Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1342
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.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 116
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.
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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 a guest in the house who arbitrarily criticizes him for not saving the hobo that with one blow he kills the guest. In “Empire” a man on a train journey with his wife is gripped by his total isolation in the long dark night when his wife goes to bed. Without liking her very much he makes love to a brusque woman in an Army sergeant's uniform. In “Great Falls” another rancorous husband suspicious of his wife swoops down upon her with their young son—they have been out hunting—in such a way as not only to end the marriage but to deprive the boy of both parents forever.
These external situations do not convey the moral atmosphere that draws me to these stories, most of them located in a “half-wild” Montana where the frontier never closed and the inhabitants are still untamed. Yet these are people who deeply know themselves to be fallen creatures desperate to rise, people as quick to ruin their lives as they are pathetically willing to examine themselves harshly when it is too late. They say things like, “or maybe I was scared of something and didn't know it”; “it's prosperity's fruit, I'd rather be poor, which is lucky for me”; “the truth is meant to serve you if you'll let it.” A mother having an affair with a very young man is puzzled by the lover's gossip that she was married once before, and tells her son, “That's an awful thing to say. I haven't been that bad.”
Ford writes an unshowy prose that brings home a great emptiness in America's West punctuated by Air Force bases. The characters, even when married and intimate, are remarkably out of sync with each other, talk in disconnected subjects as if they were afraid to make sense. They seem so constitutionally distracted that it is hard to say how much their sporadic violence is responsible for what Ford calls “Montana,” or how much “Montana” can be blamed for them. But what is all too clear, so vivid as to make some desperate characters wonderfully humble, is the suicidal nature of people silenced and crippled by their precious “privacy.” These are people who break out of their loneliness—when they do—only to commit some mistake that sends them reeling back.
I like Ford's writing for the exactness of the circumstances that in each case bring catastrophe. He doesn't seem to need the “existential” alienation and tight-jawed bitterness that preside over the knowing silences in so much “minimalist” fiction. In the good old tradition of the short story as one-act play, Ford loves to pace an impending action. In “Great Falls” you even hear the sound offstage of a drawer being opened that you know will lead to the husband coming downstairs with a gun. What is unexpected in the circumstances is the dead-beat characters' yearning for clarity, for some “truth” possibly looming above the mess. The homiletic inquiry tacked on to some stories makes for some strained conclusions. I suspect Ford of not being altogether content with realistic storytelling.
The departed mother who turns up in the son's later life as a stranger is a recurrent figure, perhaps a symbol of some vacancy at the heart of things. The son's outcry at the conclusion of “Great Falls” becomes a familiar litany in this book:
As I walked toward school I thought to myself that my life had turned suddenly, and that I might not know exactly how or which way for possibly a long time. Maybe, in fact, I might never know. It was a thing that happened to you—I knew that—and it had happened to me in this way now. And as I walked on up the cold street that afternoon in Great Falls, … I asked myself … why … would [my mother] do what she did? In five years my father had gone off to Ely, Nevada, to ride out the oil strike there, and been killed by accident. And in the years since then I have seen my mother from time to time—in one place or another, with one man or other—and I can say, at least, that we know each other. But I have never known the answer to these questions, have never asked anyone their answers. Though possibly it—the answer—is simple: it is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire.
No, we are not at Dover Beach but in the still wild West, some of it as ludicrous as the full-blooded Indian in “Children.” He gets a teen-age Canadian runaway girl to bed in a motel (motels are big in these stories, the neutral corner in marital fights; in Montana they are even called “Tropicana”), then scares her by getting up in the night to squat on the floor and pray. In “Sweethearts” Arlene's second husband makes breakfast for Bobby, her ex, the day he has to enter jail:
Arlene had said she would drive him to the sheriff's department this morning, if I would fix him breakfast, so he could surrender on a full stomach, and that had seemed all right.
Before arriving at the prison Bobby wails, “So how am I going to keep up my self-respect. Answer me that. That's my big problem.”
“You have to get centered,” Arlene said in an upbeat voice. “Be within yourself if you can.”
“I feel like I'm catching a cold right now,” Bobby said. “On the day I enter prison I catch cold.”
“Take Contac,” Arlene said. “I've got some somewhere. …”
“I already took that,” Bobby said. “I had some at home.”
“You'll feel better then,” Arlene said. “They'll have Contac in prison.”
“I put all my faith in women,” Bobby said softly. “I see now that was wrong.”
As they near the jail, two Indians in plastic chairs are sitting outside the double doors. The second husband, watching Arlene express her relief at getting rid of Bobby by slamming the glove box shut with her foot, feels stuck in marriage. “I knew, then, how you became a criminal in the world and lost it all.”
In the title story Earl and Edna, “a pair eight months,” plus Earl's little girl and the little girl's dog, are on their way from Kalispell, Montana, to “Tampa-St. Pete” (how the place names of America throb through these stories) in an ophthalmologist's stolen Mercedes. Earl is not long out of jail for passing bad checks. The car gives out as they approach Rock Springs, Wyoming, in the dark. The town lights up the sky behind the clear outline of the interstate. “You could hear the big tractors hitting the spacers in the overpass, revving up for the climb to the mountains.” When he has to hide the dead car, Earl wails, “I had wanted all along to drive into Florida like a big success story.” Edna, still brooding on an ex-husband “crazy as a mouse in a shit-house,” is indifferent to Earl's kid. The little girl, afraid to admit how bad things look for them all, is determinedly cheerful with her dog. They even pee side by side.
Earl, walking up to a mobile home on the edge of town to call a taxi, is told by a kindly black grandmother why he saw Rock Springs as “a little glowing jewel in the desert with I-80 running on the north side and the black desert spread out behind.” The great lights are from a gold mine whose workers are kept in uniform white mobile homes. Cadillacs with New York plates cruise the streets every night, “full of Negroes with big hats who ran the women.” When Earl and Edna are finally settled in the local Ramada, Edna, who has been complaining all along about some lack in his character, sweetly announces she must leave him.
I used to like to go to motels, you know. … There's something secret about them and free—I was never paying, of course. But you felt safe from everything and free to do what you wanted because you'd made the decision to be there and paid that price, and all the rest was the good part. Fucking and everything, you know.
She just hates being in a motel without a car “that was mine to drive.” Earl protests that he can steal another car from the parking lot. She departs after making love. “None of this is a matter of not loving you, you know that.”
At the end, prowling the parking lot, his eye particularly fixed on a Pontiac with Ohio tags, full of family possessions, Earl realizes how much he is out of family, out of everything. And how does he account for this?
I thought, then, how I never planned things well enough. … As I read on a napkin once, between the idea and the act a whole kingdom lies. And I had a hard time with my acts, which were oftentimes offender's acts, and my ideas, which were as good as the gold they mined there where the bright lights were blazing.
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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,” Lucy says. “For the fish. Everything just goes crazy at once. I wonder what it thinks.” Coming halfway through the book, the scene resonates—its image, really, is at the heart of Rock Springs. What one character or another experiences in each of the book's ten stories is just that sudden, wild sensation of being caught, pulled completely without warning out of his accustomed life—and plunged suddenly into catastrophe. By the end of each story, something has “just gone crazy” for someone: he has been hooked and reeled in, struggling and gasping. Claude answers Lucy's question: “They don't. Fish don't think.” But of course people do. And what they think in that moment of crazy helplessness, and the moments, days, and years that follow, is what Rock Springs is about.
Ford's characters catch trout and whitefish, shoot deer and geese, but in each story it is the men who are the real prey. Not of other men, though; not of the gods or of history either, but of chance, sheer arbitrariness. The idea is not an especially provocative or colorful one (neither, really, is Rock Springs, the dominant tone of which is a little too grey), but in Ford's hands the metaphor nevertheless seems fresh and feels powerful. What makes people so vulnerable to getting jerked out of the stream is the basic instability of modern life. None of Ford's characters has a permanent home, a stable family. Some of them are running from failed marriages, or from the law; others are biding their time between jobs, in the no-man's-land of the temporarily unemployed, getting ready to make a dash for it before the landlord asks for the rent and the gas bill arrives. No one in Ford's world lives a “normal” life. In “Empire,” Marge wonders if such a thing even exists: “Nothing's normal, right?” she says. “That's just a concept.”
Ford agrees with her. In the same story, he encapsulates this sense of instability in his notion of the frontier. “We're out on a frontier here, aren't we, sweetheart?” Marge asks her husband as they lie, watching a great prairie fire from the safety of their railroad-car sleeping compartment. Ford's stories take place in Montana and Wyoming, on the frontier between America and Canada, between the Eastern and Western United States, a land “half wild,” not quite civilized yet. His narrators are all between the ages either of thirty and forty, or ten and twenty—that is, on the border between youth and maturity, or between childhood and manhood. (They're also mostly Sam Shepard clones—white men, more or less working-class, with mild personalities and good hearts. None are memorable as characters.) As a whole, they live on the frontier between jobs, between women, between lives.
Helpless and unstable as they are, living perpetually “in between,” they are easy prey for chance. In “Optimists,” Roy Brinson punches a man in the chest, inadvertently knocking the life out of him. He doesn't mean to kill him—he just does it, and in doing so he destroys his own life and tears his own family apart. Nothing he had done or experienced could have predicted such a thing. The narrator in “Rock Springs,” the title story, “start[ing] down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete,” with his daughter and his girlfriend Edna, finds himself womanless, suddenly and inexplicably, when Edna decides she's just had enough of him. Without reason or warning, in a moment the ground drops out from under his life.
In the face of all this, what Ford's characters feel is a powerful sense of isolation: from each other, from the stable, “normal” world, and—most importantly—from control over their own lives. They remind you of Joe Christmas in Light in August—thinking, “Something is going to happen to me. I am going to do something.” It's as if they're cut off from their own words and actions, watching them come into being but unable to exercise any control over them. The difference is that Faulkner's world is a product of history, his characters trapped by their pasts. Ford's people face the future with all of Joe Christmas's passive dread, but their fates have been assigned to them as if at random. History plays little if any part in the direction of any individual's life. Quentin Compson would be incomprehensible in a Richard Ford story.
Sensibly, Ford's characters adopt an attitude not so much of despair—because things could very well turn out all right in the end—but of passive acceptance. Starling and Lois in “Fireworks” toast “better cards on the next deal.” It's as if the future already exists, just waiting for a fellow to come along and make the best of it: make the best of it and hope no one gets hurt.
Actually, though, for Ford it doesn't all just end there. This random absurdity has the grievous effect of turning people away from each other and into themselves. One of the most moving scenes in the book comes at the end of “Optimists,” when Roy and his mother meet again, in a supermarket, after years of separation following the departure of his father and her husband. As they part, this time probably forever, she leans through an open window to kiss his cheek and hold his face in her hands. People can touch each other; there are moments when the isolation caused by the randomness of life can be breached; but they are few and far between. Critics have compared Ford to Walker Percy, but an essential difference between the two (aside from the fact that Percy is twice as witty as Ford) is in their attitude toward the transformative power of human contact. In The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett is rescued from his despair through his loving relationships with Jamie, Sutter, and Kitty. In Richard Ford's world, though, all we can hope for from love is that it will keep us warm for a while, safe for the moment from the chilling effects of chance.
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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 long touted as its strength; a tough and belligerent nation, still stunned and whimpering from the Vietnam war; a country whose politicians were campaigning on “family values,” while it seemed that hardly a family was not sundered by abandonment or divorce; a post-Christian society, even pagan, that thirsted for a taste of faith.
I had considered Russell Banks's Continental Drift, the story of a frustrated, priapic New Hampshire boiler repairman whose life disintegrates when he uproots his family to chase the American dream to Florida. James Atlas called it “the most convincing portrait I know of contemporary America.” But the protagonist, Bob DuBois, though in the narrator's eyes a “decent,” ordinary man, seemed to me too destructive, too crazy, too criminal.
In the summer of 1986, when the Greenwich Village bookstores were crowded with Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City—a novel whose method of demonstrating the bankruptcy of our culture, one critic said, is to chronicle its parties—and Bret Easton Ellis's Less than Zero and Don DeLillo's White Noise, all in shiny paperback covers, I remembered a New York Times review that called Richard Ford's The Sportswriter a novel about a good man. I found in Ford far more than I had hoped for: a writer who, by his own account, had “apprenticed” himself to America; whose stories and characters so spring from their landscapes and physical situations as to personify the spirit of the motels, roadside bars, lakes and highways where we encounter them; and who may well be, as his friend Raymond Carver (who died last summer) said, “sentence for sentence … the best writer at work in this country today.”
In spite of the critical success of The Sportswriter (1986) and Rock Springs (1987), the collection of short stories recently issued in paperback, Ford has neither made best-seller lists nor become a familiar name, even in English departments. He resists categories and comparisons. Though born and raised in Faulkner-Welty country, he declares himself “sick of the whole subject” of southern writing. Though a pal and contemporary of Carver, he denies membership in the so-called minimalist school, which, according to Madison Bell (“Less Is Less,” Harper's, April 1986), concerns itself with surface details and fosters a nihilistic vision. Whatever the validity of a comparison to Hemingway, which rings true in Ford's many hunting and fishing scenes, his task as profiler of this generation is more complex. He focuses his camera on ordinary—and sometimes outlaw—lives, people who for the most part eschew self-pity and are slow to judge. Ford helps us, too, withhold judgment.
The Sportswriter begins on Good Friday morning. Frank Bascombe, a 38-year-old feature writer for an unnamed sports magazine (like the defunct Inside Sports, where Ford once worked), narrates the three-day action, mixed with flashbacks, in the present tense. In a cemetery he meets his ex-wife, referred to only as X, for a private memorial service at the grave of their son Ralph, who had died four years before at age nine. They live in a mythical Haddam, New Jersey, modeled somewhat on Princeton, where Ford and his wife, Kristina, lived while he taught writing at Princeton University and she taught city planning at New York University.
The afternoon of the funeral, Frank flies to Detroit with his girlfriend, Vicki, a hospital nurse, to interview Herb Wallagher, a paraplegic former professional football star, for what had been conceived as a standard spiritual-courage-triumphs-over-bodily-injury story. But Herb is clearly loony, the drugged, bitter opposite of what the American sports hero is supposed to be.
On Easter Sunday they return to New Jersey for dinner in Barnegat Pines with Vicki's family, which includes her turnpike toll-taker father, Wade Arsenault, who spends his time in the basement restoring an ancient Chrysler; her querulous younger brother, Cade, a future police officer; and her stepmother, Lynette, a widowed, divorced, pious Catholic. At table she has them all join hands for grace, and Frank, uneasily grabbing Wade's and Cade's, can't help thinking “what strange good luck to be reckoned among these people” rather than “cruising some mall for an Easter takeout … lost in the savage wilderness of life.”
But before the afternoon is over, X calls to tell Frank that his friend from the Divorced Men's Club, Walter Luckett, has killed himself, and Vicki, to emphasize that they don't have enough in common to marry, punches him in the mouth. “Easter has turned to rain and bickering and death.” The novel ends with Frank pacing the beach in Florida, waiting for the arrival of a 20-year-old Dartmouth woman who admires his writing. He says he has finally finished mourning his lost son. Maybe now he will finish the novel he had put aside for sports journalism. And maybe not.
In The Sportswriter Ford is able to reproduce a broad and complex cross-section of American middle-class life. Reading The Sportswriter with a map of the United States on the wall and a roadmap of New Jersey on the desk gives one a new sense of America as an organism, a network of flight plans and super highways and back roads linking Alaska, Texas, Detroit, Florida, mid-Manhattan, the Jersey coast and the New England countryside, and leading all of us in and out of one another's moral choices and dreams.
But in Ford's world our dreams are usually symptoms of our pain. Herb Wallagher dreams of strangling three old women by a roadside until he sees some yellow-eyed deer watching him. And Frank has a vision of Wade walking down a long, empty hospital corridor on a visit from which he won't return. Frank, the Good Samaritan, shrinks from these dreams, but still hears the dreams' confessions and bears their burdens.
Walter has to confess a homosexual encounter to someone, and he picks Frank: “You're a man with rules, Frank,” he says, “You don't mind, if I say that? You have ethics about a lot of important things.”
“I don't mind, Walter, but I don't think that I have any ethics at all, really. I just do as little harm as I can. Anything else seems too hard.”
Frank shrinks from Walter's attachment. But he is Walter's one true friend. Frank proclaims himself an individualist, though he is not the individualist about whom Tocqueville warns and whom Robert Bellah and colleagues describe in Habits of the Heart. He is the individualist as writer, who must learn to turn his loneliness into creative energy rather than fall into self-pity. Alone in his magazine office he reflects that while writers need to belong to a club, “for real writers, unfortunately, their club is a club with just one member.” Ford repeats the sentiment in a Harper's essay, “First Things First” (August 1988): “Writing is dark and lonely work, and no one has to do it. No one will ever care much if it doesn't get done at all.” For Ford to close The Sportswriter without indicating whether Frank will retrieve either his wife or his talent may frustrate some readers, but it is an aesthetic decision consistent with the character he has introduced.
Frank, says critic Robert Towers, is a “post-Christian man of good will trying to find his way in a world bereft of the certainties of its religious past.” The Sportswriter's real subject is the modern American's search for integrity: through sports, through art, through religion, through simply living up to one's day-to-day obligations, through the little commitments we make to one another in friendship and love, even when our marriages fall apart. Integrity can also mean settling for less, as it does for Wade Arsenault, whose heroism is in “moving down in rank.” It is a move that Frank, with his saintly tolerance, understands.
In one of the novel's funniest passages on America's psychic investment in sports, Frank stops at a roadside watering hole named for Sweet Lou Calcagno, center for the '56 Giants. It's one of those sports nostalgia bars, emblazoned with pictures of Jack Dempsey and Spike Jones embracing the beloved host. Frank contemplates a “where-are-they-now?” interview—only to discover that Sweet Lou was gunned down 30 years before by gangsters and that his widow, the bartender, hates the sound of his name.
There is no salvation through the cult of the sports hero because sports—and sportswriting—deals with only the surface of life. Nor is there salvation in literature, as Frank learns in a stint teaching English at an isolated New England college, for it denies the reality of death. On religion, Ford holds his fire. Ford's mother was thought to be Catholic because she was raised for a while in a convent, and the sisters' kindness stuck. But institutional religion seems to have neither wounded nor healed Ford himself, and his characters search for meaning or “mystery” on the fringes of the church: Frank consults a psychic adviser and ducks in the side door at Haddam First Presbyterian, and Vicki stops at a wayside shrine. Ford seems neither angry enough to reject these characters' pseudo-faith nor inspired to bring them inside the faith.
Nor does salvation come through sexual activity or the institution of marriage. Almost everyone in Ford's fiction is divorced, adulterous or living with someone whom he or she will desert within a few pages. Life seems to make sense mostly in the mediocre dignity achieved by Vicki's family, and especially in Frank's loyalty to the pathetic Walter, whose impulsive kiss he brusquely rejects and whom he doesn't really like very much, but to whom he represents integrity and a little wisdom.
In 1974 Ford told a writing class that he had just finished his first novel, “a 674-page manuscript that took me six years to write. … I expect the same kind of dedication from you.” He had begun A Piece of My Heart (1976) after failing to get editors to notice his short stories.
Part of the focus of the book is on the interaction, on an unchartered Mississippi River island, between two uprooted young men and their eccentric old hosts, who in their odd way seem to have some stability the young men seek—until one of the old men is killed in a bizarre fishing accident. But most of the energy is sexual—one young man carries on an affair with his cousin, who is married to a minor league baseball player. She promises him an ecstatic trick if they can just get into a shower bath in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. They don't get to Memphis, but when she does try out her “plastic bag” trick in the shower, he is revolted and breaks away, deciding not to participate in a degrading sexual act just when he has his life in order. Then, like the old man, he dies absurdly, shot by a trigger-happy youth “guarding” the mysterious island.
Unlike A Piece of My Heart, the second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), is fast-moving and compact. As before, the central characters are marginal and rootless, yanked from one risk-filled relationship to another without a firm sense of whom they can trust. Harry Quinn, a Vietnam veteran, has come to Mexico at the request of his girlfriend, Rae, to buy her drug-dealing brother out of prison. This novel's style is part Dashiell Hammett, with its hard brutality, bitter dialogue, murders and betrayals. It is also reminiscent of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, with a displaced American, an evocation of Vietnam, and, especially, a scene in which a Baskin-Robbins store explodes, killing innocent bystanders, revealing to Harry and Rae that they are involved inadvertently but inexorably in an evil far beyond what they had foreseen. In the end, Harry survives a shootout and wonders if he has “perfected something in himself by killing three people he didn't know, when he had come at the beginning simply to save one, and if now he had pleased anyone anywhere. Though he thought if he hadn't pleased anybody, at least he'd tried to, and had performed it under control, and he hadn't coped so bad by himself at the end. He thought, in fact, that he'd done fine.”
The Sportswriter's cosmopolitan milieu of death-denying Jersey suburbs and wry commentary on New York magazine journalism has made its author more accessible to professors, who will start working him into their curriculum. On the other hand, Rock Springs and some recent essays on Ford's early family and college life represent a return to the basics. The basics are the people William Least Heat Moon or John Steinbeck would meet driving a pickup truck north from New Orleans along the Mississippi to Arkansas and Tennessee, and west through Missouri and Nebraska and Wyoming to Montana (where the Fords live now) to the coast. These are the people Richard Avedon photographed for his startling book of portraits of Westerners—grimy, half-naked, grotesque, but with dignity intact. It is a bleak land of silos, railroad tracks, trailer parks and seedy bars, and of hunters, thieves and adulterers. The small-town, vagabond, grow-up-quick life has provided Ford his fundamental inspiration.
Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1944. His father was a traveling starch salesman and his mother's father, a former prizefighter and dining car attendant, ran a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the family lived for a while. When Richard was 16, his father “woke up gasping on a Saturday morning and died before he could get out of bed.” Before that, Richard had had some scrapes with the law. His mother sat him down and told him that he was on his own and should stay out of jail because she wouldn't get him out. His mother had various jobs, and for a while had a boyfriend who was a married man. Once, worried when she didn't come home, the 17-year-old Richard tracked her to the man's apartment. For Ford, discovering this relationship was, like a father's death, a moment from which a hundred stories would spring.
The stories in Rock Springs touch on the shocks that a young man receives when he's 16; on characters who, like those in The Ultimate Good Luck, hang out at dog tracks, or who have had scrapes with the law, steal cars and push dope; and on the fleeting presence of strange men and women whom we recognize, without being told, as home-wreckers. Nearly all deal with infidelity. In “Great Falls,” an adolescent boy and his father go duck hunting and return to find a blond young Air Force man named Woody keeping mother company. The father shoves a pistol under his face and sends him away. The family then falls apart, the father is killed in an accident and the mother wanders from man to man. The narrator wonders whether it is some “coldness in us all” that “makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire.”
In the longest, richest story, “Empire,” Victor Sims, a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Marge, head east from Spokane across Montana by train. Marge, who has recently survived a cancer operation, sleeps in their compartment while Victor roams around, reminiscing about past love affairs and flirting with a woman army sergeant. In an extended story-within-a-story, he remembers a tryst with their neighbor's sister—who had consorted with a dope-pushing Satanist motorcycle gang—while Marge was in the hospital. Victor had awakened from their lovemaking in a wild dream about hanging himself, and months later a voice claiming to be “the devil” had called threatening to take Marge in punishment for his adultery.
