parents, Ford stayed with his maternal grandparents at a hotel they owned in Little Rock, Arkansas. This sense of itinerancy has influenced Ford's fiction in the creation of characters who are psychologically and culturally, as well as geographically, rootless. When Ford was sixteen years old, his father died of a heart attack, a crisis to which Ford responded by developing a strong sense of personal responsibility for his life. This sense of the importance of accepting accountability for one's life choices became a central theme of his fiction. Ford attended Michigan State University, graduating with a B.A. in literature in 1966. He was briefly enrolled in law school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, but decided to pursue a writing career instead. In 1968, he married Kristina Hensley, whom he has credited as a major influence on his development as a writer. Ford studied creative writing at the University of California at Irvine, earning an M.F.A. in 1970. He subsequently taught creative writing at the University of Michigan from 1974 to 1976, Williams College from 1978 to 1979, and Princeton University from 1979 to 1980. Although most of his early stories were rejected by literary magazines, Ford persisted in working on a novel. This six-year effort, A Piece of My Heart, was published in 1976. After poor reviews of his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), Ford took a break from fiction-writing to contribute articles to a magazine called Inside Sports. After the magazine folded, Ford's wife suggested he write a novel about a man who is happy, thus inspiring him to write The Sportswriter. With the publication of this third novel, Ford established himself as a critically acclaimed, best-selling author.
A Piece of My Heart is set on an isolated island in the Mississippi delta, between Arkansas and Mississippi, during one week of an annual turkey-hunt season. Sam Newel, a Chicago law student, and Robard Hewes, an itinerant construction worker, meet by chance on the island. Each section of A Piece of My Heart alternates narration between the third-person-limited point of view of these men, as each grapples with his own personal demons. Sam and Robard emerge as mirror images of one another, one an intellectual and the other a sensualist. While Robard has left his wife and family in Arkansas in order to pursue an ill-fated affair with his married cousin, Sam struggles with the existential angst of an intellectual alienated from the world around him. The Ultimate Good Luck has been described as a crime thriller. The story concerns Harry Quinn, a Vietnam War veteran who tries to assist his ex-lover Rae in releasing her brother from a prison in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he is being held for drug trafficking. Their efforts result in a bloodbath, in which Harry kills three people but fails to free Rae's brother. Harry's existential struggles and his sense of disaffection with American culture represent the sense of disorientation felt by the generation that lived through the Vietnam War. The Sportswriter concerns the internal life of Frank Bascombe, a 38-year-old sports journalist whose marriage has collapsed after the death of his nine-year-old son, Ralph. The story takes place over the course of an Easter weekend. Throughout the novel, Frank engages in contemplative reveries—meditations on marriage, sports, life in suburban New Jersey, and the art of storytelling. Frank's self-reflections reveal that his extramarital affairs in the aftermath of his son's death are what ultimately destroyed his marriage. His decision to abandon his early writing ambitions are also a central topic of his personal musings. Ford's fourth novel, Wildlife (1990), is set in 1960, in Great Falls, Montana, where a raging forest fire functions as an extended metaphor for family crisis. Wildlife is narrated from the perspective of Joe Brison, looking back over a distance of thirty years to the events of a three-day period when he was sixteen years old. Joe examines the impact on himself and his family of his mother's extramarital affair, conducted while his father was away working as a firefighter in the distant mountains. Independence Day, the sequel to The Sportswriter, picks up Frank Bascombe's life at a point when he has quit working as a sportswriter to become a real estate agent in New Jersey. His ex-wife has moved with their two remaining children to the home of her new husband in Connecticut. The events of Independence Day take place over the course of the long Fourth of July holiday weekend, during which Frank attempts to reconnect with his fifteen-year-old son by taking him on a road trip that includes stops at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts and the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York.
Ford has published three volumes of short fiction. Rock Springs (1987) was his first collection of short stories, most of them set in Montana and concerning characters in transition. Women with Men (1997) is comprised of three novellas, The Womanizer, Jealous, and Occidentals, in each of which a man contemplates his relationship with a woman. A Multitude of Sins (2001) includes ten short stories, most of them concerning characters engaged in extramarital affairs.
