In Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter, the title character remarks, “The world is a more engaging and less dramatic place than writers ever give it credit for being.” This observation sums up a central aspect of Ford’s fiction, which elevates the undramatic concerns of ordinary people above the banality of their situations to a level of universal meaning and significance.
A sketch of Ford’s early life reads much like the biography of one of his fictional characters. (Indeed, he has incorporated autobiographical elements into the lives of several of his protagonists.) He was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1944, the only child of a traveling starch salesman whose death from a heart attack he witnessed at the age of sixteen. He grew up close to his mother and a grandfather who managed a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. Ford entered Michigan State University in 1962, initially planning to study hotel management, but he changed his major to literature. He began writing in college but had no plans to pursue a writing career until he quit law school at Washington University after one semester in 1968. He married Kristina Hensley that year and moved with her to California to study writing at the University of California at Irvine, from which he received his M.F.A. in 1970.
Ford recounts in a 1987 interview how he spent his first two years out of graduate school in Chicago, trying unsuccessfully to sell short fiction. In 1972 he was offered a teaching fellowship by the University of Michigan for writers trying to complete a work in progress and began work immediately on a novel in order to qualify. That novel, A Piece of My Heart, was published in 1976. The story of a working-class drifter and a Chicago law student whose mutual rootlessness brings them together on an island in the Mississippi delta, it introduced the themes of spiritual isolation and alienation that underlie much of Ford’s writing. The book was well-received and was a runner-up for the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel, although its vivid evocation of the rural South led some reviewers to criticize its neo-Faulknerian style and to label Ford a Southern writer.
Ford shook off that label when his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, was published in 1981. Its plot is the stuff of “B movies”: Vietnam veteran Harry Quinn finds himself caught between a corrupt government and a vengeful drug kingpin while trying to spring a former girlfriend’s brother from a prison in a...
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