Victor accompanies the sergeant to her room and takes off her clothes. They discuss the fact that neither has nor ever wanted any children. The sergeant tells Victor a story of looking for her father one night and finding him with another woman (a story much like the one Ford tells about looking for his mother). Victor returns to his wife and they look out the window at a spectacular fire raging on the plains, a fire they imagine does not threaten them or anyone on the train. “The world's on fire, Vic,” Marge says. “But it doesn't hurt anything. It just burns till it stops.” The fire can be a number of things: Victor's adulterous passion, which may well destroy his marriage; the cancer that almost killed Marge and may well return; an image of Vietnam; or, like the explosion in The Ultimate Good Luck, a sign of the unacknowledged dimension of every human act.
Ford told me once that his ambition is the same as William Dean Howells's: to “create a literature worthy of America.” Surely he shares Howells's realism, social conscience and occasional moralism. For Ford, there is no fire in human relationships that doesn't hurt something. In a memoir of his grandfather, the hotel owner, Ford describes how his grandfather “inhabited” his job, painstakingly fulfilled every workaday task, and prayed aloud each morning that he would do it well. Ford concludes: “Everything counts, after all. What else do you need to know?”
Ford has said several times that his goal is to write something that would compare with the end of Frank O'Connor's story “Guests of a Nation.” It describes an Irish boy, an IRA recruit in the 1922 war, who participates in the pointless reprisal executions of two British soldiers the captors had grown to love. It is a story about sin, the end of youth and the infinite weight of moral responsibility. The boy recalls, in words that could have come from Rock Springs: “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.” In time a good many Americans may say that about reading Richard Ford.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 581
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 factory, a benign deity is notably absent. As Harry Quinn realises from the start, what you need to “come out with some skin left on” in Oaxaca—a city populated largely by soldiers and police and guerrillas and dead people, where life is cheap, and road names change in the middle as there are too many heroes and not enough streets—is “to get lucky”.
Quinn is in Mexico, answering a cry for help from ex-girlfriend Rae, to pay off the right people and spring her brother, Sonny, from the local gaol. This would be a cinch except that certain hoodlums are convinced that Sonny has been skimming-off some of their cocaine and are rather keen to get it back. Looming large is a Mr Deats who specialises in practical jokes with scorpions and who may, or may not, have something to do with the proliferation of corpses. This genre is well-worn, almost threadbare, and Ford knows it. While he employs many of its traditional devices, the mystery element of the novel remains vague and impenetrable, and its main interest lies elsewhere.
Since returning from Vietnam, Quinn has made a career out of drifting and hanging-out in the present. Ironically, his war-wound is exactly that macho self-sufficiency—“I can take care of me”—which ostensibly makes him the ideal hero for this kind of book. He is a precise student of light and landscape, but intimacy fouls things up, makes them “hard to see”. Like any demobbed Rambo worth his salt, Quinn can shoot his way out of a dark corner, but Rae has left a “space he couldn't quite manage any more”, and the real question is whether he can admit to a degree of vulnerability and achieve reconciliation. This is more than forlorn romanticism. Love is a place “where nothing troublesome could come inside”, it offers an ultimate balm for the cynicism and paranoia of a world which runs according to luck.
In many ways neither the love story nor the mystery is satisfactorily resolved. This book, written eight years ago, does not have the sustained insight of The Sportswriter or the mesmerising control of situation, character and landscape, somewhere in the American tradition between Hemingway and Raymond Carver, revealed in the short stories of Rock Springs.
What gives The Ultimate Good Luck its power is Ford's manipulation of the laconic, tough-guy style. His verbs are dead-pan, shocking, sometimes poetic, sometimes coined: eyes are “sprung out” of sockets, people “merge out” into the boulevard, lamps “gauze” the air, doorways “bleed” light, the air “swarms up” in the darkness, and stars “bristle” above the alley openings. The syntax is often demanding, and the prose has a distinct rhythm connected to its locale. A paragraph coming out of, say, Traverse City, Michigan is almost perceptibly cooler than the passages distilled by the scorched heat and purple mescaline haze of Oaxaca, Mexico.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103
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 who have almost no other means of thinking about, or even knowing, what they feel.
But Wildlife also points up how far Ford has gone beyond the constricted mental territory of the typical Hemingway man, who was always telling himself not to think about this or that specific pain or loss, the “casualties” that collectively were the mainspring of his talent, the aggregate wound that bent his bow. Especially when it came to the excruciating pain of childhood emotional trauma, he never went beyond short-story length in confronting it.
What Ford has done in Wildlife is fashion a beautifully modulated full-length novel out of the kind of pain that Hemingway tried to contain and dispose of in tight little stories like “Indian Camp” and “The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife”: the adolescent boy's realization of his previously godlike father's weakness and incapacity compared with other men, and the nearly unbearable implications this has for the boy's own aspiring manhood.
Wildlife is an extended working-out and deepening of all the elements in the basic situation of Ford's story “Great Falls,” collected in Rock Springs three years ago. Both are set in Great Falls, Mont., in 1960, when the first-person narrator is 16 and where the father, a rather indefinably “unusual” man, has brought the family in search of opportunity against the wishes of the mother, who hates this big, cold, empty place “where the Great Plains commence.”
The mother inexplicably cheats on her husband, confesses to him and tries unsuccessfully to explain herself to her son before leaving home; the father commits an aborted act of violence intended to be conclusive but that instead makes him look foolish and cowardly. Ford's men, though they are outdoorsmen and men of action, are more passive and brooding than Hemingway's; they wait for things to happen that will tell them where their lives are going, and when that doesn't work, they make some precipitate move that catalyzes a situation they didn't want and can't resolve by action.
“Things seldom end in one event” is one of the lessons learned by Jackie, the young narrator of “Great Falls,” as he muses on why these “unhappy things” happened to his parents. He is more concerned with the motives of the three grownups and what they might mean about people in general than in the event's still unfathomable emotional effect on himself, which is fully explored by young Joe in Wildlife.
Possibly the answer “is simple,” Jackie concludes in the story: “[I]t is just low-life, some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain … and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire.” Though a cynic could draw the same conclusion from the novel, it's clear that Ford found the story's answer too simple and needed to sound the people involved—especially the boy, the mother and her lover—and somehow extend his (and our) knowledge of how life works: To illuminate what remains a mystery but becomes in this book a larger, richer one.
Young Joe's father, Jerry, is a natural athlete who became an itinerant golf pro because the game “was easy for him.” He brings the family to Great Falls “at the time of the Gypsy Basin oil boom,” wanting “a piece of that good luck before it all collapsed. …” As a teaching pro at the country club, he knows he “won't get rich working for rich men, but we might get lucky hanging around them.” Instead he gets fired on suspicion of theft, and even after the mistake is discovered and he is offered his job back, he feels the need for a new direction, a new definition of himself (he “had been to college though not to war”). In the fall he goes off to fight the forest fires that have been raging all summer “in the timber canyons beyond Augusta and Choteau”—a move that is violently opposed by his wife, Jean, who comes from timber country and knows more about fighting forest fires than he does.
The best parts of this consistently fine novel are the extended passages showing Jean's reactions to what she insists on seeing as Jerry's defection, though in fact he's gone only three days. Purely by what she does and says, we can see her mind and emotions at work separating herself from her husband, particularly in a sustained scene—or sequence of scenes—of 60 pages or so, all contained in one masterly chapter, in which she takes up with Warren Miller, a veteran of both World War II and Korea, who offers her a job in one of the several Great Falls businesses he owns. (Interestingly, Miller understands Jerry's motives perfectly and approves: “‘There's not enough around to kill us, I guess,’ Warren Miller said. ‘Men understand that.’ … ‘Men don't understand much,’ Jean replies.”)
She and young Joe go to dinner at Miller's home, and the scene where Joe watches the two grownups getting drunker and more transparently lustful toward each other is a marvel of narrative observation. The matching scene, when Joe confronts Jean at breakfast the morning after catching her with Miller, is equally fine. Here Ford fully achieves the Hemingway ideal of language that's as clear as painting or action—language that is action.
In Wildlife he accomplishes the most thoroughly worked-out expression of human feeling I've read since James Agee's “A Death in the Family,” which also was about a boy's loss of parenthood but of a more conventional kind and perhaps the less painful for lacking the particularly bitter truth that Ford's two youthful narrators have to absorb, though Jackie in “Great Falls” has not yet begun to see it:
“[W]hat there is to learn from almost any human experience,” thinks Joe in the novel, “is that your own interests usually do not come first where other people are concerned—even the people who love you—and that is all right. It can be lived with.”
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 824
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, one Pacific Northwest Bookseller Association Book Award, and an award in literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Although it is hardly Ford's fault that the prizes he has received thus far outnumber the books he has produced in his first 46 years, it would seem reasonable to assume that something about his work conforms to some widely held idea of what constitutes “good writing,” most particularly that form of good writing instantly classifiable as being “in the American grain.”
The kind of book that critics commend for being in the American grain usually features white, heterosexual, non-ethnic males of no more than average intelligence who live in underpopulated areas and speak, think, and write simply, avoiding big words, long sentences, and complicated ideas.
While this may not be an accurate representation of the multi-ethnic, urban-and-rural society that has been America for the past century or so, it does indeed represent an aspect of American life that is fully entitled to representation. The fact that it has been—and still is—overrepresented in American fiction may disturb would-be social engineers who judge literature with an eye for quotas. It would not disturb me in the least, if only these novels were not so predictable, so self-involved, and so slow-going to slog through!
Ford's latest novel, Wildlife, is set in Great Falls, Mont., the autumn and winter of 1960. Sixteen-year-old Joe Brinson and his parents have moved there from Lewiston, Idaho. Jerry and Jeanette Brinson are in their late 30s, still attractive, still able to think of themselves as young, still hopeful about the future, still unsettled—and getting a little worried. They move from job to job: Jeanette usually finds work as a substitute teacher; Jerry, naturally athletic, has recently taken up a position as a golf instructor at a country club. As the story opens, he is about to lose that job.
Although they move from job to job and place to place, the Brinsons are not drifters: They are college-educated, competent people, who are good at their work.
But they are not exactly exemplars of the Protestant work ethic either. They are average, restless Americans looking for something a little better, trying to gain a foothold in a society as restless and shifting as themselves.
Having lost his job just at the time that wildfires are breaking out in the forested mountains to the west, Jerry signs on to work as a firefighter. Although his wife does not object strenuously, she disapproves. There are signs that Jeanette is growing impatient with their married life. While her husband is away fighting the fire, she becomes involved with an older, less physically attractive man who has a lot more money and who seems to offer the promise of greater stability.
The great strength of this novel is the way in which Ford tells Jerry and Jeanette's story through the eyes of their 16-year-old son, Joe, who can see what is going on, but who finds it hard to know precisely what to make of it. What Ford also conveys clearly through Joe's narrative is that Joe's mother is equally uncertain as to what she is doing—both in having the affair and in allowing her son to have what is virtually a ringside seat from which to watch the affair unfold.
Ford is a painstaking realist who captures the way people talk—what they leave out and the curiously revealing things they leave in. He wisely avoids the temptation to overdramatize his material, and he does not fall into the opposite trap of underplaying the dramatic and emotional potential of the situation. The balance he strikes makes this an eminently believable novel.
Surprisingly, then, especially in view of the fact that it is a brief book of just 177 pages, reading Wildlife is a little like wading through Jello. The characters are dull, their perceptions routine, and the time it takes for them to understand the point of what they are doing is longer than the time it takes for the reader to reach the same conclusion. In sum, the book drags. Ford deserves credit for his careful accuracy in depicting these people and how they think and feel, but all his honesty and accuracy do not change one's feeling that this novel, for all its veracity, is a rather minor piece of fiction.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 937
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 recent book of short stories, Rock Springs. Once again, though without repeating himself, he recreates in the most intimate detail three seemingly month-long days in the lives of otherwise faceless men and women who struggle to survive the pains of anonymity, failure, infidelity, and family disintegration, in a middle-class mini-saga which mirrors the pain and chronicles the minor redemptions of America at large.
In “Empire,” the longest and most intriguing story in Rock Springs, Vic and Marge Sims, crossing the northwest on a train, peer out into the night at a wild fire burning on the open prairie. It is a fire which Vic imagines “could turn and sweep over them in a moment, and they would all be caught, asleep and awake.” With the ambiguity of any resourceful symbol, the fire is both a projection of their own relationship—their passion, Vic's faithlessness—and the terrible heat of larger events—the forces of nature, providence, and chance over which none of us has any control.
In Wildlife, the fire is back. Forest fires have been raging all summer in the Rocky Mountains just sixty miles beyond Great Falls, Montana, the boring frontier to which Jerry Brinson, a thirty-nine-year-old golf pro, has transported his wife Jean, thirty-seven, and son Joe, sixteen, from Lewiston, Idaho, with the false hope of somehow cashing in on the Gypsy Basin oil boom. Imagining that “small people like him” were making money in Montana, he wanted “a piece of that good luck” (reminiscent of The Ultimate Good Luck, the title of Ford's second novel) “before all of it collapsed and was gone in the wind.”
But Jerry—a handsome, smiling man with delicate hands and a short fluid swing—though “innocent and honest” in the eyes of his son, is neither successful, lucky, nor strong; he is fired from the golf club for stealing, cleans out the cash register on his way out, then impulsively leaves his family for three days to join the army of men—many of them vagrants—fighting the forest fires on the distant mountainsides.
Jerry is barely out the door when Jean, who begins to sip whiskey with new regularity, brings home the hulking Warren Miller, a businessman in his late fifties whose wife has left him. He's all the things Joe's father is not: unathletic—he limps, a Dartmouth man, a thirty-third-degree Mason, a successful entrepreneur who flies his own plane. Things “happen around him,” the mother says.
We witness the family's apparent incremental disintegration through the eyes of young Joe, who, thirty years later, seems to recall every whisper heard through the walls, every toilet flush, and the smells of tobacco, cold ashes, and hair oil, as vividly as if it had all happened the night before. He is a credible and disarming witness for us, a scrupulously honest, soft-spoken, lonesome adolescent who quietly adores his weak father and longs for him to return, but somehow both loves and tolerates his mother as she unwinds.
Though Wildlife could well have been called Great Falls, evocative as it is of the Montana landscape where Ford, until recently, has made his home, the title is probably inspired by the occasionally mysterious birds and animals who appear as counterparts to principal characters.
Warren Miller tells Joe that he once opened the window of his plane to listen to the honking of a flock of geese who flew alongside. The night Joe's mother carries on with Warren Miller and Joe is afraid that their lives are now “out of all control and out of all sense,” he spies a magpie in his “white with frost and moonlight” yard which flies into the light of his flashlight and leaves him with his heart pounding. And his father reports that while fighting the fire he saw a live bear, which had climbed a hemlock tree, catch fire—a startling image that foreshadows Wildlife's odd dénouement.
If Wildlife has a problem, it's in the ending. Ford's first two novels wind up in violence; the third, The Sportswriter, with the suicide of a secondary character and its thirty-eight-year-old, divorced narrator dallying with a college girl. Wildlife, filtered through the recollection of a sixteen-year-old's perceptions, with its glimpses of guns, its mounting tension, and its intensified picture of Miller as an ominous, lurking, destructive creature, prepares us for a final conflagration.
What Richard Ford delivers is both less dramatic and more true than what he has cleverly led us to expect. His morality—insofar as a novelist can indirectly propose a moral system—is one of self and mutual acceptance, of living with sin, but not denying the true meaning of the word. Ford's mid-America is a nation of fractured families trying to deal with fires—whose loves and lesser bonds are all flaming relationships which, like the prairie and forest fires, “smoke and smolder on for a long time … hard to put out.” Relationships in which both the potential firefighter and potential arsonist dwell equally in us all.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647
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, is meant to be lyrical in every line, and succeeds only in defeating what is perhaps a doomed intention.
Ford, whose earlier novels have earned him a comparison with Hemingway—unfair, because Ford is the better writer—tells the simple story of a three-day episode in the lives of a man and woman as observed from their 16-year-old son's point of view. Ford's themes are the preoccupations of the boy: his love for his parents, loneliness and a desire for knowledge.
The father is a middle-class drifter of considerable charm: a golfing pro with an elegant swing, beautiful hands and an appealing stoicism. The mother, following from one rented house to the next, working as a bookkeeper and living in godforsaken towns that time and money have passed by, lacks her husband's optimism. College educated, she sees how things are. Against the stereotypes of place and time—Montana in 1960—she also says how things are. As a result, the son is faced with two contradictory views of the world which he would prefer to be resolved into one. He needs to believe that his parents' marriage, their love for one another, and his for them, can work the conjuring trick of healing the rift between optimism and reality.
The story takes place against the background of a terrible forest fire which, as with all the other elements of this mature novel, Ford never obviously elevates to the status of symbol. The fire burns, destroying life around it, and becomes the focus of hundreds of desperate lives. Unemployed Indians and men down on their luck go off in cattle trucks to fight the fire, living in rough camps on its shifting perimeter. Women, hungry for adventure, are drawn to the camp and to the exhilaration the fire incites in the men.
In the space of three days the husband loses his job, having been accused, rightly or wrongly, of a theft from the golf club. The son realises that his parents do not sleep together. The father goes away to fight the fire. The mother finds an apartment in town and takes a lover in the form of a gross businessman, and their activities are partly witnessed by the son.
What is satisfying in Wildlife is its density. This is proper storytelling, lean and taut. And it is real, grown-up life. Ford captures perfectly the loneliness that can only be had in families.
Seth Morgan's Homeboy, a first novel by a man whose CV includes being Janis Joplin's “fiancé at the time of her death” and a convicted armed robber, has a different view of real life. His tortured saga of Californian streets attempts to make every sentence count, ensuring that very few do. The whole 390 pages goes by in a blur of vernacular meant to be an updating of beat: “She was jonesin' on that carnal metaphor for her soul: the Life—in a minor key, played on a G-string tourniquet.” Chicano whores are “tacotwats”, the men drive “beanmobiles”, the Chinese are “ricepropelled punks” and the whole palette of colours goes monochrome very quickly. If Morgan would stop using Rickie Lee Jones as a role model for novel writing and find an editor prepared to say boo to his flapping geese, his next novel might be one to read.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
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 16-year-old protagonist of Ford's new novel, Wildlife. “Something'll happen to make things seem different,” says his mother, Jeanette Brinson, attempting to console her son. In his short stories (Rock Springs) and longer fiction (A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck), Ford repeatedly offers such small consolations in the face of a chaotic universe. The idea of human powerlessness is central to the author's spare and eloquent new novel. Infused with sadness, the characters in Wildlife are ordinary Americans living unremarkable lives: a golf pro, a swimming teacher, a young boy. But Ford's themes are universal, and they resonate with a Spartan grandeur.
Against the backdrop of a forest fire burning out of control in the mountains near Great Falls, Mont., Ford has shaped a simple story of a teenage boy whose life comes apart when his father loses his job and his mother falls in love with another man. It is 1960, and Jerry Brinson, chasing the promise of prosperity offered by the western oil boom, has moved his wife and son from Idaho. But when he is fired from his job as a golf instructor, the father joins the men fighting the conflagration that threatens to burn through the fall and winter.
The forest fire that grew out of “mysterious causes” becomes a symbol for the relentless forces that shape the characters' lives. “We don't have any control over anything here now,” Joe's father reports in a telephone conversation. “We just watch everything burn.” In the same way, Joe watches helplessly as his mother becomes involved with Warren Miller, a wealthy older man. As she risks the flames of illicit love, Jeanette tells her son, “It's always just yourself and nothing else.” And her lover, Warren Miller, says, “Sometimes you have to do the wrong thing just to know you're alive.”
Joe's parents are in fact exhilarated by their exposure to the chaos of fire and love. But not their son. As Jerry and Jeanette leave behind the suffocating solace of their customary lives, Joe is plunged into confusion. “I wondered if there was some pattern or an order to things in your life,” he says. “Or was everything just happening all the time, in a whirl without anything to stop it or cause it.”
Critics have compared Ford's laconic prose to that of Ernest Hemingway. The similarities are striking. Like The Old Man and the Sea, Wildlife is less a novel than a long short story. But in contrast to Hemingway's classic parable, the characters in Ford's novel do not learn any lessons—even though they continually try to make sense of what is happening to them. And their tendency to formulate simple and startling insights seems at odds with their inability to control their lives.
At times, Ford flogs the forest-fire metaphor a little too energetically. Joe's father returns after three days in the mountains to find his wife poised to leave home. She asks him, “Will the fire ever go out?” And Jerry replies: “It'll smoke and smoulder on for a long time. It's hard to put out.”
In the end, nothing is really resolved, and the Brinsons continue to flail blindly. Frustrated and distressed, Jerry decides to take out his anger against Miller. He pours gasoline on the front porch of his rival's house and sets it on fire, but the flames sputter out without doing much damage. Miller and Jeanette end their brief love affair and, after a period of dislocation, the Brinsons settle back into a tenuous stability.
No longer an innocent, Joe comes to accept his bewilderment about his parents' lives. “God knows,” he reflects in the book's last sentence, “there is still much to it that I myself, their only son, cannot fully claim to understand.” More than anything, Wildlife is about coming to terms with a universe where there are no absolutes. Charged with poignancy and pain, it is Richard Ford at his finest.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4976
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
Richard Ford is onto something. In his third novel, The Sportswriter, he has created a new character in the American literary landscape: a happy man. Frank Bascombe may not seem to fit the mold for what is often considered happiness. He is, after all, a man of losses, a man with a long list of titles beginning with “ex”—ex-fiction writer, ex-husband, ex-lover, ex-professor, ex-father to his oldest son, Ralph. Frank's losses could embitter him, for loss and happiness are terms not commonly conjoined. Nevertheless, Ford's deft portraiture avoids bitterness and irony. Bruce Weber, writing for The New York Times Magazine, noted that
The Sportswriter surprised many critics with its overarching lack of irony. In the narrator's commodious acceptance of the world's unexpected turns, it was a departure from the alienated, often nihilistic spirit that has pervaded much of America's fiction in this decade.1
Ford's characterization of Frank asks for some apposition of happiness and loss. The terms are not mutually exclusive, but neither is their relation causal: loss does not cause happiness, and happiness does not prepare one for loss. Ford does unite the terms, however, not only by means of his unironic tone and lambent style,2 but through the first-person narrative.