Ford has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his portraits of middle-class American life. John Bemrose, for instance, in a review of A Multitude of Sins, commented that Ford's fiction “dissects the vexed heart of the middle class” in America. Douglas Kennedy similarly observed in a review of Independence Day, “I cannot think of another contemporary writer who has his finger so firmly on the jittery, apprehensive pulse of the American middle classes, and who so understands their search for grace in a society that has lost its way.” Ford has been further praised for his portrayal of modern lives characterized by loneliness, alienation, and the yearning for connection. As Huey Guagliardo opined, Ford's “project as a fiction writer might be viewed as a search for the healing words that offer a kind of secular redemption from human loneliness and alienation.” Reviewers have admired Ford's well-crafted prose, rich with descriptive detail and a strong sense of place, and have commended him for a fresh perspective, skillful storytelling, effective use of first-person narrative voice, and accurate rendering of American vernacular speech. A number of critics have discussed Ford as a Southern writer, comparing him to William Faulkner, Walker Percy, and Barry Hannah. Ford himself, however, has stated that he does not like to be categorized as a Southern writer. He has sometimes been accused of creating superficial, emotionally flat characters lacking depth, and some reviewers have criticized his portrayal of women, claiming that his perspective is essentially masculinist. Others, however, have defended his representation of female characters, arguing that the women in his fictions are usually stronger and more self-assured than the men.
A Piece of My Heart (novel) 1976
The Ultimate Good Luck (novel) 1981
American Tropical (play) 1983
The Sportswriter (novel) 1986
Rock Springs (short stories) 1987
My Mother, in Memory (memoir) 1988
The Best American Short Stories 1990 [editor; with Shannon Ravenel] (short stories) 1990
Wildlife (novel) 1990
*Bright Angel (screenplay) 1991
The Granta Book of the American Short Story [editor] (short stories) 1992
Independence Day (novel) 1995
†Women with Men: Three Stories (novellas) 1997
Essential Tales of Chekhov [editor] (short stories) 1998
The Granta Book of the American Long Story [editor] (novellas) 1998
The Best American Sports Writing [editor] (short stories and essays) 1999
Conversations with Richard Ford (interviews) 2001
A Multitude of Sins (short stories) 2001
*Based on Ford's short stories “Children” and “Great Falls.”
†Includes Jealous, The Occidentals, and The Womanizer.
SOURCE: Kazin, Alfred. “Fallen Creatures.” New York Review of Books 34, no. 17 (5 November 1987): 12.
[In the following review, Kazin offers a favorable assessment of Ford's short story collection Rock Springs.]
“Low ceiling,” a distinguished novelist on an awards committee demurred when I spoke up for these stories by Richard Ford [Rock Springs]. Though often funny, his situations are not particularly sunny. In “Optimists” a railroad man who shunts engines through the yard sees a hobo mangled on the tracks. Returning home in a vehement state of mind to tell his wife what he has seen (and he is already vehement about her as well), he is so stunned by...
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SOURCE: Klinghoffer, David. “Warm for a While.” National Review 39, no. 23 (4 December 1987): 55-6.
[In the following review of Rock Springs, Klinghoffer comments that Ford's short stories provide a fresh and powerful treatment of the theme of the basic instability of modern life.]
The characters in Richard Ford's new collection of short stories [Rock Springs] do a lot of hunting, a lot of fishing. In “Children,” three teenagers stand on a river bank in Montana; Claude has just caught a whitefish, and Lucy and George stand by watching him struggle with the dying fish as he tries to pry the hook from its mouth. “What a surprise that must be,”...
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SOURCE: Schroth, S.J., Raymond A. “America's Moral Landscape in the Fiction of Richard Ford.” Christian Century (1 March 1989): 227-30.
[In the following essay, Schroth asserts that, in The Sportswriter, Ford successfully presents “a broad and complex cross-section of American middle-class life.”]
I discovered Richard Ford while looking for a novel to accompany Tocqueville, Habits of the Heart, and the travel narratives of Jonathan Raban and William Least Heat Moon in a course on American character. I sought one that would help illuminate the moral consciousness of America in the '80s, a nation bogged down and hemmed in by the individualism it had...
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SOURCE: Reich, Allon. “World According to Luck.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 60 (28 July 1989): 32.
[In the following review, Reich concludes that neither the love story nor the mystery in Ford's The Ultimate Good Luck is satisfactorily resolved.]
The Mexican dictator, Porfirio Diaz, once despaired of the fate of his poor country situated “so far from God, and so near to the United States”. Geographically at least, this may be The Ultimate Bad Luck. In Richard Ford's novel [The Ultimate Good Luck], set in Mexico, while bungling American gringos are busy drug-trafficking or getting blown to raspberry ripple in a Baskin-Robbins ice-cream...
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SOURCE: Coates, Joseph. “A Son at a Loss.” Chicago Tribune Books (27 May 1990): 3.
[In the following review, Coates praises Ford's Wildlife as a beautifully modulated, consistently fine novel that accomplishes “a thoroughly worked-out expression of human feeling.”]
