Richard Ford Short Fiction Analysis
Richard Ford’s fiction probes the lives of ordinary people, fascinated and troubled by the unpredictability of life. In some cases, the stories reflect on some catastrophe experienced in adolescence or before, when a family crisis changed comfortable patterns of life.
In the story “Optimists,” in the Rock Springs collection, for example, the narrator recalls a traumatic event that occurred in Great Falls, Montana, when he was fifteen years old, in 1959, “the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it.” The family situation in this story resembles the one in the later novella Wildlife. In both cases, the father reacts badly and emotionally and ruins both his life and the marriage while the son watches, horrified and dumbfounded.
In fact, the wildlife metaphor of the later novella is explained in the story “Optimists,” when the mother tells the boy Frank about a flock of migrating ducks that she saw resting on the Milk River once, when she was a girl, and winter was approaching. A friend of hers clapped her hands to startle the ducks into motion, but one stayed, its feet frozen to the ice. Her mother’s friend explained, “It’s wildlife. Some always get left behind.” In other words, such things happen in life as a natural consequence. Nature will have its way, and disaster cannot be avoided.
In the story “Optimists,” Frank’s father, Roy Brinson, a railway worker, returns home early one night, shaken because he has witnessed a man’s death in a railway accident. Returning home, he finds his wife playing cards and drinking with another couple, Penny and Boyd Mitchell. Boyd has had too much to drink and foolishly baits the disturbed father into an argument about unions. The father loses his temper and hits Boyd “square in the chest,” a blow that kills the man. The police come, the father is taken away, and the boy’s life is forever changed. “We’ll all survive this,” Frank’s mother reassures him. “Be an optimist.” Mere survival, however, is not the issue here. The father serves five months in prison for accidental homicide, but thereafter he loses his job, divorces his wife, turns to drinking, gambling, and embezzlement, and abandons his family. The son survives, but the optimistic title of the story is surely ironic.
Fatherhood is a major theme in Ford’s fiction, where men often go haywire, and many of his stories are built on father-and-son relationships and broken families, men trying to be good husbands and fathers, stumbling and failing in their attempts and perplexed by their failures. Jack Russell, the father of the story “Great Falls,” takes his son Jackie duck hunting and attempts to give the boy advice. He remembers something Jackie’s mother had once said to him: “Nobody dies of a broken heart,” adding “that was the idea she had. I don’t know why.” The boy has fears: “I worry if you’re going to die before I do,” he tells his father, “or if Mother is. That worries me.”
When Jackie and his father return home, they find a twenty-five-year-old stranger named Woody in the kitchen. The father goes berserk, ordering the mother to pack her bags, after which there is a standoff, with the father holding a loaded pistol just under Woody’s chin, out in the yard by Woody’s Pontiac, as the mother and son watch. “I did not think she thought my father would shoot Woody,” the boy speculates, but he thinks his father did think so, “and was trying to find out how to.” When asked in 1988 about his fictive strategy in this story and the dramatic possibilities, Ford explained:When I wrote that story, I did something that I almost never do. I didn’t know when I was writing the story if someone was going to get shot or not. But I got to the point in writing the story at which I realized that if someone did get shot, that a whole lot of dramatic possibilities that went on beyond that would be foreclosed for me. And in part, at least, for that reason I didn’t do it.
Ford also commented on the unpredictability that somehow infects his stories. “Well, when a man is standing in front of another man holding a gun to his chin and he hasn’t shot him yet,” Ford responded, “he either will shoot him, or he won’t. And probably he doesn’t know until he does or doesn’t do it if he’s going to.”
“Rock Springs,” the title story of the collection, sets the tone of quiet desperation that dominates the book. Earl Middleton, the central character, is a fugitive and a thief who is trying to escape from Montana to Florida in a stolen Mercedes with his daughter Cheryl, and a divorced woman named Edna. When the Mercedes develops mechanical problems, they decide to leave it and steal another car when they get to Rock Springs, Wyoming. Three miles out of town, the car breaks down, and Earl calls a taxi. Their spirits are lifted momentarily when they see a gold mine on the outskirts of town; when they arrive at a Ramada Inn, however, Edna decides to go back to Montana, not because she does not love Earl but because she wants more permanence and security than he can offer. The story ends with Earl casing cars in the dead of night, wondering which one to steal and wondering“what would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think he was anybody like you?
When asked how he found such a perfect line to end that story, Ford responded,“Sometimes you get lucky. You put yourself at the end of your story, and you know in fact it’s the end of your story, and you get down to the last few gestures you’ve got left. You hope to put yourself in a state of mind where you could write a good sentence. That’s what...
(The entire section is 2461 words.)