Frank is the teller of his own tale. Although no longer a writer of fiction, he nevertheless narrates the events of his own life. This “double reflex” of the novel—a man who says he has given up fiction, yet who tells us, in a work of fiction, that he has given it up and who nevertheless recounts his story—points to the importance of telling for Ford.3 Ford sees writing as telling. In an essay written for Esquire in 1983, he relates his first encounters with the “Three Kings” of American literature: Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.4 Although his readings of all three eventually came to bear on his own writing, it was Faulkner who first awakened in him the power and efficacy of language. He came to see that
language somehow became paramount for its own sake. … When I read Absalom, Absalom! … everything came in to me. … Somehow the literal sense of all I did and didn't understand lay in the caress of those words—all of it, absolutely commensurate with life—suddenly seemed a pleasure, not a task. Before, I don't believe I'd known what made literature necessary. … In other words, the singular value of written words, and their benefit to lived life, had not been impressed on me. That is, until I read Absalom, Absalom!, which, among other things, sets out to testify by act to the efficacy of telling, and to recommend language for its powers of consolation against whatever's ailing you.5
In part, Frank's telling of his own tale makes possible his consolation, his unique reconciliation of loss and happiness. In other words, The Sportswriter, like Absalom, Absalom!, portrays the efficacy of language, and though language could not, in the end, console Quentin Compson (he couldn't tell the whole story), it does offer Frank a handle on “what's ailing him.” Frank's act of telling becomes a confession. It not only discloses and acknowledges the events of his life but also reconciles him to those events. Thus, unlike his counterpart in Faulkner's novel, Frank does not become a suicide. He becomes, instead, what Walker Percy might call an ex-suicide.6
For Percy, the ex-suicide is the person for whom “to be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be.”7 He continues:
Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. …
Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life …
Suddenly, you feel like a castaway on an island. You can't believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, sole survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk.8
The ex-suicide washes up on an island where he is able to see things for the first time. He contemplates the mystery of his existence. He is different from the “non-suicides,” his fellow islanders, who worry about the very things the passengers on the sunken ship had worried over. “Since [the ex-suicide] has the option of being dead,” Percy writes, “he has nothing to lose by being alive.”9
Although Ford himself prefers to see The Sportswriter as a “book about getting on,” reviewers have called Frank Bascombe a survivor.10 As such, he is a see-er. Like Percy's ex-suicide, he appreciates the mysteries of the everyday. By the time Frank tells us the essentials of his life—“My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter”11—that is, at the beginning of the novel, he is trying to get on despite two profound shipwrecks, Ralph's death and his divorce from X. These are two events of his life he would change if he could. Since he cannot, he simply tries to avoid regret and prevent ruin:
For your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined.
I believe I have done these two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin. And I am still here to tell about it.
Thus begins the telling of his tale and the efficacy of that telling.
One way Frank has avoided regret and ruin is by cultivating an appreciation for the everyday. Like the ex-suicide, he looks, perhaps for the first time, to the world around him for mystery. He tells us, “Stop searching. Face the earth where you can. Literally speaking, it's all you have to go on” (53). Or, at another place, he says: “If you seek a beautiful peninsula, look around you” (113). This attitude is evident in the opening scene of the novel, when Frank meets X at Ralph's gravesite on Good Friday. Since he doesn't “know how to mourn and neither does X” (11), he has brought with him a poem to read. “It is a poem,” he says, “about letting the everyday make you happy—insects, shadows, the color of a woman's hair” (19). He tells us that he believes quite strongly in the power of the everyday and tells X, who is skeptical, that he thinks “we're all released to the rest of our lives” (19). Is he not hinting at the freedom and dispensation of the ex-suicide?
This line of conversation fades, however, as do many in the novel, and Frank expresses his like for X's new hair, part of the everyday. She ends up telling him that he is “very adaptable” (21). Like the ex-suicide, then, Frank takes refuge in the simple things around him. He looks for mystery wherever he stands. I do not mean to imply that Frank is a shallow optimist; what he sees, really, is the ever-present possibility for choice,12 part of his adaptability: “Choices are what we all need,” he says (7). Since reading the poem over Ralph's grave does not seem to be helpful, Frank chooses to stop. He does not press the issue. In typical fashion, he tells us: “It is possible that reading a poem over a little boy who never cared about poems is not a good idea” (19). For Frank, possibilities abound.
Another reason Frank can be considered an ex-suicide rests in his relenting nature. As the word suggests, Frank yields—he becomes pliant or flexible—to the vicissitudes of life. As Weber put it in the passage cited earlier, he displays a “commodious acceptance of the world's unexpected turns.” He is about as far from Thomas Sutpen, Jay Gatsby, and Captain Ahab as a character can get. Frank does not try to subdue and steer his life; rather, he muses over its inviolable temporality. Things change, and the more he can adapt himself to change, the better is he able to get on. Frank tells us:
Things change in ways none of us can expect, no matter how damn much we know or how smart and good-intentioned each of us is or thinks he is. Who'd know that Ralph would die? Who'd know that certainty would grow rare as diamonds? … None of our lives is really ordinary; nothing humdrum in our delights or our disasters. Everything is as problematic as geometry when it's affairs of the heart in question. A life can simply change the way a day changes—sunny to rain, like the song says. But it can also change again.
Frank relents time and again to the delights and disasters of life. No doubt, much of his relenting comes from Ford's own view of life. Ford says he thinks people might think The Sportswriter is sad, but he sees it as sad only in the way everybody's life is sad at some point or another.13 Frank gets on because he relents to life's inherent sadness. He is wounded, but woundedness does not preclude happiness.
But Frank relents in other ways too, and, again, this relenting seems to be related to Ford's own views—this time, his views of reading and writing. I do not wish to suggest here that Frank is a simple organ, a convenient mouthpiece, for Ford's own literary theory, that Frank is really a veiled Ford, as Eugene Gant was a thinly veiled Thomas Wolfe. After all, Frank quit writing fiction; Ford still writes. Frank is divorced; Ford is married. Frank has children; Ford is childless. Nevertheless, it is Ford who gives Frank choices and possibilities. Ford says this about the relation between the writer and the characters he creates: “You have options. They don't have any options.”14 It is inevitable, then, that without being strictly autobiographical, both Frank and the novel itself exhibit much of Ford's own experience as a writer and reader.
In his essay about the “Three Kings” of American literature, Ford maintains that he finally had to relent in order to understand Faulkner. He says: “Although Faulkner could seem difficult, really he was not if you relented as I did.”15 As we have seen, the power of words, language for its own sake, is central to Ford's notion of telling. Here, Ford suggests the power of words for the reader. As the teller captures the efficacy of language, so the reader relents to its power. Telling and reading are really the opposite sides of the same coin—language. In Ford's view, the reader must surrender himself, give in, to the text. Reading to satisfy a system or to justify an abstraction is not real reading; it is antithetical to relenting. Relenting demands personal involvement on the part of the reader, not detached analysis.
Frank is a man who sees the world as a text to be read. Since he claims no system—no myth—to order his reading, he relents to the text of the world just as Ford relented to the text of Faulkner. Unlike Quentin Compson, Frank does not feel compelled to figure out the text, to get a firm grasp on it. He does not feel the “rage to explain,” for example, so characteristic of writers in the South.16 Rather, he luxuriates, when he can, in the wonder of the text itself. He can—and must—leave some things unread, unexplained, and incomprehensible. For Frank, this relenting to the text not only makes him an ex-suicide but also preserves the mystery inherent in the everyday, necessary for the ex-suicide to maintain his status as such.
Frank's relenting nature underlies his reasons for leaving Berkshire College. The college was full of unrelenting teachers. He tells us:
What finally sent me at a run out of town after dark and at the end of term … was that … the place was all anti-mystery types right to the core—men and women both—all expert in the arts of explaining, explicating and dissecting, and by these means promoting permanence. …
Real mystery—the very reason to read (and certainly write) any book—was to them a thing to dismantle, distill and mine out into rubble they could tyrannize into sorry but more permanent explanations.
For Frank, the teaching profession attempts to undermine the very nature of life itself. Since he sees life as a mysterious text to read, a text full of change, he cannot tolerate the closed readings his colleagues impart to literature. Frank sees their efforts to explain literature, which endures, as inevitably confusing literature with life and thus creating the illusion that life itself endures, is permanent. Teachers become unrelenting to the mysterious text that is the world. They dupe themselves into believing that they can leave nothing unread. Hence, Frank sees that his colleagues wish to live a life of perpetual youth with literature as their passport. In so doing, they depart from truth and deceive their students. The truth is, he tells us, “Some things can't be explained. They just are. … Literature's consolations are always temporary, while life is quick to begin again” (223). Life is forever a text which cannot be fully read, and to get on in life, one must finally relent.
Frank's relenting nature carries over into his relationships as well. If the world is a text to be read, then so, too, are the people who live in it. And people, like the world, cannot be fully read, cannot be fully explained. After Ralph's death, during Frank's worst days of dreaminess, a condition he defines as “a state of suspended recognition, and a response to too much useless and complicated factuality” (42)—a word Ford uses for alienation—Frank tells us he “must've slept with eighteen different women” (128). Feeling suspended from the world and from himself, Frank tried to reenter the world through those women. The unifying element of all those relationships was the attempt both Frank and his partners made at full self-disclosure. Full disclosure is something similar to giving a closed reading of a text. It is an attempt to explain everything about oneself, with the hope that such disclosure might, for a time at least, end the terrible suspension of dreaminess. Frank describes the encounters in general terms:
All at once I was longing with all my worth to be part of that life, longing to enter completely into that little existence of hers as a full (if brief) participant, share her secret illusions, hopes. “I love you,” I've heard myself say more than once to a Becky, Sharon, Susie or Marge I hadn't known longer than four hours and fifteen minutes! And being absolutely certain I did; and, to prove it, loosing a barrage of pryings, human-interest questions—demands, in other words, to know as many of the whys and whos and whats of her life as I could.
The problem with full disclosure, however, is that it reduces everything to facts—the antithesis of mystery. As Frank says, “What I was after was illusion complete and on a short-term, closed-end basis” (130). He was, he tells us, “trying to be within [himself] by being as nearly as possible within somebody else. … And it doesn't work” (130). Frank realizes he should have relented in his relationships. He should have let “the plain, elementary rapture a woman … could confer, no questions asked” please him (130). Full disclosure doesn't work because people, like life, cannot be fully analyzed, cannot be fully read. In Frank's view, to believe otherwise is to traffic in deception.17
By the time he meets Vicki Arcenault, then, Frank has learned much. His relationship with her is different because he has “relinquished a great deal. I've stopped worrying about being completely within someone else since you can't be anyway—a pleasant unquestioning mystery has been the result.” (132). But Frank has not learned his lesson thoroughly. During his trip to Detroit with Vicki, he reverts to a search for full disclosure. He goes through her purse while she is sleeping. In her wallet, he finds a picture of a man he thinks is her ex-husband, Everett. Vicki wakes up, and after a brief altercation she makes a oblique reference to her dead stepbrother, the actual man in the picture. Frank then realizes that he has misread the “text.” In his search for full disclosure he has not only got himself caught, but he has trapped himself into a misreading of the signs. His attempt at achieving full disclosure, his struggle to explicate the text, has made him strive for the very permanence for which he vilified his colleagues at Berkshire. He has created a deceptive structure, but he has only deceived himself. Frank does long for a permanent relationship, but not one based solely on analytic factuality. And though he feels ashamed for his self-delusion, he has nevertheless rediscovered the truth about the temporality of life, that “So much of life can't be foreseen” (139). He feels a “swirling dreaminess” return (139), a dreaminess that will abate only with relenting. As he tries to go to sleep, he tells us, “for a moment I find it is really quite easy and agreeable not to know what's next” (141). What is next is an abominable interview with Herb Wallagher, a spring snowstorm, and an early return to Haddam, where Frank finds Walter Luckett waiting for him. None of these events was expected.
Walter Luckett is, of course, what Frank Bascombe would be were Frank not the great relenter. Ford's bringing the two characters together points, among other things, to the difference between yielding and unyielding to texts—both of the self and the world. Walter cannot relent. He cannot come to terms, literally (his short-lived attempt at writing a novel manifests this point), with what has befallen him. Walter must know. He is shaken by his wife's leaving him, and he is compelled to understand his brief homosexual encounter. Like Quentin Compson, Walter embodies the “rage to explain.” During their midnight meeting, when Frank has just returned from Detroit, Walter says, “I don't know what you'd want to say about either of us,” referring to him and his male partner that night at the Americana Hotel (187). Walter has to say something. Frank's response is completely in keeping with his relenting nature: “Nothing might be enough” (187). In Frank's estimation there is not much to tell, just the “bedrock and provable facts” (188). There is no mystery to Walter's affair. Although Frank would rather not hear it, Walter nevertheless tells his story.
Because Walter's tale is steeped in factuality, he cannot really relent to the consoling power of language. Although his telling does console him in some measure—after the telling, he says, “I do feel better, thanks to you. … I feel like some new opportunity is just about to present itself” (193)—Walter has not relented completely. He still feels compelled to explain himself. In fact, he had planned to make himself the central character of the novel he began to write on Easter morning. Walter wanted to explicate his own life. In his suicide note to Frank he wrote:
It's a novel about me, with my own ideas and personal concepts and beliefs built into it. It's hard to think of your own life's themes. You'd think anyone could do it. But I'm finding it very, very hard. Pretty close to impossible.
In his zeal to tell about himself, Walter stumbled onto one of the fundamental mysteries of life—the relation between language and reality. Since he relents to neither, Walter finds himself without choices. As Frank explains to X: “Walter gave himself up to the here and now, but got stranded. Then I think he got excited, and all he knew how to do was sentimentalize his life, which made him regret everything” (334). In giving himself up to the “here and now,” Walter had finally come upon the mystery he so desperately needed. Instead of luxuriating or wondering at that mystery, however, he felt compelled to dismantle and explicate it—he had to attempt full disclosure. Unable to experience the mystery while at the same time telling about it—a tool “real” writers possess—Walter felt trapped. He saw that his telling would only destroy the mystery. Thus, he tells Frank, “I admire you all the more now for the work you've done” (349). In Frank's early days as a “real” writer, he was able to experience the mystery and tell it at the same time—that is, Frank was able to relent to both language and reality. When he was no longer able to relent to language, when he lost the consoling power of language, Frank opted for reality—for the everyday mysteries inherent in the world about him. He gave up the “rage to explain” so that he could still have choices—“it is no loss to mankind when one writer decides to call it a day” (47).18 Walter, of course, found himself with only one choice; he exited.
Although Frank and Walter did not really know one another well, Walter's suicide affects Frank more than he is willing to admit. Since death is the only real closure that the world provides, it remains for Frank a part of the text he would rather leave unread. It is too factual for him; there is not enough mystery about it. Hence, he tries to avoid it at all costs. After he hears of Walter's suicide, he proposes to Vicki just as she has realized that their “love” will not get them “all the way to death” (294). He calls up Selma Jassim, whom he has not seen for years, from a phone booth near “Ground Zero Burg” (300), an appropriate objective correlative for his state of mind. In a roundabout way, he even proposes to Selma. As they speak Frank is wounded by an errant grocery cart, and after their talk he is attended by Debra, a modern Samaritan. Although Debra consoles him with a root-beer float, Frank cannot, in the end, escape the task that has been set before him. He knows it will wound him; nevertheless, he must confront the empty fact of Walter's death.
When he returns to Haddam, Frank sees a new text to read. His once neutral suburbia is no longer “unprepossessing and unexpectant” (39) but is a lie of “Life-forever” (319); he sees it as trying to attain the permanence of a closed reading—unattached, aloof. But the cold fact of Walter's death has penetrated the lie. Frank says:
Death is not a compatible presence hereabouts, and everything is in connivance—forces municipal and private—to say it isn't so; it's only a misreading, a wrong rumor to be forgotten. … This is not the place to die and be noticed, though it isn't a bad place to live, all things considered.
The text of suburbia is a text designed to foster a misreading of life. It promises permanence, just as the explications of the Berkshire professors did, but, as we have seen, life is not permanent. Suburbia lies because it is inconsistent; it tries to provide closure while at the same time excluding the ultimate closure—death. Although death is an intruder in the suburbs, life can still be found there.
Of course, in his quest for mystery, Frank himself has tried to avoid the ultimate closure. Death and its cohort, grief, are far too factual for his mystery-laden world. They close off too many possibilities. Nevertheless, the fact of death remains, and Walter's suicide has reminded him not only of that factuality but of Ralph's death as well. Frank grieves doubly—once for Ralph and once for Walter. His grief thrusts him into the unwanted world of facts. On the train to New York, after he has finally read Walter's suicide note—the text, the permanent explication of death—Frank laments: “What I have is awful, mealy factual death, which once you start to think of it, won't go away and inhabits your life like a dead skunk under the porch” (351). As Frank sees it, death shuts off possibilities, especially the possibility to relent. Frank has been able to get on this far because he has yielded to whatever was before him. But he cannot relent to death. If he does, then it “won't go away.” The only real way to relent to death, Frank realizes, would be to die, and to die would be to destroy all mystery. Death must remain that part of the world, that part of the text, that remains unread. Besides, if he were to yield to death, Frank would have to abandon his status as an ex-suicide and become a suicide, like Walter. Frank prefers life. He puts his faith in its changeableness and mystery—not in death's permanence and factuality. He ventures to New York, the city of flux, and he is not disappointed. At the eleventh hour on the day of resurrection, life recovers him. Frank lives to confess his tale.
April 10, 1983, 59. Alice Hoffman, in her review of The Sportswriter (New York Times Book Review, March 23, 1986, 14), was one critic who found Ford's tone ironic. She writes: “Bascombe's estrangement is charted with unsettling irony.” Hoffman, as Weber notes, is in the minority. Robert Towers (New York Review of Books, April 24, 1986, 38) called Ford's tone “gentle and meditative,” and Rhoda Koenig (New York March 1986, 86) says the book “has none of the pomposity or self-pity that usually inhabits such stories.”
Rhoda Koenig characterized Ford's style as “lambent” … as clear and cold as early-morning light over the water” (86).
In an interview with Kay Bonetti (Missouri Review 10 : 71-96), when asked about the fact that The Sportswriter has an ex-fiction writer telling us his story, Ford responded, “Odd isn't it, how literature has that double reflex? I would have to be a fool not to be aware of it, but you start looking in those double reflecting mirrors and you can look forever” (87). Following Ford's warning, I choose not explore the double reflex. In that same interview, Ford says writing is telling (88).
“The Three Kings: Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald,” December 1983, 577-87.
“Three Kings,” 581. In the interview with Bonetti, Ford maintains that in saying literature is consoling, he does not “mean to say that literature is therapeutic. It can be consoling. It can say the thing not before said. But that's about all I really mean” (80).
I borrow this term from “The Depressed Self” in Percy's Lost in the Cosmos (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1983), p. 81. I shall quote from the Washington Square Press paperback edition.
Ford's comment is from Bonetti, 84; Towers, among others, has called Frank a survivor.
The Sportswriter (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1986) 3. Hereafter cited in the text by page number.
See Bonetti, 84.
“Three Kings,” 586.
I borrow this term from Fred Hobson's Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1983). Hobson uses Quentin Compson as the prototype of the southerner who possesses the “rage to explain.” Hobson also points to a correlation between the rage to explain and suicide (8).
Frank's views of relationships and life seem to derive, again, in part, from Ford's own. In a piece he wrote for Harper's (“My Mother, In Memory,” August 1987: 44-57) Ford tells us that after his father's death, his mother was “always … resigned somewhere down deep. I could never plumb her without coming to that stop point—a point where expectation simply ceased. This is not to say she was unhappy after enough time had passed. Or that she never laughed. Or that she didn't see life as life, didn't regain and rejoin herself. All those she did. Only, not utterly, not in a way a mother, any mother, could disguise to her only son who loved her. I always saw that. Always felt it. Always felt her—what?—discomfort at life? Her resisting it? Always wished she could relent more than she apparently could …” (my emphasis).
In the interview with Bonetti, Ford says this about Frank's decision to quit “real” writing: “To a literary audience, I think, for a writer to stop being a writer seems a kind of world-class defeat, and for him to say, ‘Well, it's no big deal’ is kind of ironic. Except that just isn't the way I mean it to be. I mean it to be all right. It mean it to be fine. Because he goes ahead and lives the happiest life he can live, full of mirth and tragedy and affection” (84).
Bonetti, Kay. “An Interview with Richard Ford.” Missouri Review 10 (1987): 71-96.
Ford, Richard. “My Mother, In Memory.” Harper's 275 (August 1987): 44-57.
———. The Sportswriter. New York: Random House/Vintage, 1986.
———. “The Three Kings: Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald.” Esquire 100 (December 1983): 577-87.
Hobson, Fred. Tell About the South: The Southern Rage to Explain. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1983.
Hoffman, Alice. “A Wife Named X, a Poodle Named Elvis.” New York Times Book Review 23 March 1986: 14.
Koenig, Rhoda. “The Sweet Shot.” New York 19 (March 1986): 86.
Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1983.
Towers, Robert. “Screams and Whispers.” New York Review of Books 24 April 1986: 3.
Weber, Bruce. “Richard Ford's Uncommon Characters.” The New York Times Magazine 10 April 1988: 50, 59, 63-65.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3683
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 for aesthetic pleasure. Most of us sometimes read, with the same active imaginative enjoyment, recipes or the bridge column—two short, short dramatic forms. Sometimes these short works are in a different or compressed language, like the Trout, or like the passage in front of me: “w. m. p.1, up 1 p.3 = k.6, p.6, rpt. from *,” which allows my mind to run along to the finished sleeve. Michael Herr's recent book Walter Winchell is, as he tells us in a preface, “unashamedly” a screenplay, that is, an abbreviation related to a film as the knitting instruction to the sleeve; while awaiting the realization, the mind can take pleasure in the short form, pregnant as it is with suggestion. The screenplay may even be the work at its best, perfection immanent, to be perfected by the reader's imagination.
Herr tells us in a preface that Walter Winchell began life as a screenplay that did not get produced, but he does not tell us why he was drawn to the subject. Walter Winchell began as a vaudeville performer and became a famous newspaper columnist and radio personality from the 1930s to the 1950s. Of the 140 million Americans living during Winchell's heyday, Herr says, 50 million, more than a third, read his daily newspaper column, and an even greater number listened to his weekly radio broadcast. Eventually he would also go on television, a medium to which his abrasive personality was entirely unsuited, and which contributed to his downfall. Like silent-screen actresses who went into the talkies, he didn't survive the transition.
Much of the reason for his allure on radio and in his column was that he could reveal things that he learned from his string of informants—that you were out with someone not your husband, or were drinking too much—things that in those earlier, shame-ridden days people wanted to conceal; and his power lay in his manipulation of facts. He was a blackmailer. He did not particularly care if what he said was true or not, and he could make you famous, or, because he also had political views and a fanatical streak, he might ruin you by saying you were a Nazi or a Commie, even if you weren't. It's a little hard now to get back into the frame of mind of a period when people, however hypocritically, set a high value on conformity, but it must have been the reflex of the days when we thought we were collectively good, and Herr, with dialogue and a few stage directions, wonderfully catches the blend of innocence and thuggishness of the period.
He tells the story of Winchell as if it were an allegorical treatment of the American national character. It is an inverted Horatio Alger tale of a poor kid, the child of Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, scorned in his chosen profession of stage comic, who gradually works into the gossip business, and by lively wisecracking, ruthlessness, and a network of dubious sources, makes himself into Winchell—morals cop and pundit, tyrannical and rich. Whereupon, perhaps like the country itself, he grows meaner as he grows older and disappointed in the works of his life. His wife drinks, his children hate him. He loses his grip and his power and finally his column, and at last takes his place meekly among senior citizens in Arizona.