Richard Ford's fourth novel confirms that he, even more than the late Raymond Carver, is the principal heir of Ernest Hemingway in language, subject matter and esthetic strategy: the simple, colloquial sentences, the concentration on what T. S. Eliot called the “objective correlative” and Hemingway defined as “the sequence of motion and fact that made the emotion” for male characters...
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SOURCE: Rubin, Merle. “Bland Saga of a Family in Search of a Foothold.” Christian Science Monitor 82, no. 167 (25 July 1990): 12.
[In the following review, Rubin comments that the strength of Ford's Wildlife lies in the effectiveness of its narrative point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy observing the disintegration of his parents' marriage.]
Richard Ford is the author of four previous books: three novels (A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck, The Sportswriter) and one story collection (Rock Springs). He is also the recipient of five awards: one Guggenheim Fellowship, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts,...
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SOURCE: Schroth, Raymond A. “Out of the Frying Pan.” Commonweal (10 August 1990): 461-62.
[In the following review, Schroth describes Ford's Wildlife as “a middle-class mini-saga which mirrors the pain and chronicles the minor redemptions of America at large.”]
In its very first sentence—“In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him”—Richard Ford's impatiently awaited new short novel, Wildlife, both tells its own whole story and recalls most of the major themes of Ford's four other works, particularly The Sportswriter and his...
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SOURCE: Trombley, Stephen. “Loneliness of a 16 Year Old.” New Statesman and Society 3, no. 113 (10 August 1990): 35.
[In the following review, Trombley compares Ford's Wildlife with Seth Morgan's Homeboy, praising Wildlife for lean, taut, dense storytelling.]
With few exceptions, lyricism in novels goes in inverse proportion to length. A generalisation if you like, but it throws up a useful way of looking at this odd brace of novels, if only by way of contradiction. Richard Ford's new novel [Wildlife] is short and anything but lyrical, but it succeeds in a very difficult intention. Seth Morgan's first novel [Homeboy] is very long,...
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SOURCE: Ross, Cecily. “Flames of Desire.” Maclean's 103, no. 37 (10 September 1990): 82.
[In the following review, Ross offers high praise for Wildlife, describing it as “charged with poignancy and pain … Richard Ford at his finest.”]
Frank Bascombe, the central character of Richard Ford's 1986 novel, The Sportswriter, is a middle-aged journalist still reeling from his failed marriage and his abortive career as a fiction writer. As he surveys the disarray of his life, he predicts: “Something will happen. At least we have that to look forward to.” The same tone of hopeful melancholy colors the adolescent struggles of Joe Brinson, the...
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SOURCE: Dupuy, Edward. “The Confessions of an Ex-Suicide: Relenting and Recovering in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter.” Southern Literary Journal 23, no. 1 (fall 1990): 93-103.
[In the following essay, Dupuy praises Ford's The Sportswriter as a life-affirming novel that unites the themes of happiness and loss through the effective use of a first-person narrative voice.]
We think of the key, each in his prison Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
—T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland
To be is just as great as to perceive or tell.
—Walt Whitman, Preface to Leaves of Grass
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SOURCE: Johnson, Diane. “Tell, Don't Show.” New York Review of Books 37, no. 18 (22 November 1990): 16-18.
[In the following review, Johnson discusses Ford's Wildlife in conjunction with two books by other authors that explore the screenplay form. Johnson asserts that, in Wildlife, Ford effectively utilizes dialogue and visual imagery to express the internal thought processes of his characters.]
I remember once seeing a friend's father, an elderly musician, sitting on the front porch reading the Trout Quintet, nodding and smiling over certain passages like someone rereading Persuasion, or like mathematicians who read beautiful theorems...
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SOURCE: Dickstein, Morris. “The Voices of America.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4643 (27 March 1992): 21.
[In the following review of The Granta Book of the American Short Story, Dickstein praises Ford's introduction to the volume and his story selections, which show “a high standard of literary judgment” and include “many superb pieces of writing.”]
In the United States it is rare for writers to undertake anthologies of their near-contemporaries. Few are ready to do the work of reading their rivals, let alone risk offending everyone by their choices and exclusions. Since publishers have all but given up on the common reader, most American...
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SOURCE: Toynton, Evelyn. “American Stories.” Commentary 95, no. 3 (March 1993): 49-53.
[In the following essay, Toynton compares The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Ford, with several other short story anthologies. Toynton is highly critical of Ford's story selections, asserting that they are characterized by bleakness, flatness, and emotional superficiality, and lack both vivid human characters and intense emotion.]
