Wildlife, Richard Ford’s fourth novel, further enhances his stature as one of the premier narrative stylists in contemporary American fiction. Heir to the minimalist tradition forged by Ernest Hemingway in the 1920’s and revived by Raymond Carver in the 1970’s, Ford shares with these predecessors a gift for deftly paced storytelling and vividly dramatized characters and a lean, understated style. In Wildlife, a reworking and expansion of the tale “Great Falls” from his acclaimed short story collection Rock Springs (1987), Ford performs an interesting variation on the familiar minimalist theme of isolation. By sustaining a restrained, nonjudgmental tone—largely free of the irony and bitterness that often prevails in minimalist or hardboiled fiction—Ford ultimately delivers an unexpected sweetness.
This sweetness derives from the love that Ford’s narrator, Joe Brinson, feels for his parents and from Joe’s nostalgia for a time when his parents seemed “good-looking, young, happy”—at the peak of their powers and optimism. Looking back on the year 1960, Joe remembers his father Jerry as “a natural athlete,” “a smiling handsome man,” who moves his family from Lewiston, Idaho, to Great Falls, Montana. Jerry hopes to benefit from the Gypsy Basin oil boom, using the personal connections he plans to make while teaching golf at a local country club. Joe’s mother Jeanette, “a pretty, small woman” who had formerly worked as a bookkeeper and substitute teacher, is somewhat less confident about their prospects in Great Falls. Both parents are college educated, and Joe thinks that his mother “must’ve believed at the time that this was a normal life she was living, moving, and working when she could, having a husband and a son, and that it was fine.”
Through all these details, Ford sketches an archetypal American family: a firm unit (even their first names are unified through alliteration) in quest of the American Dream, willing to relocate, and hopeful of upward mobility. In the short story “Great Falls,” the father, Jack Russell, is a working-class airplane mechanic who supplements his income through his skills at hunting and fishing. In Wildlife, Ford changes both the father’s attitude toward social class and his chosen sport. Early in the novel, Jerry considers changing his party affiliation from Democratic to Republican, and his dream of assimilating into the upper class through his skill at golf—President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite sport—places the family even more firmly in the optimistic Republican mood of the 1950’s.
The story is actually set, however, in “the fall of 1960”—a season that suggests a pivotal shift toward a more explosive decade and turns out to be a time of considerable change, of a fall from innocence, for the Brinson family as well. Ford’s metaphor for this impending change is the wildfire that burns out of control to the west of Great Falls. Though no one believes that it is close enough to threaten the town, the fire creates an uneasiness, a feeling that, according to Joe, was “like discouragement.” Smoke from the fire pollutes the town air and deters people from playing golf, which contributes to Jerry’s loss of his job.
From the beginning of Wildlife, Ford’s simple, monosyllabic diction and crafted, laconic sentences show marked similarities to Hemingway’s style. In the scene where Jerry loses his job, Ford’s deeper affinities with Hemingway’s narrative method begin to emerge. Hemingway once explained his minimalist method by saying, “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven eighths of it under water for every part that shows.” To achieve such rich suggestiveness through few words in many of his early, greatest stories, Hemingway uses his protagonist, young Nick Adams, in a manner that is revealingly similar to Ford’s use of Joe Brinson. Once Hemingway establishes that Nick is innocent, observant, and sensitive, the author need comment neither on the shocking violence of the events that Nick sees, nor on the derangement of the other characters he encounters; the reader is all the more shocked and disturbed by imagining the impact of these events and characters on Nick. Similarly, Ford achieves remarkable tension and suspense in Wildhfr by presenting the unpredictable behavior of his adult characters through the eyes of Joe—a young man whose sensitivity, stability, and self-control make the “wildlife”—the impulsive and ill- considered actions of his parents—all the more disquieting to the reader. In the scene where Jerry loses his job, for example, Joe is shocked to hear his father use obscene language, and is even more disturbed when his father takes the money from the pro shop cash register and urges Joe to take any of the expensive clothing and equipment that he wants. Joe attempts to excuse his father’s actions (“I thought maybe Clarence Snow [Jerry’s boss] had told him to clean out the cash register before he left and all that money was his to keep”), but the reader realizes that on a deeper level Joe is hurt and worried to witness a previously hidden intemperate and immoral side to his father.
Ford constructs the novel with a wildfire burning in the background—a wildfire that he seems to realize is perhaps too obvious as a symbol...