His rise parallels events of American politics—the rise of the mobs and J. Edgar Hoover, FDR, and Hitler (“Of course I know who Adolf Hitler is! [He covers the mouthpiece and speaks to his secretary.] Dotty, who the hell is Adolf Hitler?”) With the German-American Bund and in the spotlight of the Hauptmann trial, Winchell himself rises, a self-appointed watchdog and whistle-blower.
A group calling itself Nazi Jews supports Hitler in Germany, and gives the Nazi salute at all their meetings. What's their slogan, “Down with us”?
Fritz Kuhn, who poses as a chemist for a motor magnate in Detroit, is Hitler's number-one secret agent in the United States, … secret until now, that is.
Jews and being Jewish are mentioned on nearly every page. We see him through the war and the McCarthy period, when he prospered by fingering people for Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover (off the air as well as on; items turn up in FBI files that must have come from Winchell), and there is a suggestion that these erstwhile companions eventually turn on him, the signal of his declining influence. The story is of an unpleasant, clever person who knew how to simulate most of the values and prejudices of his period. The character works on us by a kind of nostalgia of aversion, and his success tells us something about the country that cherished him.
The wisecracking style is Winchell's own. “My favorite couple,” he says. “His wrists are as loose as her morals.” Or when the Third PA (press agent) says, “That Walter's got a heart of gold.”
“Yeah,” Wolfie says, “Hard and yellow.”
Some of it is funny because we know what we know now: “J. Edgar Hoover, America's Top Cop, has been looking at a family-sized house in Georgetown. … A bride?”
In making a novel out of a screenplay, Herr has made a few concessions to formal novelistic conventions. A “real” screenplay is expressed more or less in the same form Herr uses in this passage:
Lindy's, late night. The PAs.
First PA (Reading from the column, in cruel imitation of Winchell): “The editor of this paper wants to know what it's like to be the daddy of a son. …”
Wolfie: “Sure, sure. …”
First PA: “Well, it feels just wonderful. … He has his father's blue eyes and his mother's sweet disposition. …”
“Thank God it isn't vicey-versy!” one of them says.
(Over this we see Walter and Walter Jr., an infant. Walter, like almost any Jewish father, picks the baby up and plants a fervent kiss on the tush.)
Most passages have been rewritten in a slightly different form, with paragraphs, quotation marks, and “he saids,” like a novel.
Driving, late at night, with Runyon.
“I just don't believe in biting the hand that feeds me,” Runyon is saying. “Hearst always wins. Always has, always will.”
“Why, that fat cold-blooded goy bastard. He's a bigger Hitler than Hitler.” He's becoming hysterical. “My fangs have been removed! Jesus Damon, … what if I lose my column! I'd be just another shtunk, just another loudmouth in a nightclub!” He's on the verge of tears.
Damon Runyon appears as perhaps Winchell's only friend. We also see Hedy Lamarr and Ernest Hemingway, and there are other names, like Ed Sullivan's, that still have resonance, but they are flat film characters; the book is essentially a monologue by Walter.
One finds oneself wondering what is true and what isn't, a question one rarely asks of film. In a film, the visual style, the music, or just sitting in the dark in the theater, signals fantasy, enjoying a “festival of affects,” in Roland Barthes's phrase. On the page, the question of truth insists more strongly. It's mildly interesting if Hemingway really wore no socks to the Stork Club, as Herr writes in one scene, but did J. Edgar Hoover really accept racing tips from Frank Costello? Congressman Rankin really did call Walter Winchell, on the floor of the US Congress, “a little slime-mongering kike.” But is it true, as Herr has Walter say, that “not one man stood up to object”? Since that is a startling charge to make, one somehow wants Herr to clarify whether or not this is just a Winchellism.
Is it fair to ask whether Walter Winchell would have been a good movie? It has many of the ingredients screenplays are supposed to have—there are the traditional three acts still required by such screenwriting manuals as Margaret Mehring's The Screenplay: A Blend of Film Form and Content. (Some manuals advocate a Shakespearean five, which also have the advantage of better accommodating commercials.) The three acts cover Winchell's rise, career, and fall. There's not much conflict, but the story has the inevitability of Renaissance tragedy. The main character's flaws (arrogance, cruelty) lead him to overreach and alienate his publishers, William Randolph Hearst and Cissie Patterson, setting the stage for his fall, and the story moves with a stately inevitability to its somewhat hastily arranged ending, as if when Herr discovered he had taken up too much of the allotted 120 pages to the diverting details of Winchell's career itself, he still couldn't bear to sacrifice all those good lines, and so had only fifteen pages to bring him low.
It is not hard to see why the work didn't get made into a film. Walter Winchell is the only character, and he is too unpleasant to spend one hundred minutes with; the tone is unchanging, and the portrayal of America as a country that loves a cruel, lowlife bigot is too negative to promise much at the box office. It lacks all staples of contemporary American film—there's no sex, no car chase, only an understated violence, and no flashy visual effects. In fact, there is little that is visual at all. Since words are its substance, it would make a good radio play, succeeding, appropriately enough, in Winchell's own medium.
Michael Herr tells us that although he thought of Walter Winchell as “more than a screenplay,” the studio execs thought of it as less than a screenplay. Herr says:
You could call it a screenplay that's typed like a novel, that reads like a novel but plays like a movie. Maybe it's a completely new form, or a wrinkle on an old form, or a mongrel. Maybe it's just a novel with a camera in it.
What does this mean? When we read it, do we follow the directions that are given for the camera to see and the actor to do? When Herr says, “a novel with a camera in it,” who is the camera? The words of the screenplay tell us that Walter
is terribly animated, charged with physical energy, as though this very activity has galvanized him. We realize that he is more truly alive doing this [working in his office] than at any other time.
Reading this, do we form a mental picture of Walter Winchell, and then imagine his slight smile turning to a savage glare? We don't ordinarily go to this trouble when reading. When the poem says “rose,” we don't see a rose, we just know a rose without bothering to picture it. What happened when we listened to the old radio plays?
The studio execs probably said the people wouldn't “identify” with Walter. Or does he seem hard and vulgar because we only observe him and never share his thoughts? The most disagreeable of characters inevitably gains a measure of sympathy when we are let in on his feelings: think of Beryl Bainbridge's Young Adolf. No matter how it is written, with “he saids” and “she saids,” as Herr has done, and with or without quotation marks, a screenplay can't go inside Walter's mind. When we read the following passage, we are asked simply to watch Walter's emotional response:
The change in Walter from amused forbearance to cold insane rage is instantaneous and dramatic. He pulls his hand back, bares his teeth and yells, “Get him out of here! Get him away! Don't you ever let him in here again!”
On the screen, we would see facial contortions, but would have no way of knowing that it is “cold, insane rage,” not just plain anger that the actor is expressing, unless actor or director can introduce some subtle distinction into the grimace or glare. The novelist can explain more intimately the thoughts or suffering of a character whose emotions must be symbolized on the screen by the tear or the grimace, or inferred from a groan.
Richard Ford's impressive new novella Wildlife (also published as a “novel”) avails itself of this power of fiction to tell, not just show. The subject is the mysteriousness of our parents and our first experiences of them as separate from us. It is a first-person narrative; the narrator's is a voice of someone in middle age looking back on what happened to him when he was sixteen and moves smoothly back and forth between the point of view of the uncomprehending youth and the more mature person who is writing later. The story is a simple one. In the days after his father loses his job as a golf pro at a country club, his parents seem to be under a strain. When his father goes off for a few days of forest-fire fighting, the mother has a fling with a local businessman, Warren Miller. The boy is awakened to an understanding of the separateness of his parents, to the mysteriousness of other people in general, and to the isolation of the self.
The first-person narrator can tell us directly what he was thinking or what his motives were:
“How old are you,” I asked because I realized I did not know how old she or my father was.
The truth was I wanted to know what she thought about my father leaving, and I hoped this would get around to that subject. Though it didn't, and I didn't know how to make it.
In works of about the same length, we are much closer to the boy than we are to Walter Winchell, and the novelist also has the power to investigate such abstractions as truth, thought, and hope.
In Richard Ford's story, the narrator's father learns that his wife has slept with Mr. Miller. After a couple of morose drinks, he sets fire to Mr. Miller's front porch. We know Miller has a gun in his bedside table: What will he do? There is much to admire in Ford's poignant realism and his restraint in ignoring the Chekhovian dictum that the gun in the first act must go off by the last. All that happens is that the father's boots catch fire, and Mr. Miller calls the fire department.
In this wonderful scene, Ford's technique is not so far from Herr's. Because of the naiveté of the narrator, who sees many things he apparently doesn't understand, he is content simply to recount them, the way a camera does. Novelists have availed themselves of this cinematic technique since Robbe-Grillet (since Dickens, in fact), and it often seems exactly right to render the opacity of modern life. As in a film, the scene is rendered in considerable visual detail, and the dialogue, cinematically brief, is still enough to make us feel the powerlessness of people to express their emotions, and the inadequacy of events to dramatize them. The symbols are cinematic too—the fire and the raging of the mild father's heart, the extinguishing of the fire for the relative indifference of Warren Miller, who despite being old and having a gimpy leg has plenty of other girlfriends, the bewilderment of the narrator as he puts out the flames in his father's boots. One can hardly overpraise the quietly assured, balanced tone, its perfect appropriateness to the subject, the tact and taste with which the author eschews any temptation to violent, flashy (filmic) denouement. (In a film, one fears, Mr. Miller would go get the gun, and the flames would engulf the house.)
Wildlife and Walter Winchell may both be too well written to be films. The existence of the old debate about who is more important, the writer or director, implies some sort of controversy about whether dialogue or image is more important to a film. Margaret Mehring (“Director, Filmic Writing Program, School of Cinema-Television, University of Southern California”) in her manual for screenwriters seems to accept that writers will no longer be ruled by words, and in fact she begins by recommending that the writer cut a hole in a piece of paper the size of a film frame, and learn to see the world through it. Up to a point, she has a point. Walter Winchell the “novel” relies on dialogue almost the way Winchell the radio figure did. We'd just as soon hear it as see it. But dialogue, in a film, is in one sense the easiest of the writer's tasks. Though it usually could be better (and how one longs for the old wordy movies, with articulate characters and witty remarks), even brilliant dialogue in a film is not enough. The highest-priced screenplay in film history (Basic Instinct by Joe Eszterhas, for which ＄3 million is said to have been paid) has dialogue of an almost mannered banality:
Ms. Trammell, we'd like you to come downtown and answer some questions for us. / She looks at him a beat, smiles.
Are you arresting me?
If that's the way you want to play it. / They look at each other a beat.
(smiles) Can I change into something more appropriate? It'll just take a minute.
Mr. Eszterhas has exacted his huge fee for the invention and arrangement of a series of episodes.
Gore Vidal has written about the days when films were the work of talented writers, before these were supplanted by directors “not interested in philosophy or history or literature [who] want only to acquire for the cinema the prestige of ancient forms without having first to crack, as it were, the code.” He goes on to comment about contemporary film that
violence seems rooted in a notion about what ought to happen next on the screen to help the images move rather than in any human situation anterior to those images. In fact, the human situation has been eliminated not through any intentional philosophic design but because those who have spent too much time with cameras and machines seldom have much apprehension of that living world without whose presence there is no art.1
Margaret Mehring in The Screenplay does not give future moviegoers much reason to hope for the influence of the living world, insofar as Western culture can be said to transmit a sense of it, though she does admonish the student to read Aristotle, to learn dramaturgy,
the basis for understanding all structures of storytelling. Then, if you wish, it can become a structure to consciously deviate from as you create your own “principles.” Like painters learn basic methods of drawing and pianists learn scales and chords, writers learn classical—Aristotelian—dramatic structure [sic].
It is interesting that among the books the USC cinema students are advised to read there are books by Jung, Karen Horney, Ruth Benedict, Suzanne Langer, Marshall McLuhan, even Klee. It is the syllabus for Psych-1, but there is not a single work of fiction or poetry, which would bear out Mr. Vidal's point about the absence of general culture in films.
From time to time, someone proposes to bring out a series of unrealized screenplays. A lot of writers would be in favor of it. I know in my drawer are a version of a novel of my own, with an entirely different ending; a rewrite of Grand Hotel, done with Mike Nichols, envisaging Dolly Parton in the Garbo role; a drama about a Mormon martyr, written with Volker Schlöndorff; and a movie about Dashiel Hammett and Lillian Hellman, never made, for Sydney Pollack, who at the time got the much better idea of making Tootsie. I know that Leonard Michaels has a salsa version of Orpheus, to be set in Cesar's Latin Palace, and one hears of other tantalizing works in other people's desks. Every unperformed screenplay has a saga of disappointment, so it's nice to think that these and countless other unrealizable screenplays, awkward works stuck between the word and the image, could have respectable new life between hard covers as members of a new genre, an audience-participation form in which the screenplay reader, like the director or studio exec who reads it, will be at liberty to supply the images that a more fully “written” work would control. It would leave people with the version they can make up in their own heads, where the image can't spoil it (the way a child's pleasure in a favorite book can be spoiled by a photo on the cover of Ronald Colman pretending to be Beau Geste or Shirley Temple as Sara Crewe).
One noticeable development in contemporary fiction is certainly its mutation into a quasi-visual form, purged of interior monologue and authorial incursion. Among the recent striking changes in the evolution of literary forms is the rise in popularity of the minimalist story that takes fifteen minutes to read, is mannered and descriptive, and rarely “psychological,” except as psychology can be inferred from action. Is the screenplay a form the modern reader has learned to read, the way he has learned to listen to twelve-tone music or look at abstract painting?
The filmic story and the screenplay novel—these are the logical end of the venerable dictum “show, don't tell,” that most misunderstood of creative writing class axioms. There is a kind of impatience with exposition and reflection that on the face of it would seem to contradict the preoccupation of many people with the uncovering of their inner lives. It may all reflect the pace of modern life, the attention span of modern readers, a new internal rhythm based on the television segment, or perhaps the economics of periodical publication. Whatever the explanation, people often seem to prefer the undemanding image to the demanding confidence.
“Who Makes the Movies?” The New York Review, November 25, 1976.
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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 anthologies fall into the hands of academics with eyes on the course-adoption market.
Born in 1944, Richard Ford, the author of four novels and a powerful volume of stories, Rock Springs (1987), is one of the most impressive writers of his generation. The Granta Book of the American Short Story, his large, conscientious selection of American short stories since the Second World War is a significant event, introducing a whole range of recent writers to a British audience. Though by no means comprehensive, the book shows a high standard of literary judgment and contains many superb pieces of writing.
Since Ford and his publisher warn us that this is a personal selection—they even date it from 1944 rather than the more conventional 1945, as if the editor's reading life had begun at birth—it is tempting to look first at what the anthology plays down or leaves out. Had such a book been edited in 1960, it might have featured Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers, New Yorker stories, and the new Jewish stars like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. Every story would have told a real story, with a premium on Jamesian craft and form.
The same book, brought together in 1975, would have looked entirely different. The stories would have been called “fictions”, with an emphasis on the kind of non-linear anti-story that took off with Donald Barthelme in the early 1960s. But the book would also have included a good deal of new Afro-American writing, as well as ribald, formless-seeming black humour, written under the sign of Céline, Henry Miller and Nathanael West. Fifteen years later, in 1990, the same volume, edited by the typical college professor, would have changed just as dramatically; in line with the new curricular trends and the taste of the younger critics, the contents would be “multicultural”, with the stress on black, Hispanic, and Native American authors, on women, and on homosexual writers.
Richard Ford's collection is ecumenical enough to include at least one or two examples of most of the above. It reprints anthology chestnuts that might have appeared in any one of these imaginary volumes, such as Shirley Jackson's mechanical little horror story, “The Lottery”, Flannery O'Connor's brilliantly wicked “Good Country People”, James Baldwin's surprisingly benign ghetto tale, “Sonny's Blues”, and Malamud's wondrous fable, “The Magic Barrel”. But the main thrust of Ford's anthology provides a strikingly different reading of the recent American fiction from the multi-cultural or sexual-political one.
For Ford, it is clear, the mandarin fiction of the 1940s and 50s is quite dead, and the black humour and metafiction of the 1960s look dated. They are not much more than a ghostly presence in this volume. But they've been replaced, not by hyphenated writers, women writers, or gay writers, but by a chastened return to traditional story-telling—by flat, foreshortened, or uninflected versions of the old realism. The writer whose spirit presides over the second half of the book is Ford's friend, the late Raymond Carver, whose first collection of stories came out in 1976 (the same year Ford's first novel appeared).
In his shrewd but curiously defensive introduction, Ford dismisses all such social and critical categories as “just needless envelopes for life and literature”. Admitting the “grouchy traditionalism” of his own taste in fiction, he insists that he chooses stories only because they are absolutely good, because they surprise him or because of the quality of their writing. “I've always liked stories that make proportionately ample rather than slender use of language”, he writes. But, in fact, nearly everything in the book flows from his affinity for Carver's downbeat blue-collar realism, with its grimly ordinary settings, its oblique, heartbreaking epiphanies and careful avoidance of “fine” writing, exposition, emotional analysis and overt drama.
Carver was a modest man but an outstanding short-story writer: for him less was more. His prose reminds us at different times of Hemingway, Kafka and Chekhov, while remaining very much his own. Unlike some of his followers, he was no minimalist. However, his range was too narrow to offer a standard for contemporary writing. Thanks to the Carver-like aesthetic that suffuses this volume, Ford leaves out mandarin stylists like Nabokov, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer and Cynthia Ozick, unassiminable individuals like Bellow, Philip Roth, J. F. Powers, and I. B. Singer, metafictionists like John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, and a sizeable band of black and women writers whose absence gives the book its strongly masculine and middle-American cast.
As if to cover his flank, Ford puts in a few quite different stories by ethnic women, such as Amy Tan, Gayl Jones and Jamaica Kincaid. He could have done with more of them, not for political reasons but because of the vitality and variety they bring. A third of Ford's forty-one writers are women, but several (including Jayne Anne Phillips, Mary Robison, and Joy Williams) are minimalists whose truncated fictions make little impact here.
The Carver element in Ford's sensibility is reflected in the significant place he gives here to Southern writing; not only Welty, O'Connor and Robert Penn Warren, but more recent fiction by Peter Taylor and Barry Hannah. (Ford himself was born in Mississippi.) Unlike his Southern colleagues, there is nothing at all Faulknerian about Taylor. His characters belong to the educated middle class, and his style is elegant, discursive and conversational. Set in the 1930s, Taylor's “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time” is an evocative memory fable, almost Wordsworthian, a coming-of-age story in which the narrator recalls the old rituals and social oddities in a small, forgotten corner of Tennessee before the war. But what makes the story remarkable is the sound of Taylor's voice over some twenty-six pages, distancing us with its gracious formality yet spinning a slight yarn that sounds strangely intimate.
A fastidious writer like Taylor might seem remote from the American vernacular tradition that links Carver's works to writers as different as Mark Twain, Ring Lardner, Hemingway and J. D. Salinger. But first-person stories, written to be read aloud—a tradition with strong Southern roots—make up the spine of this collection. Ford praises Frank O'Connor's study of the short story, The Lonely Voice (1962), though he doesn't cite his remark about his own difficulties: “Generations of skilful stylists from Chekhov to Katherine Mansfield and James Joyce had so fashioned the short story that it no longer rang with the tone of a man's voice speaking.” O'Connor pays tribute to Russian and American storytellers for holding art at bay and keeping up the oral and physical density of short fiction. The “lonely voice”, of course, is just what we hear in Carver and Ford's own stories, and it accounts for many of the strongest pieces here. J. D. Salinger would not permit the reprinting of “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” (a story nearly all dialogue), but Ford includes Jean Stafford's Dickensian “In the Zoo”; James Alan McPherson's gifted impersonation of a black railway waiter, “A Solo Song: For Doc”; T. Coraghessan Boyle's raucous memory of adolescence, “Greasy Lake”, Max Apple's delicate, Chekhovian “Bridging”; Leonard Michaels's knotty, surreal “City Boy”; Barry Hannah's explosively vivid “Testimony of Pilot”; Stanley Elkin's raw, pugnacious “A Poetics for Bullies”; William Kotzwinkle's put-on of a punk monologue, “Fugue in A Minor”; and Amy Tan's touching recapitulation of her mother's life and stories in “The Joy Luck Club”.
Like “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time”, these are first-person stories about coping or growing up, all strongly oral, even musical in their prose rhythms. Some begin as if shot out of a cannon. Here is Elkin's speaker:
I'm Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants—and cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.
There's a vocal suppleness even in the book's best piece of metafiction, Donald Barthelme's “The Indian Uprising”, a litany of purely verbal effects and mock-melodramatic story fragments. Here words become like rounded physical presences. “Other people”, one character remarks, “run to conceits of wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word.” In Barthelme's healing fantasy, “strings of language extend in every direction to bind the world into a rushing, ribald whole”.
The same technique of litany shapes what is perhaps the best story in the book, Tim O'Brien's meditation on the Vietnam war. “The Things They Carried”, a profoundly original set of riffs and variations on the title phrase. Ford's emphasis on voice, on demotic language and emphatic or syncopated rhythm, also accounts for some less fortunate choices, including the offbeat, whimsical stories by Grace Paley and John Cheever that don't show these writers at their best. And it helps to explain some of Ford's exclusions. For all his mistrust of ethnic categories, his choice of Elkin, Apple, Paley and Michaels over Bellow, Roth, or Ozick is surely a revisionist view of Jewish-American writing. The same is true of the space and prominence he gives to Peter Taylor and Barry Hannah as Southerners or McPherson and Gayl Jones as black writers. Their stories feel spoken rather than written, casual and conversational instead of literary.
These are choices consistent with Ford's own practice as a writer, stressing a fiction of voice and recollection, over a fiction of ideas, descriptive atmosphere, social narration or dramatic encounter. The Granta Book of the American Short Story, full of expressive writing, testifies to the current strength of this kind of reduced but obliquely suggestive neo-realism. But there is also much that the book puts aside, from previous decades and from the cultural ferment of the present.
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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 wrong with it—perfection, of however narrow a kind, being attainable in the shorter form that is inconceivable in the long. It was probably this that William Faulkner had in mind when he said he turned to writing novels because poetry was too hard and short stories only slightly easier.
Faulkner's positioning of the short story seems relevant to more than the degree of difficulty involved. The best short fiction presents us with a distillation of internal experience in something of the way that poetry does; less allusive, more grounded in the details of individual lives, it nevertheless tends to center on an epiphany, a moment of intense illumination, that is recognizably poetic in nature.
Perhaps because of its quasi-kinship with poetry, through much of its history the short story has tended to attract a certain kind of temperament—melancholy, lyrical, elegiac. Among those who have done their best work in the form, one thinks of Chekhov in Russia and Katherine Mansfield in England; or, in this country, of F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Cheever. Even for “heavier” writers, whose fame rests largely on their novels, working in the shorter form often seems to heighten their virtues without allowing scope for their faults; if Henry James is a perfect example, so too is his literary opposite, Ernest Hemingway.