The poet-critic Randall Jarrell once defined the novel as “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it.” The short story might be said to differ from the novel in that there need not be anything...
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SOURCE: Kennedy, Douglas. “Losing Ground.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 361 (14 July 1995): 39.
[In the following review, Kennedy applauds Ford's Independence Day, calling it a great American novel about suburban American life.]
To many, the 1980s were the decade of American excess—that high-rolling era of triumphant avarice, in which upper-echelon urbanites danced to the music of mammon. And a stroll through some of the more visible novels of the era—The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero—reinforces this image of a society in love with the ethos of the fast-lane, restless in the midst of...
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SOURCE: Burn, Gordon. “In Arch-Ordinary America.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4815 (14 July 1995): 21.
[In the following review, Burn applauds Ford's Independence Day as a considerable achievement that offers a fresh perspective on modern American life.]
“Prayerful” is a word Richard Ford has used (ruefully, not approvingly) to describe his writer's voice, although “fuguish”, as he uses it in this new novel, would have served as well. Among the early-morning sounds that are enumerated in the swelling, Aaron Copland-like overture to Independence Day—the university band tuning up on the football gridiron, a train hurtling through to...
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SOURCE: Hiney, Tom. “What Became of Huckleberry Finn?” Spectator 275, no. 8714 (15 July 1995): 31.
[In the following review, Hiney describes Ford's Independence Day as well-written but crippled by a boring subject.]
When a good novelist chooses a boring subject to write about, the results can be exasperating. and as far as boring subjects go, male mid-life crises are about as bad as you get. The mid-life crisis is no doubt pretty exasperating itself but, like migraines, its importance is unfortunately strictly in the eye of the beholder.
Richard Ford is widely considered capable of writing Great American Novels, and it might be argued that...
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SOURCE: Gillespie, Nick. “Bye-Bye American Pie.” Reason 28, no. 7 (December 1996): 53-8.
[In the following essay, Gillespie examines representations of the “American dream” in several works of fiction and popular culture, including Ford's Independence Day.]
The literary critic Lionel Trilling once suggested that novels “deliver the news,” that they tell us “about the look and feel of things, how things are done and what things are worth and what they cost and what the odds are.” Novels, said Trilling, encode “a culture's hum and buzz of implication”; they record our daily business of living, loving, working, and dying.
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SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Lost in Translation.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (13 July 1997): 2.
[In the following review of Women with Men, Levi discusses Ford's treatment of the theme of men's alienation from, and misunderstanding of, women.]
During the 1980s, when the Kmart Konvoy of that loose American school of writing called Dirty Realism was driving four abreast and turning the memory of 20th century literature into road kill, Richard Ford rode like a loner. He was American, all right, an all-American writer. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996, after all, for resurrecting Frank Bascombe of The Sportswriter in Independence Day, an...
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SOURCE: Ford, Richard, and Huey Guagliardo. “A Conversation with Richard Ford.” Southern Review 34, no. 3 (summer 1998): 609-20.
[In the following interview, conducted on July 25, 1997, Ford discusses his use of narrative voice, the influence of Walker Percy on his writing, and his use of the novella form in the volume Women with Men.]
Richard Ford is the author of five novels, including The Sportswriter (1986) and its sequel Independence Day (1995). He has also published a well-received book of stories, Rock Springs (1987), as well as a collection of related novellas, Women with Men (1997). This interview was conducted on July 25, 1997,...
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Adrift in the Male Doldrums.” Spectator 279, no. 8824 (13 September 1997): 36-7.
[In the following review, Brookner asserts that Ford's Women with Men is a disappointment after the successes of The Sportswriter and Independence Day.]
Richard Ford's heroes, markedly unheroic, live through a series of glum but sweet-natured intentions, with only one half-realised desire, ‘not to be the centre of things’. In this they succeed. In The Sportswriter, Ford's finest novel, Frank Bascombe was propelled through life by a puzzled and vulnerable desire to get it right: he at least did succeed, but in Independence Day he...
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SOURCE: Mewshaw, Michael. “Bad Baby-sitting.” New Statesman 126, no. 4356 (17 October 1997): 55.
[In the following review, Mewshaw discusses the themes of yearning, indecision, and loss in the stories of Ford's Women with Men.]
In a literary climate where the sun often shines on the dimmest writers, it's heartening that Richard Ford has attracted serious critical attention. But it must baffle and frustrate him to find reviewers slapping silly labels on his work, confusing his fiction with autobiography and forcing him into the company of inapposite American authors.
With the publication of Women with Men, book chat shows and magazine...
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SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Actual Fiction.” Hudson Review 50, no. 4 (winter 1998): 656-64.