But none of these observations may be pertinent to the short story as it is conceived of now. Since the late 60's, there has been a much-vaunted renaissance of the form, in America in particular; indeed, certain critics have theorized—not always disapprovingly—that the short story is ideally suited to a generation weaned on television, and therefore unlikely to have a long attention span. A new breed of “minimalist” story has emerged: flat, laconic, often littered with brand names and descriptions of junk food, it is said to reflect the lack of inwardness, the obsessive consumerism, of the contemporary world. The characters in such fiction, though rarely happy, never suffer very passionately, since passion of course requires inwardness. Instead of wild sorrow or grief or even melancholy, they seem doomed to chronic low-grade depression, a life of permanent Excedrin headaches.
While the minimalist story has gained prominence, there has also been a shift in academic attitudes toward the stories of the past. New critical approaches, most of them more or less sociopolitical in orientation, have redirected attention to stories as critiques of society in a way that used rarely to be the case. The idea of the well-crafted, shapely story; the poetic story; the highly charged story of personal revelation has fallen out of favor in the classroom. Suddenly, these rather fragile artifacts are expected to bear some quite heavy freight.
Now we have two new anthologies of American short stories [The Oxford Book of American Short Stories and The Granta Book of the American Short Story], both of which, although edited by accomplished practitioners of the form, wind up seeming less like reflections of their personal tastes than indicia of prevailing literary trends.1 Indeed, in the case of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, which covers 200 years of American short fiction, Joyce Carol Oates explicitly tells us that she made her selections on the basis of something other than mere individual preference, explaining in her introduction that she
thought it important to present outstanding titles by writers representing a broad spectrum of cultural traditions. … I have sought to include more women writers than commonly appear in such volumes … my emphasis is on storytelling … with a political and/or social theme.
So: a multiculturalist anthology of the American short story, steeped in political correctness. But at least Oates has found a number of stories that serve to vindicate her agenda; however much we may resist the rhetoric of victimology, there have indeed been ethnic writers who deserve a wider audience. Take, for example, Charles Chesnutt—“generally considered,” says Oates, “the first black writer to find a white readership in America.” In “The Sheriff's Children” (1899), Chesnutt writes about a small-town lawman in the post-Civil-War South confronting a desperate black prisoner who turns out to be his son by a former slave. The tormented emotions of both men are conveyed with such unsentimental precision and eloquence that we can only regret that Chesnutt's “literary career, by his own decision, was short-lived.” (One wishes Oates had told us what caused him to reach that decision.)
Similarly, Zora Neale Hurston's “Sweat” (1926), about a black washerwoman's suffering at the hands of her philandering husband, is as scrupulously observed, with the same lack of sentimentalism. And then there is Ralph Ellison's horrifying “Blood Royale,” which, in slightly altered form, became the first section of his novel, Invisible Man (1952), and which can still make one cringe in shame for the white race.
These stories remind us that, before anyone was preaching multiculturalism, we always knew that literature had the power to make vivid to us people we might never meet in life—whether a mad Russian civil servant or the child of a slave and her master; to personalize the “political and/or social” by making us feel and believe in one individual's suffering.
But too many stories Oates presumably chose for their socio-political themes or for the genetic composition of their authors fail to serve that function very effectively. “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1899) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ensconced by now in the feminist canon, might be described as a breathless 19th-century Diary of a Mad Housewife; the narrator's affected, portentous tone finally seems more irritating than stirring. “The Ghost in the Mill” (1872) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which even Oates admits is “quaint by contemporary standards, and hardly adult fare,” goes a long way toward refuting the claims for Stowe's place in the literary pantheon. Langston Hughes's “Red-Headed Baby” (1934) is lame and labored and totally predictable from the first page. Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's hokey “Old Woman Magoun” (1891) is pure soap opera.
In her introduction, Oates writes that another of her chief aims was to avoid standard anthology pieces; instead, she sought out
virtually unknown yet fascinating works by certain of our classic American writers … that, while reflecting these authors' characteristic styles, visions, and subjects, suggested other aspects of sensibility.
This sounds like an admirable idea, and such writers as Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O'Connor, Edith Wharton, and Henry James are indeed represented here by lesser-known stories that give the flavor of these authors' best work. But in the case of Herman Melville, for example, what we get instead of the much-anthologized but indestructibly wonderful “Bartleby the Scrivener” is a virtual tract about ruling-class smugness and the unfair treatment of women, while Fitzgerald's “An Alcoholic Case” (1937), a bleak and enervated portrait of a man drinking himself to death, seems totally uncharacteristic of his “style, vision, and subjects.” One can only imagine that Oates preferred it to his more fanciful writings because of the “seriousness” of its message. Since these stories give us but a dim sense of their authors' gifts, it is hard to imagine anyone unfamiliar with their other works rushing to seek them out on the basis of what he finds here.
It is when we arrive at the contemporary section, however, that the limitations of Oates's criteria become most evident. Consider the last seven authors included here: John Edgar Wideman, a black; the Calcutta-born Bharati Mukherjee; the Chinese-American Amy Tan; the part-Native-American Louise Erdrich; David Leavitt, who has made a career out of being a homosexual writer; Sandra Cisneros, a Mexican-American; and Pinckney Benedict, who might be designated a hillbilly writer—at least Oates is at some pains to tell us that he “was born and continues to live on his family's dairy farm north of Lewisburg, West Virginia.”
Except for Mukherjee's, none of these stories possesses any great literary interest, though Erdrich's and Tan's rise somewhat above the tedium of the others. Cisneros, described by Oates as having a “gift for the luminous image, the revelatory phrase,” seems barely literate. Here is one of her stories in its entirety:
“A HOUSE OF MY OWN”
Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after.
Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.
This sounds like nothing so much as the journal entry of a sensitive adolescent—the sort of thing an English teacher would be delighted to receive from an eighth-grader. But its solemn banalities, its awkward alliterations, its juvenile straining after poetic effect hardly warrant it a place beside Henry James.
It seems ironic that Cisneros is a graduate of the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. So, too, is Benedict, who writes in backwoods English:
Hunter's up on the porch, strippen away at a chunk of soft pine wood with his Kaybar knife, and I'm setten out in the yard to get away from the sound, chip chip chip like some damn squirrel.
Benedict also has a B.A. in English from Princeton (where Oates teaches), so his are not the naive outpourings of some diamond-in-the-rough yokel; this is highly self-conscious primitivism. In fact, one is tempted to conclude that self-consciousness is destroying ethnic writing today as it has destroyed many another literary movement in the past. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about blacks because they were the people she knew best; Cisneros and Benedict seem to be parading their deprived backgrounds to earn themselves a place among the righteous. There are better young ethnic writers than these—the black writer Edward P. Jones, for example—but, since they make no point of serving up victims, perhaps they do not serve Oates's purposes so well.
What seems most notably absent from this anthology—a lack that may be due not just to Oates's political stance but also to some temperamental distrust of a certain kind of artistry—are any truly elegant stories, those that afford what Vladimir Nabokov called
aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.
There is, for example, nothing here by Shirley Hazzard, by William Maxwell, or even by Truman Capote, who sometimes attained to that standard, too. With few exceptions—Cheever's lyrical riffs in “The Death of Justina” (1960) chief among them—the stories here are decidedly pedestrian, distinguished more by earnestness of intent than by any imaginative grace.
But if grace is in short supply in Oates's anthology, it is almost wholly absent (in the spiritual as well as the aesthetic sense) from The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford. Ford is one of the most accomplished practitioners of what has come to be called “dirty realism,” and Granta, the English magazine under whose aegis his anthology was put together, has been one of the leading showcases for this type of writing.
Dirty realism might be defined as the working-class arm of minimalism. While it deals with the same sort of impoverished experience, in the same sort of impoverished language, its characters tend to be not only alienated and depressed but desperately broke; often drunk or stoned, they are just as likely to be petty criminals as not. Yet whatever the limitations of this school, it has at least produced some better stories than middle-and upper-middle-class minimalism. Ford's own work, for example, is more compelling than the chronicles of affluent alienation fashioned by Ann Beattie or David Leavitt, both of whom he includes in this anthology while leaving himself out.
Unfortunately, the temperament that makes someone a better-than-average minimalist may not make him a better-than-average anthologist. In his introduction, Ford tells us that “the stories I've included are finally simply ones I like,” and there is no reason to doubt his word. All we can conclude as we read his selection of short stories from the past 50 years is that, perhaps more than he knows, his taste in literature has been shaped by his own involvement with a certain type of writing (or maybe it is the other way around). For despite his allusions in the introduction to Frank O'Connor, the author of some of the sweetest and funniest and wisest stories produced in this century, Ford seems strangely attracted to a certain kind of bleakness and flatness on the one hand and to emotional superficiality on the other.
This is most noticeable in his selections from writers of his own generation: among earlier writers his choices seem, at first, cheerfully eclectic, ranging from Shirley Jackson's middlebrow classic “The Lottery” (1948), to Bernard Malamud's powerful and poetic “The Magic Barrel” (1954), to a wonderfully rhapsodic early Harold Brodkey story, “The State of Grace” (1954). But it is striking how joyless, how finally inert, this collection is for most of its 700 pages—how underpopulated by vivid human beings (Brodkey's and Malamud's characters are exceptions, as are Jean Stafford's in “In the Zoo” , Stanley Elkin's in “A Poetics for Bullies” , and Flannery O'Connor's in “Good Country People” ); how short on intense emotion.
Instead, we get various elaborate mannerisms, hollow substitutes: in Cheever's “O City of Broken Dreams” (1948), about a family of innocent rubes among the sharks of New York—surely one of the worst things he ever wrote—an embarrassingly sentimental facetiousness; in James Baldwin's “Sonny's Blues” (1957; included also in Oates's anthology), a willed hysteria, a tendentious insistence on the heroism of a jazz musician's pain; in John Updike's “Here Come the Maples” (1976), uncharacteristic coyness. And in “playful” entries by the ham-fisted Kurt Vonnegut and the even more ham-fisted William Kotzwinkle, cutesy eccentricity.
Then we come to the minimalists themselves, in many of whose stories the characters seem hardly individuated at all, more like absences than presences, and emotional flatness takes over with a vengeance. Again, there are exceptions. The late Raymond Carver, who might be called the founding father of minimalism and is probably its best practitioner, manages in “Are These Actual Miles?” (1972; also Oates's choice among Carver's stories) to make us believe that more is going on inside his inarticulate character—a man whose wife is off sleeping with a used-car dealer in order to get the best price possible on their only remaining possession—than he tells us explicitly; at its best, Carver's laconic prose seems not so much flat as tense with unexpressed pain. And in “The Rich Brother” (1985), Tobias Wolff, whose work always exhibits a tenderness and humor that distinguish him from the run of dirty realists, beautifully evokes the involuntary love that a prosperous, down-to-earth businessman feels for his exasperating brother, a holier-than-thou hippie loser. In these stories, the epiphanies—for minimalist stories have epiphanies too, of however tenuous a kind—are genuinely earned.
But in the stories by Mary Robison, by Ann Beattie, by Richard Bausch, by David Leavitt, by Joy Williams, by Lorrie Moore, the emotional tone is simply numb rather than suggestive of banked-down feeling, and the epiphanies mere dull blips along our screen of vision. Then, too, the revelations experienced are predictably dismal: this depressed woman is going to leave her husband, that depressed woman is going to dump her unappetizing fiancé. In neither case do we quite understand why, but it is hard to care very much, either. The emptiness of these stories leaves one feeling not so much that modern life is unutterably dreary as that modern literature is unaccountably so. For all the ills of our society, the bloodlessness of such writing seems more a function of artistic and/or emotional laziness than of any profound insight into the alienation of American life.
In the same way, it seems intellectually lazy of Ford to have rounded up the usual fashionable suspects rather than casting his net a little wider; he could so easily have heightened the energy level and broadened the range of this collection by including, for example, an emotionally charged story like Charles Baxter's “Gryphon” (1985), or one of Kelly Cherry's lyrical, meditative fictions, or even something from Deborah Eisenberg's Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), in which highly modern states of mind take on some of the delicate permutations of old-fashioned feelings. Perhaps depression, at least in art, is doomed always to seem merely trivial. If it is impossible to summon up rage or grief or horror, a writer might be better off being simply cheerful.
Which brings us to a third recently published collection of American short stories [Writing Our Way Home]—this one limited to Jewish writers.2 Compared with Ford's in particular, this anthology exhibits a quite surprising emotional liveliness. Inevitably, there are some merely slight or tedious entries—including a minimalist story by Michael Chabon in which the protagonist achieves the revelation that no one ever finds the love of his dreams—but over half actually traffic in passionate human feeling.
Even those stories which touch on the Holocaust are never merely bleak. Cynthia Ozick's powerful, half-mystical “Bloodshed” (1976) rises to a kind of mad elation; Lore Segal's “The Reverse Bug” (1989), which also deserts straightforward realism in grappling with its theme, is too full of eloquent sorrow to be depressing; and Deirdre Levinson's “April 19th, 1985” (1991), in which a mother's moral exasperation with her “light-minded” children gives way to an experience of overwhelming love at a memorial gathering on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, is perhaps the most purely moving story in the book.
Indeed, depression is so much not the prevailing mood in Writing Our Way Home that it seems worth asking why that should be so. Of course, the preferences of the editors are largely responsible—clearly, they are not drawn to the literature of impoverishment—but what might be called the consolations of religion have something to do with it as well. The alienation of characters in minimalist fiction is often accounted for by the fact of their being inhabitants of an eternal present—adrift in the world with no sense of their roots, their history, a connection to their community. Indeed, it has been argued that whereas traditional fiction explored the interrelatedness of people in a stable society, now the social fabric has been rent permanently asunder, leaving no possible framework within which characters can play out their lives.
In many of the stories in Writing Our Way Home, such a framework is provided by religion—although it may be a matter less of religious belief per se than of religious identity, or attachment to the heritage of a tribe. In Max Apple's “The Eighth Day” (1983), for example, a thoroughly modern young man in love with a zealous advocate of therapy allows her to persuade him that he must reenact the trauma of his circumcision. When he and his Gentile girlfriend seek out the man who circumcised him—a sort of gloomy holy fool—the conversation that ensues may not make him go home and pray, but it does restore his peace of mind without benefit of therapy.
On a different note, the fussily self-important nonbeliever in Allegra Goodman's witty “Variant Text,”3 although he refuses any relationship with God, nevertheless scrupulously adheres to Jewish law and has a definite, belligerent relationship with every human being around him that is defined by his stance toward Judaism. And in Johanna Kaplan's Sickness,4 the young narrator's dreary life in the Bronx is lent a romantic splendor by her immersion in several millennia of Jewish history. Even in Philip Roth's richly imagined “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting” (1973)—in which we are given Franz Kafka as Roth might have known him if he had not died in 1924 but emigrated to New Jersey right before the Holocaust—Roth's love of Kafka, his sense of him as someone uncannily familiar, is very much grounded in the (secular) Jewishness they share.
It may seem unrealistic to propose that religion will be the savior of the short story (although one can imagine a similarly satisfying collection of Catholic and lapsed-Catholic stories). But it is heartening to be reminded that strong stories do continue to be written—and it is likewise heartening to contemplate the increasing disaffection with minimalism, which may now have run its course. Is it too much to hope that, barring the emergence of some new and even more trivial fashion, real diversity—not of gender and race, but of individual experience—may yet take over again in the short story, and that we will be treated to a variety of distinctive voices, rather than a generic drone?
The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Oxford University Press, 768 pp. The Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford. Granta Books/Viking Penguin, 710 pp.
Writing Our Way Home: Contemporary Stories by American Jewish Writers, edited by Ted Solotaroff and Nessa Rappoport, Schocken Books, 380 pp.
First published in Commentary, June 1986.
First published in Commentary, December 1968.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605
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 abundance.
But the most significant novel of the decade did not grapple with the dilemmas of the disaffected, overeducated, overindulged young, or with the lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-vindictive on Wall Street. Instead, it reminded one that beyond the artificial glitz of the Reaganomic boom was an entire suburban middle-class facing up to the gradual erosion of its tidy affable world.
More than any other novel of the era, Richard Ford's The Sportswriter caught—with elegiac brilliance—that search for some sort of tangible meaning within everyday life. And in Frank Bascombe—a one-time promising writer who retreated to the easier haven of sportswriting after the death of his son and the collapse of his marriage—Ford found the perfect 1980s suburban hero, searching for an accommodation with life despite its disappointments: “If sportswriting teaches you anything, and there is much truth to it as well as plenty of lies, it is that for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined. I believe I have done those two things. Faced down regret. Avoided ruin.”
Independence Day, Ford's remarkable new novel, is also set in the last decade—that summer of 1988 when Bush was spreading all that nasty rhetoric about Mike Dukakis, the effects of the stock-market crash were just beginning to be felt, and the middle-classes were about to discover the pain of major financial beleaguerment. Now, Bascombe is exposed to this economic angst. He has left sportswriting and entered the real estate game, selling houses in the same New Jersey town where he raised his family until things fell apart and the centre no longer held for him.
Indeed, his wife and children now live in Connecticut—she having embarked on a second (and, for all signs, less-than-successful) marriage, while his son Paul is exhibiting assorted signs of troubled adolescence, having been arrested for shoplifting a box of condoms from a convenience store and then assaulting a Vietnamese security guard. On the weekend of 4 July, Bascombe and his son set off for a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame—a journey that forces him to look even more acutely at the ruined church of his life.
Reading Independence Day, you're constantly struck by the rich, dense texture of Ford's narrative. No one writes better—and with more inventive brio—about the bland wasteland of US suburbia; that shopping-malled, sub-divisioned terrain that has rapidly become the true defining landscape of late 20th-century America. But Ford is also right on the money when it comes to capturing that most American of aspirations: the sad redemptive belief that “leading the good life” will bring its rewards. 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. Independence Day is, without question, a great American novel.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1040
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 Philadelphia, “the footfalls of a lone jogger”—are the bells of St Leo the Great in Haddam, the suburban/tourist town in New Jersey that is home to Frank Bascombe, Ford's narrator: “gong, gong, gong, gong, gong, gong, then a sweet admonitory matinal air by old Wesley himself: ‘Wake the day, ye who would be saved, wake the day let your souls be laved.’”
“Prayerful”, “fuguish”: these are not words it would have occurred to many people to use in connection with the novels and short stories of the “K-Mart” or “dirty realist” writers with whom Ford originally came to prominence, in the early 1980s. A sense of excited, personal discovery surrounded Ford's work in the years between 1981 and 1986. This was the period when the stories which were eventually published in Rock Springs (1987) were turning up in Granta and other magazines less easy to get hold of. Although they shared a subject with Tobias Wolff, Jayne Anne Phillips, Joy Williams and Ford's great friend Raymond Carver, among others—stalled, going-nowhere lives, numbed by drugs and drink, convulsed by acts of random violence—there was nothing “minimal” or “uninflected” about them. The writing had a visionary, transporting quality that suggested Scott Fitzgerald rather than Hemingway, “the great taker-out” as Ford once described him.
The small mysteries and epiphanies that can redeem commonplace experience was a subject Ford continued to explore in his third novel, The Sportswriter (1986), but that book confounded even those who were most familiar with his work on at least two counts. The setting—a leafy, “peril-free” dormitory suburb full of large “Tudor” houses and tennis-playing elderly couples was unexpected; and the syntax was unsettling—sentence after sentence containing words that hardly seemed to belong together, or familiar words that seemed to have been put down in the wrong order: “Nothing left of good to do”; “a big falsey-toothey smile opening onto her face”; “Our little ballpark has a lazy, melancholy carnival fruitiness afloat within it now.”
The Sportswriter begins on a Good Friday and ends on Easter Sunday, which has led in the years since its publication to the drawing of many biblical parallels. Not a great deal happens in the three days: Frank Bascombe, the sportswriter of the title, meets his ex-wife at the grave of their dead son; interviews a crippled athlete in Detroit; has lunch with his girlfriend's parents; snoops around the apartment of a friend who has committed suicide.
Independence Day, the sequel, takes place over another long holiday weekend and is, if anything, even leaner on incident. Five years on, Bascombe has given up sportswriting in favour of estate agenting and has moved into the house of his former wife. (She is X in The Sportswriter, Ann here.) He shows a number of properties to the Markhams, Joe and Phyllis, house-hunters from hell; visits a girlfriend; collects his fifteen-year-old son, Paul, from his mother; and embarks on a tour of sporting Halls of Fame.
“Anything really bad ever happen in this house, Frank?” Joe Markham asks Bascombe at one point. “Nothing I know about”, is the answer. “Somebody's bound to have died in some room here sometime. I just don't know who.” The Markhams' foreboding and creeping dread; the mid-life commitment of Bascombe, the “arch-ordinary American” to “persistence, common sense, resilience, good cheer”—the fragile webwork of the novel is spun between these twin tensions. The techniques Ford has to use to prevent the novel sagging and sundering are what makes it compelling.
When the Markhams are spooked by a house which backs on to a minimum security prison, they have their reasons: “Joe's eldest boy, Seamus, had already done time for armed robbery, toured three detoxes, and was learning-disabled; a girl, Dot, got married to a Hell's Commando at sixteen and hadn't been heard of for a long time.” Bascombe talks up the hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings, crown mouldings, chimney flashings. The Markhams worry only about finding somewhere that offers protection against the secret intrusion of terror.
“I feel like some bad feeling is sort of eating away at me on the edges”, Bascombe's step-brother tells him, and Bascombe himself is not immune. A telephone alcove in a hotel strikes him as being “an ideal place for a crank or ransom call”. He has been mugged with a Pepsi bottle three months earlier; a woman from his office has been raped and murdered; his son has been arrested for theft and assault; he happens on the scene of a motel murder.
This is America, in other words, as we are used to seeing it on television and in films. But, probably for these very reasons, it is not the America that Ford is interested in plundering. It is a place, in fact, from which Frank Bascombe is intent on turning his face.
Ford's achievement in Independence Day—and it is a considerable one—is to reclaim the strangeness of a country which he knows is at least as beguiling as it is wretched, and to rescue it from its worst own image. Amazingly, this late in the American century, he gives every impression of cruising through a territory nobody has laid claim to, nailing it with such a devouring—such an undeceived—eye that it begins to seem new again and in need of a writer of Ford's marvellous talents to explain and translate it. It needs a path cut through its potentially murderous complexities with what Ford is not embarrassed to call “a hungrified wonder”.
Edmund Wilson once praised Scott Fitzgerald's wonderfully clear judgment about Americans and American life—a judgment, Wilson said, “saturated with twentieth-century America”. Independence Day is a book written in that exalted tradition.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592
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 there is some chronological logic to his choice of hero: the dulled Frank Bascombe could well be what Huck Finn grew up to be after he was a Great Gatsby thirtysomething. The trouble for the reader is that Finn and Gatsby had adventures whereas Bascombe has only uncertainly, guilt and existential resignation.
Independence Day is the sequel to Ford's bestseller, The Sportswriter, and sees Bascombe now working as an estate agent deep in rich New England nowhere. This is a potentially excellent career for a literary character to choose, given the variety and emotion that profession must regularly encounter. Unfortunately, Independence Day is not the realty classic some of us may have been waiting for. This is partly because realty is so obviously meant (and even at one point in the novel stated) to be a metaphor for reality; and partly because there is not nearly enough real estate sold in the book. Bascombe is supposed to be quite good at his job, but in the course of 450 pages he only makes one deal. And that's a rental rather than a sale. Once the realty/reality metaphor has been established, the subject is almost entirely dropped for less interesting matters, like Divorce And How Not To Deal With It.
But the writing is very good, and at times funny. Bascombe's main love interest, for instance, is a fortyish woman called Sally whose first husband walked out of the house 20 years ago and never came back. When the luckless Bascombe is told by Sally that he is too elusive, he wonders where he is going wrong to be called elusive by a woman whose husband is yet to return from a 1975 shopping trip. Our ham-fisted Romeo is also full of bon mots for those who grimly view life as a vocational course in risk management and compromise. In relationships, for instance, you should work out whether you love someone by putting ‘don't’ before the verb and seeing whether that sounds right. If you're not sure, then you're in love.
But too much humility and honesty can start to jar in a novel. It is one thing for a book to explore the misery, blackness and agony of life, but to strip the complaint of all suspense and melodrama (unless you're being very funny) is to strip it of the things that make most readers turn pages. How great a novel can you write about insistently average people? Bascombe wonders at one point (as is his wont) whether, in the event of a sudden death, anyone would be bothered enough to think up an epitaph for him. Which is precisely the problem with this book: if it hadn't been written in the first place, nobody would have missed it. Richard Ford is a great novelist in the way Michael Schumacher would make a great pizza courier. He doesn't make many mistakes, but you just wonder whether he shouldn't be doing something more imaginative.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3733
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.
The same holds true for other forms of cultural storytelling, including movies, television shows, and pop music. And, of course, the “news” itself, which employs a wide variety of dramatic forms and techniques even as it strives to represent our world in a realistic, accurate way. All these stories deliver the news by giving voice and expression to our dreams and desires, our cares and concerns.
One of the most popular stories circulating today has to do with a variously described “death” of the American Dream, especially in its “middle-class” variation. All the key words of the pronouncement are fuzzy—What exactly is the American Dream? Just who qualifies as middle class?—but there is a palpable sense that we are living in a barren ruin of a country, a Hooverville from sea to shining sea. If we talk about the 1970s as manic-depressive, vacillating between interlaced extremes of personal gratification and national malaise, and the '80s as years of greed and go-getter optimism, the '90s are shaping up to be the decade of gloom and despair.
As we slouch toward the end of the American Century, the question on every storyteller's mind seems to be, to quote a multi-part series in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “America: Who Stole the Dream?” This sense of pilfered possibilities has a couple of particularly interesting characteristics. First, it represents a broad non-partisan consensus that includes young and old, rich and poor, liberals and conservatives. And it almost always interprets the American Dream in starkly economic terms (hence, CNN's recent shows on “downsizing the dream”).
So who stole the dream? The answer, at least from an economic perspective, is: no one. In fact, it's a trick question. As Newsweek's Robert J. Samuelson noted in a recent column, “Statistics implying lower living standards are contradicted by what people buy or own. Homeownership (65 percent of households) is near a record. In 1980, 11 percent of households owned a microwave oven, 37 percent a dishwasher and 56 percent a dryer; by 1993 those figures were 78 percent, 50 percent and 68 percent. People buy more because their incomes are higher. (Statistics understate incomes by overstating inflation's effect on ‘real’ wages and salaries.) As for anxiety, it exists—and always will. But America is not clinically depressed. The Gallup Poll reports that 66 percent of Americans expect their financial situation to improve in the next year.”
The portrait of the country on the verge of—or past the point of—an economic breakdown is an article of faith, not a pronouncement of fact. Virtually all relevant data, such as total compensation, income mobility, job tenure, median household net worth, inflation, unemployment, and educational opportunities, undermine the idea that we are living after the gold rush. As W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm wrote in Reason a year ago, “There are problems in these United States—no doubt about it—but the conclusion that we're not living as well as we once did is pure mythology. … Today's Americans aren't orphans of history. Far from it, they are experiencing what previous generations worked so hard to achieve—rising living standards.” (See “The Good Old Days Are Now,” December 1995.)
Ironically, then, something other than economic privation is driving the market in middle-class despair. As the same story gets pitched at us from the television and the movie screen, the newspaper and the novel, it becomes clearer that the sources for this tale include good old-fashioned nostalgia, selective focus on negative trends, and a profound misunderstanding of the market forces that helped make America a land of plenty in the first place.
Curiously, some purveyors of the death of the American Dream admit that things are not as nasty as they want them to be. Earlier this year, for instance, The New York Times ran a widely cited, hugely influential, and highly arguable series called “The Downsizing of America.” Even as the editors noted that the “series … concentrated on the people who lost jobs, not the many more who have gained jobs in a growing economy,” they acknowledged that the country's economic system had engendered prosperity and freedom for “almost everyone,” that the “United States … is the envy of other industrial democracies because of its recent success in creating jobs and subduing inflation.”
Still, it's clear that death, like sex, sells, and the sensibility that the American Dream has come a cropper is ubiquitous even—or perhaps especially—in works whose claim to our attention is their “realism.” Last year, for instance, Bruce Springsteen released The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album named for the protagonist of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath. (Not surprisingly, Steinbeck's cultural stock has risen of late. T. Coraghessan Boyle's recent novel of a maxed-out Los Angeles stripped of all glamour and most opportunities, The Tortilla Curtain, alludes to Steinbeck in its title and opens with an epigram from Grapes.) Tom Joad's title track describes “a new world order” filled with “men walkin' long railroad tracks … shelter line[s] stretchin' round the corner … families sleepin' in their cars … no home no job no peace no rest.”
In perhaps the album's best-known song, “Youngstown,” Springsteen assumes the voice of an Ohio factory worker who has seen his middle-class existence—and his children's future—end with the closing of steel and iron plants: “Sir you tell me the world's changed … Once I made you rich enough … rich enough to forget my name.”
Within months of The Ghost of Tom Joad's release, however, the National Association of Home Builders ranked the Youngstown metro area as the 13th most affordable housing market in the country, even as housing resale prices from 1992-1993 jumped by a higher-than-national-average 7.9 percent; the area was enjoying its lowest unemployment numbers in 15 years; and it squeaked into the Places Rated Almanac's top third of metro areas (114th out of 343) as a place to live. None of this suggests that Youngstown's streets are suddenly paved with gold—or even that it has kept pace with the generally enviable growth throughout the not-so-long-ago rusted-out Ohio economy. But it does suggest that something more complicated than unambiguous ruin is going on.
Tom Joad garnered Springsteen his best notices in years and was widely taken to reflect the plight of “average” Americans. “A state-of-the-union message that you shouldn't ignore,” wrote the Palm Beach Post in a typical review. “This land is your land, says Bruce Springsteen on his haunting new record. … Ripped from today's headlines, it's a powerful indictment of a lost nation that Springsteen believes is no longer made for you and me.”
The notion that these are Dust Bowl days has become a bedrock assumption needing no justification. Hence, The New Yorker, in a capsule summary of the recent Broadway production of Sam Shepard's 1978 play Buried Child, mentions almost offhandedly, “It takes place in the heartland, in the middle of the desiccated wasteland that America has become.” A similar mindset informs the recent art-house film The Low Life, whose very title signals dissolution and despair. The movie follows a trio of recent Yale graduates (!) who move to Los Angeles and find that, unlike generations past, the world is no longer their oyster—or even their fried clam strip. “Just arrived in Los Angeles,” writes the protagonist John to an uncle. “I'm going to try to be a writer. First will have to find a job. But, unlike a large portion of the newly arrived population, I will not fail.” The best John can do is find a series of what pass for demeaning temp jobs: first sorting credit card slips, later working for a second-generation slumlord.
In his positive review, Los Angeles Times movie critic Kevin Thomas was quick to supply the larger cultural backdrop: “In decades past, lots of us with college degrees started out in equally menial positions. But we had reason to be confident that opportunities would open up and that we would eventually move on. With The Low Life, director George Hickenlooper and his co-writer, John Enbom, introduce us to the harsh realities facing young people in today's world of lowered expectations.”
This sense of diminished expectations is all the stronger in Richard Ford's best-selling 1995 novel, Independence Day, which earlier this year became the first book to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction—together, an Establishment imprimatur on the death of the American Dream. Independence Day, a sequel to Ford's The Sportswriter (1986), is narrated by divorced realtor Frank Bascombe of the tony community of Haddam, New Jersey (widely recognized as Princeton). The novel chronicles Frank's thoughts and activities over the Fourth of July weekend in 1988. Far from commemorating the country's origins, however, this holiday celebrates the dearth of a nation. Although the novel takes place in the Northeast, the larger setting is an America increasingly beset with fear and loss, largely as a result of what Frank calls “the big gut check of last October”—the stock market crash of 1987.
Everywhere Frank looks, he sees signs the bubble has burst: “high-dollar franchises—places that never staged a sale—have … given way to second-echelon high-dollar places where sales are a way of life”; local stores clear out “under the cover of darkness, owing people money and merchandise”; even Japanese car dealerships go “belly-up.”
As a realtor, Frank is particularly attuned to plummeting real estate values—Haddam is a “town in the throes of a price decline.” This is a world summed up by the “Just Reduced” stickers slapped on the ever-present “For Sale” signs. Focusing only on signs of distress throughout the economy, Frank fails to note that falling prices may benefit those less well off. Indeed, one of the worst aspects of economic instability is the “different crowd of visitors” it brings to Haddam.
“In the early Eighties,” Frank notes, Haddam's “typical weekenders were suave New Yorkers—rich SoHo residents in bizarre get-ups and well-heeled East Siders come down to ‘the country’ for the day, having heard it was a quaint little village here, one worth seeing, still unspoiled, approximately the way Greenwich or New Canaan used to be fifty years ago, which was at least partly true, then.”
“Now those same people are either staying at home in their cement-and-burglar-barred pillboxes and getting into urban pioneering or whatever their checkbooks allow; or else they've sold out and gone back to KC or decided to make a new start in the Twin Cities or Portland, where life's slower (and cheaper).”
In their place is a decidedly more downscale set of folks with bad manners and thin wallets. These “less purposeful … humans … have more kids that're noisier, drive rattier cars with exterior parts missing and don't mind parking in handicap spaces or across a driveway or beside a fire hydrant as though they didn't have fire hydrants where they come from.” Rather than spending real money at pricier local restaurants and hotels, they “keep the yogurt franchise jumping and bang down truckloads of chocolate chip cookies.”
The first section of the novel revolves in large part around Frank's dealings with Joe and Phyllis Markham, middle-aged ex-flower children fleeing Vermont's “professional dropouts and trust-fund hippies.” They want access to “NYC markets” for Joe's pottery and good schools for their daughter. After wading into Haddam's housing market, however, the Markhams find themselves in a “dilemma” that Ford suggests is “the dilemma of many Americans”: “The whole country seems in a mess to me.” Phyllis confides to Frank at one point. “We really can't afford to live in Vermont, if you want to know the truth. But now we can't live down here either.”
Never mind that the infuriatingly clogged traffic on nearby Routes 1 and 27 hardly heralds the start of a new Okie exodus (even if it signals a downturn in local quality of life). Frank prowls the hungry streets of Haddam/Princeton and its environs, documenting the end of the American Dream in a part of the Garden State whose busts are stronger than most areas' booms. The same funereal vision infuses much of the politics, the media, and the popular culture—the psychic imagination of contemporary America.
It is worth pondering why this is so, especially since the death of the American Dream—certainly its economic underpinning—is wildly exaggerated. Why are so many people selling (and buying) a message at so great a variance with shared experience? With regard to journalism. Newsweek's Samuelson contends the explanations fall into three basic categories: sensationalism, ideology (“journalists detest the profit motive”), and ignorance. That's not a bad start at an answer for the larger trend as well.
Part of the reason for the death-knell stories surely has to do with the famous dramatic axiom that Leo Tolstoy enunciated at the opening of Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy's point is that there is inherently more conflict and tension—the raw stuff of good dramatic art—built into desperate, forlorn situations (sad songs say so much). The stakes are not only higher, they are easier to understand. The reader, the viewer, the listener needs a rooting interest, and the surest way to an audience's heart is by presenting a sympathetic character fighting the good fight against overwhelming odds.
Ironically, contemporary stories about the American Dream not only exclude the possibility of happy families, they present us over and over with unhappy ones who are unhappy in the same sort of way. But even when such stories are aesthetically engaging and satisfying, such narrative conventions fail to do justice to how the world operates; it is dangerous to view real life through dramatic conventions—the subject of a number of great novels, including Don Quixote and Madame Bovary.
Beyond aesthetic predispositions, however, the myth of a ruined America is wrapped up in an emotionally understandable embrace of a soft-focus past, in which things were more orderly, more honorable, more easily understood—if only because they are a known quantity. Hence, Bob Dole can be “the most optimistic man in America” and longingly refer to his impoverished, war-torn youth as a “better” time for the country. This is, of course, the lament of every generation, and it is not without genuine pathos. The old world forever gives birth to a brave new one marked by strange people, strange customs, and strange developments.
We hear this plaintive echo in the line from Springsteen's “Youngstown”: “You tell me that the world has changed.” Change, every bit as much as time, has become the thief of hope. Interestingly, the fear of change is not precisely fear of shifting economic tides. Fear of change in contemporary America has to do with a larger dread that the future is building into a massive tidal wave—of immigrants, of information, of postindustrial innovation—that threatens to engulf everything we once called America. The flood waters of an ever-changing world are rising, this line of thinking goes, and soon everything we stood for, everything we lived for, will be a soggy ruin, a latter-day Pompei.
During a moment of clarity in Independence Day, Frank Bascombe muses an analogous thought and puts a telling baby boomer spin on it: “The strongest feeling I have now when I pass along these streets and land and drives and ways and places … is that holding the line on the life we promised ourselves in the Sixties is getting hard as hell. We want to feel our community as a fixed, continuous entity … as being anchored into the rock of permanence; but we know it's not, that in fact beneath the surface (or rankly all over the surface) it's anything but. We and it are anchored only to contingency like a bottle on a wave, seeking a quiet eddy. The very effort of maintenance can pull you under.”
A similar sense of exhausting effort and waning community pervades David Beers's Blue Sky Dream: A Memoir of America's Fall from Grace, a book more complex and ambivalent than its subtitle suggests. Born in 1957, Beers chronicles his upper-middle-class youth in California's Santa Clara Valley, made possible by his father's corporate career as an engineer at Lockheed Missiles and Space Co. Beers's family was part of what he calls the “blue sky tribe,” benefactors of the Cold War buildup that both poured money into California's economy and, as important, gave disparate people a sense of solidarity and common mission. Unlike today, growth and confidence—“a sensation of forward momentum”—were taken for granted.
Beers stresses that this version of the American Dream—complete with cradle-to-grave job security, steady promotion and raises, and fashionable, ever-appreciating tract housing—was not without costs. His father, Hal, a former Navy jet pilot, chafed against playing the role of organization man, often taking his frustration out on his family, whom he verbally and sometimes physically abused; conformity was rewarded over individuality; innovation was viewed with suspicion.
In its best moments, Blue Sky Dream ponders the ironies of winning the Cold War, which, with the subsequent decline in defense spending, pulled the plug on a sizable portion of the economy, not just in California but throughout the country. (A left-liberal who has worked for Mother Jones, Beers also muses about the fact that he owes most of his advantages in life to a system he deems corrupt and immoral.) Replacing the monolithic, bureaucratic military-industrial complex of his childhood is the constantly changing culture of Silicon Valley. There, job tenure is measured in months rather than years, and the only guarantee is that there will be no guarantees—or, rather, that there will be new and equally turbulent places to move on to. Beers recognizes that mobility does not necessarily mean insecurity. He tells the story of a 35-year-old downsized Lockheed employee who, after an initial period of discombobulation, goes on to find wealth and personal happiness by embracing change, risk, and adaptability.
Indeed, Beers can appreciate the liberating aspects of such a new world. Reflecting on the willingness of his father to share the shortcomings of stolid, corporate life, he writes, “I thank him for the doubt and pain he has revealed to me, layer by layer, not just through his stories but even when I knew it as inchoate anger. I am grateful because all of it showed me why the culture of the corporate bureaucracy was a way of work not only to be avoided but unlikely to thrive forever. … If my father had not exposed for me the flaws in its foundation, would I have managed to be so far clear of the blue sky monolith when the toppling began?”
And yet, even as he charts the demise of that stultifying order, he laments the lack of a national American Dream that will regiment individuals into a tightly woven community. He cites 1995 focus-group discussions that “found Americans believing their economy was ‘unraveling before their eyes,’ believing that no institution—government, corporations, the media—reflected their concerns.” Oddly, for Beers, the freedom to pursue one's ends seems to hold a higher price tag than subjugating them to the common good: Such freedom terminates in a war of all against all. Blue Sky Dream's final image has Beers sitting in a flight simulator by which he and three other “co-pilots” fly over a virtual Earth. As he approaches the Golden Gate Bridge, his plane “is suddenly in free fall, the hydraulic rockers beneath me pitching me forward, the pixilated azure of the Pacific Ocean filling more and more of my windscreen. … I had not recorded the fact that this day's other fliers, my squadron mates, were not only allowed but invited to accumulate extra points by shooting down one of their own.”
Throughout all these stories is a sense of despair and disappointment that the world turned out differently than anticipated. It is probably no coincidence that the tide of declinist stories has risen as the baby boomers cruise into true middle age and a keener appreciation of their lives' successes, failures, and future possibilities. The first boomers turned 50 this year; Springsteen is 47; Ford is 52; Beers speaks of “approaching middle age.” As the boomers fully inhabit the seats of cultural production, they are realizing it is no easy task to age—a task made even more difficult by their generation's great emphasis on youth. Contingency, change, and flux, all of which have always been abundant in American life, are easier on the young, easier to take when you have little to lose and much to gain. And paradoxically, as people begin to reap the benefits of the choices they have made and the paths they have pursued, roads not taken often become all the more alluring. The “downsizing” of the American Dream may ultimately stem from the boomers' acknowledgement that their world, like the one before it, will inevitably give way to another.
As important, those uncomfortable with change can little appreciate or acknowledge what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction,” the process by which a market-based society “administers existing structures”—how it renews, revamps, and revitalizes itself. Instead they see mostly destruction; change is usually for the worse. Even someone like Beers, who acknowledges positive elements in a mobile economy, seems highly uncomfortable with such a pattern.
The news thus delivered has a relatively uncomplicated connection to the world it seeks to describe. Certainly, the human condition is often harsh, difficult, unjust, heartbreaking, desperate. Alas, such is life—a fact properly reflected in the stories we tell, from Oedipus Rex through contemporary tales. But life also includes hope, joy, growth, change, discovery. When our storytellers fail to capture, to document, to explore the creation of new worlds along with destruction of old ones, when they mistake our past for heaven and our present for hell, we are left with a cultural imagination that is severely impoverished and, ironically, bereft of dreams for the future.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1134
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 American's American, a suburban Joe with a set of dilemmas rich enough to give John Updike's Rabbit a run for his money.
But there was something mythic in Ford's best writing, something of a high plains drifter in the writer himself, that distanced him from the Tobias Wolffs, the Jayne Anne Phillipses, something that made him seem as un-American as Clint Eastwood.
With the appearance of three of his longer stories in Women with Men, the explanation becomes clear. Although the middle story, Jealous, inhabits the familiar, chilly Ford plains of Montana, the two outer panels of the triptych, The Womanizer and Occidentals, are set in an exotic Paris. It is a Paris of dreams, of expectations, a city of exile in an almost classical mode, and a city of death, of the body and, more treacherously, the spirit.
The length and depth of the journey in these novellas—the Paris vignettes are long enough to be vineyards, averaging a hundred pages a piece—raise them above the work of the other Dirties. Occidentals, the final piece, is as rich a moral fable as the finest novellas of this century, with overtones of non-American non-realists like Carlos Fuentes, Thomas Bernhard with his repetitions and diversions, the displaced Colombian Alvaro Mutis and even Joseph Conrad.
Charley Matthews of Occidentals is a former college professor, a white man who slouched his way into a small Midwestern university by agreeing to teach African American literature and then slouched his way out of academia and marriage by writing a small novel called The Predicament. While The Predicament has long since vanished from the American scene, a small French publisher is putting out a translation.
Charley makes a pre-Christmas trip to the City of Light with his girlfriend, Helen Carmichael, “a tall, indelicately bony ash-blond woman with a big-breasted, chorus-girl figure” to “have lunch with his French editor … take in a museum, eat a couple of incomparable meals, possibly attend the ballet.” In short, Charley has come to visit a Paris designed by a career of reading Flaubert, Hemingway and the chroniclers of the liberated life of the American Negro writers, whose work he has relied upon for his college course.
From the beginning, things go wrong. Blumberg, his editor, wakes Charley out of a jet-lag nap to announce that he is about to fly off to somewhere in the Indian Ocean with his family and must cancel all the plans Charley had imagined, of lunch, of friendship, of mapping out the next novel. The only crumb Blumberg leaves for Charley is an appointment four days hence with Madame de Grenelle, the French translator of The Predicament. Resisting the temptation to leave Paris immediately, to go south to the imagined warmth of the Rivera or across the channel to the dreamy spires of Oxford, Charley decides to tough it out.
And tough it is. Paris is cold. Helen is ill. She and Charley spend their days hobbling through bits of itinerary, their evenings dining with Americans in steakhouses or conversing in disheartening Japanese restaurants. Sleepless nights find Charley staring out of his airless hotel window, watching homeless men sneak into the Jewish section of the cemetery across the street.
Although it is a different Paris from his dreams, a translated Paris, Charley is not entirely dismayed. Following Helen into stores, standing back while she speaks French, he discovers he enjoys the distance. That his secret reason for coming to Paris is to get outside the center of things, to become lost in translation.
“Listening this way, he made up whole parts and sometimes the entirety of conversations based on an erroneous interpretation of a hand gesture or a facial expression or some act of seemingly familiar body language coupled with a word he thought he knew but was usually also wrong about. It could get to be addictive, he believed, not understanding what people were saying. Time spent in another country would probably always be spent misunderstanding a great deal, which might in the end turn out to be a blessing and the only way you could ever feel normal.”
Charley fails, however, to understand much more than just French, and the other country turns out to be much more than just France. By the time he arrives at his appointment with his translator, his misunderstanding of Helen, while it may be a blessing, has turned fatal. The other country he has been traveling in, another country in which he has failed to understand the language, is the country of Woman.
The “with” of Women with Men is an ironic fulcrum. It's a geographic “with,” a “with” of people sharing a hotel room, a table in a restaurant, the “with” of a grilled cheese with a side of bacon. The men in Ford's collection—Austin, the paper salesman of The Womanizer; Larry, the 17-year-old of Jealous; and Charley Matthews—are in their hearts miles away from the women they are with, wandering through the Jewish section of the cemetery, in exile.
Alienation is hardly uncharted territory, nor is the difference between the sexes. Ford has spent time in the forest service of symbols before, most notably in one of his finest stories, “Empire,” written back in 1986. And the men of The Womanizer and Occidentals are neither older nor wiser than other Ford heroes, just a little wealthier, able to afford transatlantic planes and brasseries instead of Buffet Cars and Brazier Burgers. Nor are these necessarily Ford's latest visions. Jealous was published a few years ago in the New Yorker and The Womanizer appeared in Granta in 1992, between the Frank Bascombe novels.