[In the following review, Pritchard provides an overview of recent fiction that he feels deserves recognition as evidence of the ongoing vitality of the novel. Pritchard offers a favorable review of Women with Men, praising Ford for superb use of language and full, nuanced realism.]
It was an extraordinary spring for fiction, as if all the established novelists, especially in this country, agreed to hand in their latest work by way of attesting to continuing vitality. Among others, Mailer, Bellow, Roth, and Pynchon—to name four senior citizens of the...
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SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. Review of Women with Men, by Richard Ford. World Literature Today 72, no. 1 (winter 1998): 133-34.
[In the following review, Folks calls Women with Men “one of Richard Ford's most sensitive and contemplative works of fiction.” Folks discusses Ford's treatment of the themes of alienation, exile, loneliness, and frustration, contending that Ford records contemporary life in an observant and honest way.]
The theme of minor alienation and a contemporary tone of insincerity underlie each of the three stories in Women with Men. Martin Austin, a forty-four-year-old sales representative from Chicago, abandons his wife Barbara...
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SOURCE: Folks, Jeffrey J. “The Risks of Membership: Richard Ford's The Sportswriter.” Mississippi Quarterly 52, no. 1 (winter 1998-99): 73-88.
[In the following essay, Folks contrasts the treatment of central themes in Ford's The Sportswriter and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Folks observes that Ford's novel focuses on the themes of family, intimacy, labor, and the need for social connection.]
In the first two sentences of The Sportswriter, Richard Ford sets forth the issues with which his novel will be most concerned: a man, his work, his home and sense of place, his relationship with family, and his expectation of “the good life.”...
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SOURCE: Bone, Martyn. “The ‘Southern’ Conundrum, Continued: Barry Hannah and Richard Ford.” Mississippi Quarterly 53, no. 3 (summer 2000): 459-66.
[In the following essay, Bone compares Ford's writing with that of Barry Hannah, in terms of both authors' designation as Southern writers. Bone argues that Ford's Independence Day is not focused solely on the South, but is a comment on America as a whole in the late twentieth century.]
Barry Hannah was born in Clinton in 1942; Richard Ford was born in Jackson in 1944. Given their Mississippian background and—for all that Allen Tate first declared the “Southern Renascence” dead when little Barry and...
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SOURCE: Herd, David. “Nailing People.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5139 (28 September 2001): 24.
[In the following review, Herd provides a brief overview of the strengths of Ford's The Sportswriter and Independence Day, then discusses the theme of adultery in A Multitude of Sins concluding the latter volume ultimately offers a “limiting image” of life.]
The Sportswriter was a great book. Not “great” great as in Moby-Dick, but great like, say, Don DeLillo's White Noise: a powerful, disturbing, darkly funny account of what it is like to live in part of modern America. It wasn't a book with a great deal of happiness...
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SOURCE: Bemrose, John. “State of the Sinful Union: Two Authors Take the Pulse of Uncle Sam.” Maclean's 114, no. 44 (29 October 2001): 60-1.
[In the following review of A Multitude of Sins, Bemrose praises Ford's exploration of the inner lives of his characters and his examination of the heart of middle-class America.]
First, there was free trade, and now we've joined our American neighbours on a military adventure, the results of which no one can safely predict. We've tied ourselves increasingly to the fate of the great republic to the south, but our familiarity with Americans is often superficial, gleaned mainly from their entertainment industry and the odd...
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SOURCE: de Falbe, John. “Crafted with Too Much Care.” Spectator, no. 9039 (3 November 2001): 57-8.
[In the following review of A Multitude of Sins, de Falbe finds that Ford's writing technique is stiff and overly crafted.]
I am told that Richard Ford describes the stories in this long-awaited volume [A Multitude of Sins] as ‘little Valentines from hell’. The phrase is apt: a rough count yields four sour, damaging extra-marital affairs and five collapsing marriages, detailed with dour intensity. ‘Calling’ tells of an adolescent being taken on a duck shoot by his father, who recently abandoned his wife and law firm for an older man. The cast of...
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SOURCE: Guagliardo, Huey. “Walker Percy, Bruce Springsteen, and the Quest for Healing Words in the Fiction of Richard Ford.” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures (fall-winter 2002): 424-26.
[In the following essay, Guagliardo discusses the theme of storytelling as an antidote to loneliness and alienation, as expressed in Ford's fiction.]
In The Message in the Bottle, Walker Percy points out that “There is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a literature of alienation.” As Percy explains, “In the representing of alienation the category is reversed and becomes something entirely different.” Arguing that literature of this type actually serves...
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