But by sandwiching a good old reliable Ford like Jealous—with its bars and its parlor cars, its hard-drinking aunt and its sensitive 17-year-old—between a pair of Paris originals, Ford makes us reevaluate the map of his world. America is the part of our soul we thought we knew and Europe is the part we thought we'd understand, if only we'd taken the Berlitz course in self-knowledge. And Man is everywhere in exile, especially from the Land of Woman, sitting like a side order on his own plate, separated by an expanse of tablecloth, starched and unnavigable.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5484
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, in the relaxed atmosphere of Ford's townhouse on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a residence that in its rich and eclectic appointments reflects Ford's nomadic existence over the last two decades.
[Guagliardo]: Let's begin by talking about your most recent work, Women with Men, a collection of novellas. I'm interested in why you chose this form, which a reviewer for Time referred to as “the orphan of contemporary fiction. Too lengthy for modern magazines and too short for penny-pinching publishers.”
[Ford]: I think probably that alone was an inspiration, to try a form that seems to me highly serviceable, a form in which a lot of wonderful literature has been written, and yet that doesn't get a lot of use by American writers. Magazines do dictate much of what is written. I had just finished a long novel and was not in the mood to go back to writing, serially, short stories. I wanted to write something the long-story form perfectly suited, a substantial piece of work that is not a novel but is longer than a short story.
The first two stories of the trilogy were published previously—The Womanizer in Granta and Jealous in The New Yorker—and yet the three pieces are woven together beautifully. All explore loneliness and the complexity of human relationships. All involve marriages that have fallen or are falling apart. The most important link, however, seems to be the characters' inability to bridge the loneliness and connect with one another. One character declares in her suicide note that she will “die knowing nobody.” I kept thinking of a famous line from Cool Hand Luke: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” In your mind, how do the novellas fit together?
I think they fit together in the way you just described. They are also about varying degrees, varying sorts of human solipsism. The thing that defeats affection in each of these stories is one person's inability really to look outside him- or herself, so much so that the needs, the preferences, the well-being, the sanctity of others are, in effect, completely ignored or misunderstood, causing calamity. All three stories have at the end some calamitous event that is a somewhat hyperbolized version of modern life. In a cautionary value they would basically say what realistic fiction, if not always, at least often says: Pay closer attention to what you're doing, or bad things will result. They also make the claim that this is a Western phenomenon, in the broadest sense of the West: all of us Anglo-Saxons and Germans and French and so on suffer some sort of solipsism, a way in which we cut ourselves off from people. It is unmistakably, as a theme or set of concerns, a variant on some of the concerns of Independence Day.
Do you see the middle story, Jealous, which takes place in Montana, as a center panel that links the two longer pieces, both set in Paris?
They're published in the order in which they were written. I always meant that there would be two Paris stories, and then there was this Montana story that came in between. No, I wouldn't say the middle story bridged it; that would probably be arguing for a more meticulous structure than I had. But on the other hand I do believe, as you suggest, that those stories are actually quite well united, and how one relates to the others could be something that falls under the aegis of stories not being finished until they go outside the control of the writer.
Were you alluding to Hemingway's story collection Men without Women?
In no way.
You don't think, then, that it's possible to view Larry, the young Montana boy in Jealous, as a sort of Nick Adams character?
Not to me. Unless all teenagers going through the first throes and pangs of facing adult life are examples of Nick Adams characters. I don't know how, for instance, Sherwood Anderson's “I Want to Know Why” or Isaac Babel's “The Story of My Dovecote” … I don't know how those would be Nick Adams stories. The truth is that I called the book Women with Men, and somebody said, “I guess you're bouncing a title off Hemingway's wall.” I said, “Why?” And they said that Hemingway wrote a book titled—what is it?—Women without Men? And I said, “Oh, gee, if I knew that I didn't remember it.” And they said, “Well, do you want to run the risk of having people say you're doing that?” And what I said was, “I don't give a shit. Let them do what they please. I'm not going to sacrifice a good title for my book because of something some guy did seventy or eighty years ago.”
I found it interesting that Charlie Matthews, the protagonist in Occidentals, has written a novel called The Predicament. Is writing a process of discovery in that you typically place characters in certain predicaments to explore their reactions?
Oh, of course. Absolutely. I think that's what I routinely do. That's why it's important for me to think about a book before I write it, to get in mind a whole series of possible cul-de-sacs or crises that I can anticipate coming to as I write along rather intuitively; because I think that the illumination of character is often accomplished by putting the characters into a situation whose outcome I don't know, and then literally writing out of that tight spot and seeing what happens, seeing what people say and do, how I the writer or you the reader might feel about them once you're on the other side of those predicaments. When I was writing Occidentals, there was a time when I wanted to call it The Predicament. But I didn't want to sacrifice the title Occidentals, and it also drew too much attention to that rather subordinate part of Charlie's life, his life as a novelist; and it kind of made fun of the story all the way to the end by ironizing it, and I didn't want to do that. I wanted it to come out a serious story. I was somewhat shocked when I got to the end at what a dark story it turns out to be. It starts off in a comic mode and works its way into that darkness, from which it never completely extricates itself.
You've written successfully in all three fictional forms: novel, short story, and novella. Walker Percy said he chose the novel because he found the short form too limiting. What do you find most appealing about working in the shorter forms?
It gets over in a hurry. Its effects are no more concentrated. I like reading short stories, and I like the thought that I could write one that would make somebody feel the same way I did when I read all the thousands of stories I have read and loved. But the truth is, I think, I write short stories because they are gratifyingly brief and return a satisfying sense of accomplishment to a rather limited amount of effort.
And the novel? Would you share Percy's view of the novel as being more open to all sorts of possibilities?
Sure, but there is an impulse among many writers to justify what they do. Not that Walker particularly felt this need; I think he felt eminently justified in everything he did in a literary sense, and the books will bear it out. But there is a way in which people say, “Oh, I don't write poems; I would never write poems.” Or, “I only write novels. The short story is a lesser form.” I don't like to participate in those kinds of exclusionary logics. Writing essays, memoirs, “Talk of the Town” pieces for The New Yorker, op-ed pieces for the Times, short stories, novels, novellas, are all the same to me. They are what I do. I'm a writer; that's all I am. So I write, sometimes at this length, sometimes at that. To hang any more notable logic on it wouldn't be faithful to how I feel.
I'd like to know how you regard your role as a writer of fiction and how the reader fits into your conception of that role.
I think to be a novelist, to be a short-story writer—whatever I am—is a high calling, because it's a relationship you establish, through your very best efforts, with a reading public whose welfare you're seeking somehow to ameliorate. I'm sure I came to that role, in part, by thinking about Walker when I first encountered him, back in the '70s, and also from Chekhov. Walker, in a book like Love in the Ruins, is particularly interested in having a doctor ministering to a public of some kind. I don't think I have that sort of medical/literary value, certainly, but I do think I offer my best efforts, my fondest consolations, and my most important thinking to my readership. And, too, I wouldn't ever be a writer had I not been able to imagine finding readers. Even at the beginning, when I gave it precious little thought because it seemed so remote, it was always my intention to write for somebody else to read. For me it was always sort of second nature to think I'd like to have as wide a readership as I could. I don't believe I fully recognized that aspiration until I'd written The Sportswriter and was beginning to feel that there were a few people out there whom I didn't personally know who had read books of mine.
The Sportswriter has frequently been compared to Percy's The Moviegoer. Twenty years ago you wrote a piece for The National Review in which you expressed your admiration for Percy's writing, especially, as you just put it, its “literary / medical value.” You also said that you would “rather read a sentence written by Walker Percy than a sentence written by anybody else.” I can't help but wonder, given the many subtle and superficial similarities between the two novels, if you were consciously influenced by The Moviegoer in writing The Sportswriter.
Sure. I hadn't read it in, ten years at the time. But I would also just say—having said yes, of course, I was quite consciously influenced—there were other books that influenced me as much that are less obvious: The End of the Road, by John Barth; Something Happened, by Joseph Heller; A Fan's Notes, by Frederick Exley. All first-person narratives. Wonderful books.
Percy's characters often find God by finding one another: love becomes a symbol of man's capacity for redemption and reconciliation with a God who both transcends the immanent world and is infused within it. In an earlier interview, you talked about your characters being redeemed by affection. Of course Percy used the word redemption in its traditional Christian sense, whereas you seem to have something else in mind. Yet your characters seem to be searching for the same sort of intersubjective relationship, what Frank Bascombe calls “the silent … intimacy of the fervently understood and sympathized with.” In what sense are your characters redeemed by love?
This is interesting, I suppose, vis-á-vis Walker, who—I guess he did, he certainly seemed to—believed in an afterlife. It's problematical to me how life on earth, affectionate life on earth, love, can somehow equal the love God has for us. Maybe it's just in an emblematic way. For me—and I mean for me insofar as I write characters—facing apocalypse, facing the end of life for which there is no redemption about which I feel confident, what we are charged to do as human beings is to make our lives and the lives of others as livable, as important, as charged as we possibly can. And so what I'd call secular redemption aims to make us, through the agency of affection, intimacy, closeness, complicity, feel like our time on earth is not wasted.
Percy also believed in the affirmative power of language and in the “aesthetic reversal of alienation” through literature, arising through the reader's alliance with both alienated character and author. You have written about the “efficacy of telling” and about the fact that “precious language” has the potential to provide consolation to someone in despair. Am I correct in assuming you would agree with Percy's view and with Frank Bascombe's assertion that “words can make most things better”?
I sometimes get painted with a very dark brush for that line, because some people read it to mean a fundamental cynicism about me: that is, you can say anything and make it be true. I suppose the way we cast our dilemmas and affections into language has a lot to do with how we conceive of them, so there is—I don't think of it as cynicism—but there is a way that language colors experience; there's no doubt about that. But I think language is consoling in other ways, is always able to give us pleasure by its sonorities, its poetical qualities, by simply the way it pleasures our ears; and so far as it comes from another, sweetens our view of that other, sweetens our view of the world, a world that can give us literature, that can give us the telling of stories. I think the telling of stories is in and of itself a way of persuading the reader away from whatever is plaguing her or him, and of asking the reader to believe that another and more felicitous order can be put on experience, and that this order has a structure that is, in an almost abstract way, pleasurable, and beautiful to behold. I don't know how that lines up with what Walker said.
Percy wrote that “the trick of the novelist, as the Psalmist said, is to sing a new song, use new words.” In your National Review piece you credit him with just that, saying that he does “what great literature would always do if it could: reinvent language moment to moment.” In what ways have you tried to reinvent language in your work?
By trying to write sentences the reader does not see through like a clear pane of glass. By trying to imagine language as a window whose pane and whose surfaces you luxuriate in and, in the process, see beyond. That came to me from all my reading much more than from Walker; by the time I wrote that piece, you know, I'd been to graduate school, been a college professor, done a lot of things. I'd read all those wonderful people we now think of as postmodernists. I had read a story like Donald Barthelme's “The Indian Uprising,” in which a character (referred to only as Miss R) says there is enough satisfaction in “the hard, brown, nutlike word” for “anyone but a damned fool.” One idea I came to as a young man was that written language was just a mode of communication to be read in a denotative way. What I came to understand as a more sophisticated reader is that language is a source of pleasure in and of itself—all its corporeal qualities, its syncopations, moods, sounds, the way things look on the page. So that's what I bring to language that vivifies it, other than simply the use of words out of their context in the e. e. cummings sense; but I do it in a novelist's mode, so that my responsibility is, finally, to make a cohesive, linear whole out of it, unlike, say, cummings or Wallace Stevens.
Is your work informed by what Helen Carmichael in Occidentals defines as “spirituality”; that is, “a conviction about something good that you can't see”? If so, what would that something good be?
Survival. That you can believe in the efficacy of things you can't predict or see the evidence of, in the faith that if you invent them they will cause you to survive, literally survive. And maybe more: survive with dignity, survive with pleasure, survive with a sense of life's being worthwhile. The scene in Occidentals when Charlie wants to say love … In Jealous there is a similar scene when Doris sits at the bar and talks to Barney Bordeaux. She asks about the great themes. She asks, What do you believe in? And she says you can't say love; you can't say sex. But I believe—meaning me the author here—I believe in the efficacy of love. I believe in the things that draw you sympathetically closer to others, and that the promise of that closeness is a valuable commodity. And other things too—art. For a guy who thinks of himself as almost totally an Aristotelian, I am kind of a Platonist about those things.
The Sportswriter, Wildlife, and Independence Day are first-person narratives; A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck are in the limited-omniscient mode. What factors determine your choice of voice? Is it easier for you, as it may be for readers, to identify with Frank Bascombe and with Joe Brinson, the young narrator in Wildlife?
I never identify with Frank; I never identify with Joe. I always maintain a scrupulous artisan's role toward my narrators. They are illusions made up of language, illusions I myself manufacture, and they are never me, nor do I ever confuse them with being me; thus, there is for me, once I establish the form of narration, no difference between a first-and a third-person narrative in the actual execution of those novels. Practically speaking, it's all the same when you're writing it; it's just the illusion of address that's different. Choosing one over the other is almost a matter of instinctual first principle; which is to say, how I first lay hold of the material. There is something about the opening line of Occidentals that I had in my head—and I always do speak lines to myself—long before I wrote the second line: “Charlie Matthews and Helen Carmichael had come to Paris the week before Christmas.” Well, that's a line that dictates point of view, if it is, in effect, going to be about Charlie and Helen, which it is. So it was just a sort of instinctual principle, which became the book's first principle.
Critics often focus on the question of Frank Bascombe's reliability as a narrator in both The Sportswriter and Independence Day. Do you regard Frank as reliable?
I regard all narrators as works of art. Reliability is for the reader to decide. I mean, I regard him as the thing that all narrators, indeed all fictional characters, are: they're provocateurs. They say things, and do things, and you as a reader in the sanctity and serenity of your chair can entertain what they say and be moved by or disapprove of or agree with what they say, so that their reliability is not much of an ongoing concern because they're not real. They're made up. It matters to me and you, as human beings, whether or not each of us is reliable, but narrators don't have to be. They don't need to be, or maybe they can't be. There is a great line of Richard Avedon's: “Portraiture never tells the truth.” Characters don't tell the truth. They hypothesize; they speculate. That's their relationship to their maker, the author; they're speculators about things. They may say things that are useful, and very right, very moving, but their obligation isn't to tell the truth. The book may tell a truth by comprising all these other gestures.
You said that your wife, Kristina, should have a great deal of the credit for the creation of Frank Bascombe. She encouraged you to write a novel about a character who is essentially optimistic about life and its possibilities. You've said that you don't identify with Frank, but do you at least share his optimism?
If I don't share it explicitly, I share it implicitly. There's that great line in Sartre that says, “For a writer to write about the darkest possible things is itself an act of optimism, because it proves that those things, whatever they are, can be thought about.” To me, no matter how dark the things you're writing about—if you're Céline, irrespective—being a writer means making something with language that you give to a readership, which it will entertain into the future; so it is, in a kind of chronological way, optimistic enough to believe that there will be a future in which these books will be read.
Will there be another Frank Bascombe novel in that future? Is there a chance that you'll do with Frank what John Updike did with Rabbit Angstrom?
I would write another book about Frank if I could, but it would have to be a book that is at this moment unforeseeable. Which isn't to say that I won't finally foresee it—at the end of The Sportswriter I don't think there was any way I could have forecast that I'd write a book in which Frank was a real estate agent. A third book about Frank would have to be unique and stand alone and be nonreliant on the others.
You and Kristina moved to New Orleans about seven years ago after living in at least a dozen states over the years. As a native New Orleanian, I have often puzzled over the passage in The Sportswriter where Frank says that “a town like New Orleans defeats itself. It longs for a mystery it doesn't have and never will, if it ever did.” What exactly does he mean? Do you share that view?
That's an answering knell to one of Walker's characters in The Last Gentleman, who says the place where I was living when I read those books—Ann Arbor—was a non-place. That was me, basically, lobbing a salvo back over Walker's wall. But yeah, I think that even more profoundly today. I mean that New Orleans steeps itself in its history and obfuscates all of its fundamental urbanness and modern problems by turning its head. I wrote an essay about this very thing for Canadian Broadcasting over the winter. New Orleans deludes itself more than any city I've ever lived in, and I've lived in most of the major cities in the U.S. It deludes itself that it's “the city that care forgot,” deludes itself into believing it's “the Big Easy,” deludes itself into sort of somehow living up to all its sobriquets. The fact is that it's a great big urban complex with a theme park in the middle, and everything else about New Orleans is just like every other city in America.
In Occidentals, New Orleans is Helen Carmichael's “favorite American city.” Is it yours?
I did that as a nicety to my wife. No, it's not my favorite American city, not by a long shot. Chicago is. Probably New Orleans would be second. And maybe if I didn't live here, it would be first.
You gave up writing fiction for a time. As you look back at that period now, would you say that you stopped as a result of frustration brought about by the fact that your first two novels, A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck, were not commercially successful?
Yeah, using as indices of commercial success whether or not they sold a lot of copies, whether or not they got sold into paperback (and thus kept in print). It was probably true that I gave up writing in 1981 because it was a year of extreme personal heartache and stress. My mother was dying, and Kristina and I were somewhat unsettled—not in our married life, but in our geographical life. I was not liking living in the suburbs of New Jersey. There was a lot of upheaval, and one of the things I thought was, “Well, you've published two books, you've had a good shot at this whole enterprise, and you haven't made much of a go of it, so get on with finding something you can make a go of.” I might have begun to see the anxieties and contingencies and uncertainties of trying to make a writer of myself as slightly absurd at the moment because so much else in my life was not settled, and so much else in my life was sorrow.
In 1996, Independence Day became the first novel ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. What has this recognition meant to your life and career?
I'm sure it's changed some things. I have more readers. Probably the most significant thing that's changed is that it caused a lot of people to read that book who hadn't read books of mine before. I don't think of myself as a very competitive person, and I'm not goal-driven in the sense of looking covetously at prizes and things like that. But when those things, just by happenstance, come to you, there are certain little anxieties in your life—there have been in my life—that I wouldn't have ever admitted that I felt, and didn't think I did feel, that have to do simply with the recognition of myself as a guy who is trying and to some extent succeeding in making at that point a contribution to the world. Some of those anxieties were not resolved but were simply demarked from how they had been before. Well, those moments in your life come, and then you just relinquish them; and other people get those accolades. So however I felt a year ago when I got that prize, I felt it at that moment, and then I went back to feeling the way I always feel. And I wrote another book, and I'm well on the way to writing another book; so life had a nice high moment, and then it resolved itself back to my usual practices and habits.
Both Frank Bascombe and Charlie Matthews express disillusionment with academia. You taught earlier in your career but quit, I believe, to devote more time to your writing and because, as you once said, quoting Eudora Welty, you “lacked the instructing turn of mind.” Yet you recently returned to the classroom to teach a writing class at Northwestern University. What are your feelings about teaching and the academy?
To answer a question you didn't explicitly ask, on the way to answering one that you did, my experience in universities, as an observer of other people, has been that it's like life everywhere else: it's like life at IBM, at National Cash Register. It's full of the petty grievances, the backbiting and low-horizon anxieties and agonies of every other life; whereas it poses as something of a higher order, so the discrepancy between how things are and how things purport to be is always quite vivid to me. Which totally excludes, frankly, my own experience, which has been—during the times I've taught—rewarding and sometimes even—exultant. But I'm not typical because I don't come and stay, and I'm sympathetic to those who do: I think it's harder for them to keep their sense of mission, their sense of dignity, and their sense of importance alive under the onslaught of years and of students, under the pressures of colleagues who are just putting in their time. I went back to teach at Northwestern at the end of a long project—Independence Day—and with that comes the belief that maybe I know something new, that maybe I have a renewed vigor for the vocation of writing. I always try to go back to the classroom when I feel I'm most enthusiastic to talk to young students on the strength of my experience as a writer. I couldn't do it year after year, because I'm relying so much on the wind filling my sails from my own work, whereas a true, trained scholar has that great canon of literature always to fill his or her sails.
I recall a letter Flannery O'Connor wrote in response to a professor's outlandish interpretation of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” She said, “Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.” Do academics, especially the “anti-mystery types” Frank Bascombe encountered in his brief stint in the academy, drain the life out of literature?
I don't know. I don't read the things that are written about my books. I just can't. I've tried to, every once in a while, but I haven't been able to sustain any but a kind of vain and sometimes antagonistic interest. But the only way I came to read literature with any wider sensation at all—other than just the palpable sensation of the language—was by reading R. P. Blackmur, by reading Harry Levin, by reading The Nature of Narrative. So I have never found that, as a rule, the true literary criticism, which is broad-based and humanistic in character, eviscerates or denatures literature at all. It's only small minds that denature and eviscerate literature. Everything else, I think, is perfectly fine. A notion embodied in Blackmur's essay “A Critic's Job of Words,” in which he talks about what criticism is for and how its varieties can be applied to the text, what value it can hold for the reader, I think, is a substantiable and corroboratable position to hold. I read great critics when I was young, and I've never been sorry. I read William Gass, Frank Kermode …
Yes, my God, you can't generalize about the pusillanimous quality of criticism with people like—giants like that.
What about your work habits? I think it was O'Connor who said she wrote for three hours every morning and spent the rest of the day getting over it. Do you try to write every day?
I routinely go through periods when I don't work. But when I am working on something, when I have a task for myself—I'm writing a story, a novella, an essay, a novel—I work at it every day. And if something comes up, like having to go to the doctor or attend to some emergency, I feel grudging when I don't work. So—and more effectively in the last ten years—I have streamlined my life so that when I'm working on something, nothing gets in my way; and I work on what I work on seven days a week, until it's done.
How many hours a day do you put into your writing?
Never fewer than four, usually five or six.
Do you use a word processor?
I do in the stage of writing a story in which I want to get it into type, but I write with a pen. I used to write with a pencil, but finally—much as I like sharpening pencils and niggling around with them—I found that a Bic pen works best; a regular old twenty-nine-cent Bic pen is great.
You mentioned a new project. Have you started a new novel?
No, I probably won't even think about that until the winter. I don't know what it will be. I've got a few stories that have been lingering around in my mind and proving their worth to me. I finished one this week, and I've got another I'd like to write when I go back out west in August. I think maybe with some perseverance, in a couple of years or maybe in another year, I might be able to write a suite of stories, ten stories. I'll probably by the end of the summer have three, maybe one more in the fall. I'd like to have five stories finished by January; that would be half the book. But that's all I'm working on. I have a long-term contract with Knopf, which is about ten years long, and it does have a schedule that commits me to writing a novel, but nobody really cares what I do or I don't as long as I keep on working. And I don't care either. Novels are easier to sell to readers than short stories, but I feel like if I can write something well, whatever it is, I ought to do that.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944
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 was further immobilised by middle-aged accretions, as was the novel. Cut adrift by more decisive women, Bascombe's latter-day avatars, Martin Austin and Charley Matthews, have reached a place where ‘events, reliances, just began to work out not right for seemingly no reason, then life began to descend into disastrous straits’. Their predicament (Matthews has even written a novel called The Predicament) makes these three long short stories a strangely exhausting and comfortless experience. Nor is this accidental. This is what happens to the unheroic hero, who, we feel, should be doing a little more on our behalf, should make more of an effort, or at least buy a decent map. For Austin and Matthews are in Paris, the Paris known to the unskilled tourist, a Paris of chilly down-market hotels, cold winds, and cancelled appointments. If it weren't for the women they have fixed their sights on, but in a remarkably half-hearted manner, we could leave them there, eternally pondering whether to give up their American lives in order to inaugurate a new ‘era’. Since they are almost entirely without volition this seems unlikely.
Martin Austin, a salesman of fine quality paper, is in Paris, which he somehow expected to be in the centre of France. He is attracted by a woman called Joséphine Belliard, and for no very good reason apart from impatience and the author's preoccupation, decides to move there and make a life with Joséphine. Their courtship consists of the two of them sitting mutely in her car. She is bad-tempered, ill-mannered, and as a character altogether fully realised; she pays him little attention, and this lack of attention speaks directly to his ruminative and absent-minded temperament. Since she has to see her lawyer to sign divorce papers he offers to look after her four-year-old son, shuts the door to her flat, to which he has no key, and takes the child to the Luxembourg Gardens where he loses him. Unable to speak French, and having no sense of direction, he eventually finds the child naked in the undergrowth. This of course is the end of the affair. But the shocking event, arrived at dreamily, with a complete lack of affect, merely inducts Austin into a further set of reflections. He is still in Paris, alone, and wondering about his wife Barbara, who has described him as ‘detached, unreachable’. ‘Could you become that?’ He promises himself that he will think about it, and assuredly he will, since this is the psychic state which Richard Ford obviously considers appropriate for a man who has no decided views on any subject, a state which may or may not convince the reader.
Or take Charley Matthews, who has come to Paris to meet the translator of his novel, only to find that she is absent and that his publisher is about to take off for the Indian Ocean. Charley is travelling with his mistress, Helen, who is ill, but otherwise droll, jolly and determined. Leaving a note for Helen in their freezing hotel room, Charley sets out on an indeterminate stroll. He is hungry, has had nothing to eat since the previous evening, when Helen talked him into dining with two friends of hers in a terrible restaurant, but if he stops for lunch he will not be back in time for Helen. Helen, however, has staged a non-appearance of her own. Again, a shocking event fails to penetrate Charley's remote self-translator. These stories have inadequate titles: The Womaniser, Occidentals. Whether irony is involved is uncertain.
The second of the three stories—Jealous—is an unwitting exposure of the banality at the heart of Dirty Realism. A 17-year-old boy is travelling with his aunt Doris to Seattle where he is to stay with his mother. They stop off at a bar for a drink, or at least Doris does, and again there is an almost unmotivated incident, after which the boy feels ‘calm’. All three stories end on a dying fall, as if material has been put before the reader on which the protagonists can reflect. In this the reader and the protagonists may not be as one.
Richard Ford, a writer of considerable eminence, has earned his reputation by taking a masterly overview of the ordinary man's vicissitudes. At least that was what he did in The Sportswriter, and, to a lesser extent, in Independence Day. Here the vicissitudes are endured not so much for their own sake but as a rite of passage into the unknown, in which characters will thankfully lose their bearings. This will be seen as a risk worth taking, although—and this is a weak point—the risks will be endured at several removes by the slightly fed-up women with whom the men have become embroiled. The women are more sharply realised than their partners, and can suddenly express hatred and walk out, leaving husbands or lovers even more bemused. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the examined life, in these three stories, can also be frustrating. Dare I say it of one so celebrated? A disappointment.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 646
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 profiles have begun to recycle anecdotes and reinvoke names that have nothing to do with these three novellas or, for that matter, Ford's previous books. Described in Granta as a devotee of “dirty realism”, invariably characterised as a macho figure from Marlboro country, frequently linked with laconic stylists such as Hemingway or Raymond Carver, Ford has been hilariously misrepresented, never more so than when his Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Independence Day, was confused with a science fiction blockbuster of the same name.
On the evidence of five novels and a volume of short fiction, the author of Women with Men probably chose this title to separate himself from Papa, who produced a collection called Men without Women. Indeed, in two of the novellas, The Womaniser and The Occidentals, Ford's setting is Paris, but it is not the city of The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. Nor do his characters bear comparison to the expats, artists and damaged first world war veterans who populated the Lost Generation.
Rather than courage and grace under fire, Ford's themes revolve around wistful yearning, indecision and a pervasive sense of loss which contains not the slightest suggestion that political, military or sexual action could change the situation or hold it at bay.
Martin Austin, for instance, the vaguely depressed, ineffectual dreamer in The Womaniser, is a married man who visits Paris and meets Josephine, whose estranged husband has written a scandalous novel about her. Intrigued rather than attracted, Martin entertains the idea of sex. He is relieved when nothing happens, but then finds himself at odds with his wife Barbara, a “perfect Lambda Chi beauty queen” who sells real estate in Chicago. He can't stop thinking about Josephine, and though neither her looks nor her personality appeal, she represents unexplored possibility.
In a melodramatic break, he flies back to Paris, falls into a muddle, fails to manage the sort of assertiveness that might get her into bed, possesses none of the basic competence—forget about heroism—of Hemingway's men, and makes a hash even of baby-sitting Josephine's son. Like Frank Bascombe, narrator of Ford's best novels, The Sportswriter and Independence Day, Martin is ruminative and intelligent, but a man neither of action nor of specific answers. In the end he's reduced to moony reveries about meaning which he will “have to sleep on many, many nights”.
If the plot of this, and the other novellas, weren't enough to expose the parallax between Ford and the “minimalist” testosterone-driven fiction writer he's been mistaken for, then there's his prose. Hemingway's style was terse and pared back, like those severely pollarded trees that line Parisian boulevards. But Ford's sentences display a speculative sinuosity, a colloquial garrulousness, at times even an imprecision which offers poignant insight into people whose struggles with language seem a symptom of far deeper confusions, failure of confidence and looming fears.
Whether he was hunting lions or honing his craft, Hemingway's hallmark was polish, never more so than when he polished himself off. By contrast Richard Ford's writing seems now to be open-ended, as likely to continue in the essentially comic vein of Independence Day as it is to return to the darker vision of Rock Springs. But this book, poised in mood between the two, deserves to be respected in its own right.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4118
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 group—showed up at the fiction bazaar. (Only Updike decided to wait until fall.) Roth's American Pastoral seems to me major work, the premiere book of the year; Mailer has taken his lumps; and Pynchon, for reasons partly incomprehensible, spent a few weeks on the bestseller list. Whatever happened to all those symposia of dire predictions on the Future of the Novel? Vanished, along with worries about a Failure of Nerve, or Our Country and Our Culture. An occasional voice raises itself to deplore the “conservative” tenure of contemporary fiction, and for those in sympathy with the complaint they can turn again to the arty English cutup, Jeanette Winterson, whose sixth novel makes a fuss about how hard it is to tell a narrative (“That's how it was/is. The story falters, The firm surface gives way”).1 But most novelists at this century's end are getting on with the job, some of them in distinctly attractive ways. Here follow a few samples, in some cases commented on so briefly as scarcely to constitute a “review.”
Why haven't I read John Banville before? His hefty novel about the career of a thinly-disguised Sir Anthony Blunt, was not to be put down as it proved, page by page, interesting, vivid, funny, full of the sardonic twists I take to have been characteristic of his subject.2 The Blunt-figure is named Victor Maskell, and at the book's opening he has been unmasked as a Soviet informant, stripped of his knighthood, no longer Keeper of the Queen's Pictures, and dying of cancer to boot. Maskell agrees to be interviewed by a young woman writing a book, and the novel proceeds, in a conventional enough way, to move him through decades of this century with particular emphasis on the 1930s and 1940s. There is a rich surrounding cast of pals, homo (mostly) and hetero. Maskell is slow to discover his own queer identity, but when discovered he goes at it for all he's worth—that is when he's not betraying secrets or cataloguing the drawings of Poussin. (Anthony Blunt was a great scholar-critic of the painter.) The supporting cast includes people named Boy Bannister and Philip MacLeish (Burgess and Maclean of course) who eventually “escape” for good to Russia, and various figures whose real-life identities I missed. It's a novel replete with sensations—food, drink, smells, pungent speech—and, on the protagonist's part, an aesthete's nasty-clever perspective on things. Such as the 1950s, “the last great age of queerdom”:
All the talk is now of freedom and pride (pride!), but these young hotheads in their pink bell-bottoms, clamouring for the right to do it in the streets if they feel like it, do not seem to appreciate … the aphrodisiac properties of secrecy and fear. At night before I went out cottaging I would have to spend an hour downing jorums of gin to steady my nerves and steel myself for the perils that lay ahead. The possibility of being beaten up, robbed, infected with disease, was as nothing compared with the prospect of arrest and public disgrace … Yet what a sweet edge these terrors gave to my adventures in the night, what throat-thickening excitement they produced.
Never less than highly intelligent, and truly devoted to rendering an individual temperament, Banville's novel suggests to me he's as lively a writer (he is editor of the Irish Times, lives in Dublin) as anyone going. And the book makes you want to read Blunt and look at Poussin as well.
The other surprise in this quarter's books was an altogether assured and satisfying first novel by a writer one wants to hear more of.3 Algonquin Books has had the great good sense to publish, in an admirably compact format, Suzanne Berne's book about a young girl's coming of age in the summer of 1972. The crime in the neighborhood is the murder of a young boy whom the ten-year-old protagonist, Marsha Eberhard, knew and didn't particularly like. Shock waves permeate the streets, men's surveillance patrols are organized, and suspicion—especially Marsha's—is focussed on a mysterious and disturbing bachelor, a Mr. Green, who has moved in next door. The murder coincides with a more intimate “crime” within Marsha's family, as her father is revealed to be having an affair with her mother's sister and he moves out of the house. The moment when her mother reveals she knows the truth is finely done as, in the midst of a pork chops and mashed potatoes supper,
My mother picked up her plate and, with a snap of her wrist, sailed it like a Frisbee straight across the dining room. China shattered. Mashed potatoes and gravy splattered against the wall and onto the blue carpet and sprayed my father's white shirt with grease spots. One half-eaten pork chop landed on top of the china closet.
The combination of violence and comic absurdity is typical of much of the book's tone. Behind the domestic and neighborhood upheavals is the Watergate burglary as it begins to dominate the media. Without being heavy-handed and portentous, Suzanne Berne manages to give a wonderful feel of what the early seventies felt like to a clever, maybe too-clever young girl.
This is a novel that while “adult” enough, is also one you feel might be read with interest and pleasure by an intelligent teenager (Frederick Buechner's fine The Wizard's Tide is such another). The heroine has a lineage at least as far back as the clever young girls in Flannery O'Connor's or Eudora Welty's stories, and more recently in Ann Beattie's Falling in Place. Since Marsha has sprained her ankle, she's on crutches and spends much Rear Window-like time in looking on and noting. Berne gives us perfectly the ordinariness of a small town street, lawns watering and cakes making; speech sounds are also excellent—a girl named Luann says to Marsha, “My mom says your daddy runned off … She says he's committed adult.” The novel declares its subject to be “mistakes”—“where life really happens … when we get tricked into realizing something we never meant to realize.” “Stories are about mistakes,” reflects the adult narrative consciousness, looking back on that twenty-five-year-ago time.
Paul Theroux's fifteenth novel (not to mention the shelf of travel books and collected stories) is about the hand-over of Hong Kong to China—the “Chinese take-away” as it's called in the novel, whose publication date couldn't of course have been more timely.4 Like his earlier The Family Arsenal and Picture Palace, it's an expert entertainment, in the Graham Greenish sense of that word—a suspenseful, darkish fiction (like Greene's The Ministry of Fear) whose characters don't invite or command our full sympathies the way, presumably, characters in a realistic novel do. Theroux's novel is about the gradual coming apart of Neville “Bunt” Mullard who, with a Chinese associate who dies at the outset of the book, has been running Imperial Stitching, a factory about to be taken-away by a sinister figure named Mr. Hung. Bunt is a bachelor, lives with his mother Betty, has a sex life consisting of effective and emotionless encounters with prostitutes or the occasional employee willing to render a service. The mother is jealous, spying, hatefully “English” in her ministrations to Bunt and eventually revealed to be comparably corrupt, as she and Mr. Hung collude to do Bunt out of the factory.
But plot or story isn't the main point, which, as always with Theroux, is the life of language. In Kowloon Tong, language is especially animated when it describes what and how people eat: “You're nid-nodding over your food,” says Betty to Bunt at breakfast; “you look a little peaky,” and she watches him closely as he eats “a soft-boiled egg, five rashers of streaky bacon, an oatie, half the papaya, two slices of toast to one of which she added jam, no soldiers.” In a memorably disgusting scene when Bunt against his will (he doesn't like Chinese food) has dinner with Mr. Hung, the latter goes to work on some chicken parts; “Brandy was gleaming on Mr. Hung's lips. He looked drunk, his face pinkish and raw, his eyes boiled, and he was smiling in a vicious way as he chewed with his mouth open.” No details are spared of this moveable feast:
Hung's elbows were thrust out, his blue tongue showed as he stuck his chopsticks into the dish of yellow meat and used them like pliers to grasp a fragment of chicken breast. Its white flesh was exposed when he left a bite mark on it, then he chewed and gagged and pursed his lips. Again, with a retching noise, he spat garbage onto the table.
Theroux has a pretty good time, it looks to me, with this culinary awfulness, and there's a similarly clinical disgust displayed at most Hong Kong things generally. Not a book that touches the heart, but one by a writer who knows exactly how to construct a novel, tell a story.
Whenever on the down side, in need of a stronger tonic than Paul Theroux, I pick up Robert Stone's fiction and soon manage to feel better about things.5 A flip remark, yes, but the assurance, in reading anything by this superbly gifted writer, that things are going to go, in one way or another, terribly wrong, is a mooring to hold onto. Four of the stories in this his first collection of short fiction, I was familiar with; the other three, including the title story, are new. He's not, as is Updike and was Flannery O'Connor, to the manner of the short flight born, and even the two best in this collection—“Absence of Mercy” and “Helping”—could have found their place in a longer narrative. “Absence of Mercy” in its details is the most autobiographical thing Stone has written, inasmuch as the early life of the protagonist—offspring of a disturbed, single-parent mother, time spent in an orphanage, teen escapades of drinking and fighting in New York City, service in the navy—corresponds to fact, more or less. “Absence of Mercy” is about a Hemingwayish encounter with fear in the self (Stone on the jacket now looks like Papa H.), a violent physical struggle in the 72nd Street IRT underground with a man who is the perfection of vile humanity. The hero, for all his righteous and even successful attempt to protect a woman from the ugly attentions of this man, ends by himself fleeing with fantasies of police in pursuit: “scattering pensioners and pigeons in Verdi Square, he kept on, faster and faster, increasing speed with every block,” as he wonders “just how far he would run and where it was that he thought to go.”
A number of the stories have as their central figures men and women strung out on pills and other heavy substances. As an old-fashioned guy I felt closer to Elliott, in “Helping,” who falls off the wagon, as gripping an account of such an event as I've read. Elliott has a job counseling veterans suffering from psychological disorders; like other Stone heroes, he has spent a time in Vietnam, is married to Grace (the right name), childless, an unnamed sorrow behind their marriage. She is an idealistic social worker whose spiritual intensities pain Elliott. He has been in A.A. for fifteen months, but after a depressing interview at the counseling center with a sufferer named Blankenship, who hasn't been in Vietnam but dreams of the place, Elliott finds himself on his way to the Midway Tavern and realizes that “he has contrived to promise himself a drink.” The rather stilted diction is characteristic of much of Stone's slightly askew grammatical perceptions, as is the painful, gallows humor of the moment when he climbs on the barstool to be served by a bartender-club fighter from Pittsfield:
Jackie G. greeted him as though he had been in the previous evening: “Say, babe?”
“How do,” Elliott said.
A couple of the men at the bar eyed his shirt and tie. Confronted with the bartender, he felt impelled to explain his presence. “Just thought I'd stop by,” he told Jackie G. “Just thought I'd have one. Saw the light. The snow …” He chuckled expansively.
“Good move,” the bartender said. “Scotch?”
“Double,” Elliott said.
When he shoved two dollars forward along the bar, Jackie G. pushed one of the bills back to him. “Happy hour, babe.”
“Ah,” Elliott said. He watched Jackie pour the double. “Not a moment too soon.”
The expansive chuckle here, the bartender's “Good move,” the final, perfectly grisly remark, can't be bettered. Elliott goes home, continues drinking, has a confrontation with his wife, fields a hostile phone call from a man intent on harassing her, sits up all night watching the snow fall, rifle cocked on his knee waiting for the caller to appear; eventually he takes an early morning walk in the freezing winter light, and meets his All-American neighbor, whom he loathes. The story ends in perfect irresolution, a memorable testimony to what this marvelous writer can do in a form that's not quite his own.
In Michael Gorra's shrewd Times book review of Richard Ford's collection of three stories [Women with Men], he notes that Ford's title reverse-echoes Hemingway's Men without Women.6 Gorra suggests that Ford may be thought of as a “post-macho” writer, preoccupied with the awkwardnesses, mistakes, and self-delusions of male erotic life. Two of these stories, The Womanizer and Occidentals, are set in Paris, their protagonists being similarly-tempered men, with a broken or failing marriage back home, who are attempting to realize a new affair. Part of what's disturbing about these stories is in their spirit of place: the American in Paris, maladroit with the language, uncertain of where exactly he is, always on the verge of getting lost while looking for that great restaurant. As with Independence Day of two years back, Ford is superb at inhabiting, in the most unmannered, directly intelligent way, sentences that move in perfect pitch and make the mere perusal of a paragraph a satisfying experience. The third-person narrator writes sympathetically about his heroes, refusing to set up their dreams of glory so he can take pleasure in demolishing them; instead he makes us complicit with the men, even as we sense they're on the way to trouble and deserve it. This is not so easy a feat as it may seem.
Ford's gift is to make a hair-raising moment of male humiliation seem inevitable, slightly comic, and regrettable. Martin Austin, the man in the opening story, returns to Oak Grove, Illinois, after his significant encounter with a French woman whom he hasn't slept with but wants to see more of. Over drinks in a restaurant, his wife Barbara accuses him of taking her, and himself, for granted; whereupon Martin replies that he's sorry but he can't do anything about it. Barbara's response is blunt: “Then you're just an asshole … And you're also a womanizer and you're a creep. And I don't want to be married to any of those things anymore.” Emptying her glass of gin, she exits with “So … fuck you, and goodbye.” She has a point, but by this time we've invested a lot in following Martin's not at all blunt, scrupulously rendered consciousness, so we don't stand up and cheer, nor walk out with Barbara. A moment like this one helps make clear Ford's acknowledging, in an introductory note, his debt of gratitude to the stories and novels of Richard Yates, “a writer too little appreciated.” Yates was of course a masterly imaginer of male embarrassments and disasters; Ford's realistic style is as pure as Yates's, perhaps a little more nuanced and full. More exploratory too: The Womanizer ends with Martin asking himself questions like, “How could you regulate life, do little harm and still be attached to others?” Could one become “detached, unreachable?” “Was it something you controlled, or a matter of your character, or a change in which you were only a victim?” No answers forthcoming, but the questions are important. In his review, Gorra called Ford an American classic and the claim is beginning to sound plausible.
Extremely short takes:7 I never got the point about Cynthia Ozick as an interesting novelist, and nothing in her new collection of related tales enlightened me. The heroine works for the civil service and has to deal with people like “Leon Cracow, a bachelor from Forest Hills who wore bow ties and saddle shoes” and who is “engaged in a tedious litigation: he had once read a novel and fancied himself its hero. The protagonist wore bow ties and saddle shoes. Cracow was suing for defamation.” If you like these sorts of jokes they're much better told by the late Stanley Elkin. Penelope Fitzgerald's clever historical reconstruction of the early career of the German romantic poet Novalis has been treated as if it were a masterpiece, but maybe you have to be a pushover for things German (as Michael Hofmann was in this Times review) to inflate a jeu d'esprit to such heights. Dame Muriel Spark, approaching eighty, has produced her own jeu d'esprit that runs easily through the mind and out the other side. Light and bright and sparkling, as delightful as it is forgettable. At the other extreme, consider Margaret Atwood, who has gone to immense pains in constructing an elaborate historical novel about a nineteenth-century Canadian woman accused of murder, judged insane, now (in 1859) being examined by a young doctor who is studying mental illness. Plenty of contemporary newsclips and other accounts surround the action as well as apt quotations from Victorian poets—Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti. It's very professionally done, though prolonged, but exactly to what end? A good read, I guess.
Which claim I can't make for Pynchon, since I had a terrible time with Mason & Dixon, you might even say Drew the Line at it, found myself often Bored Silly, kept Losing out on Conversations, must have Missed many Jokes.8 If you think it's a great idea to rewrite the eighteenth-century English novel, as if it weren't the glory of English fiction to have moved out of it into the nineteenth-century novel; if you love Capitalizations and Antick spellings and arcane Lore, then this is the book you've been waiting for. I was amused by the Monte Python Pynchon, he of the Talking Dog, the Mechanical Duck and the Great four-ton Gloucester Cheese, of villages named Thornton-le-Beans and nobility named Lord Oafery, he who presides at the baking of the first English Pizza and conjures up a cook named, who else, Shorty. But beyond that? All that astronomy, that surveying, do you want to read about how “The Arc fails to meet the Forty-Degree North Parallel. The Tangent fails to be part of any Meridian. The West Line fails to begin from the Tangent Point, being five miles north of it”? And then the poems, so amusing as I remember them in V, here on replay just awful. Has my taste matured? Rotted? Wasn't the theater (“It's all theater”) of Gravity's Rainbow so much more dazzling? As noted earlier, Mason & Dixon graced the bestseller lists for some weeks. Did you purchase it, reader, and how did you get on with it? Perhaps, like John Leonard in The Nation, your enthusiasm knew no bounds, and you have ended up calling it “one of the great novels about male friendship in anybody's literature.” Or perhaps not, in which case drop me a line, and we'll share.
Thomas Pynchon and Saul Bellow: the long and short of it. I read Bellow's novella twice and ended up unsure just what sort of experience I'd had.9 Its first-person narrator, Harry Trellman, invites us to see his story as an emergence, after decades of concealment and avoidances, into engaging with the “actual,” as he declares himself to the love of his life all along, Amy Wustrin. Yet the manner in which Harry tells his story is typically glancing and undemonstrative, almost as if he's swallowing his sentences. In the margin next to one paragraph, describing some of Amy's past history, I wrote the word “style”:
Berner, whom she married when she got her B.A., inherited a small raincoat factory. He gambled it away. He took a bank loan on the house in Oak Park and soon Amy and her girls were homeless. Berner disappeared for a good while. She obtained a divorce. The children were still quite young when she married Jay Wustrin.
This sounds like anti- or non-style, unelegantly declarative as by design; yet elsewhere Bellow has lost none of the delicacy of observation characteristic of him—the ability in a few phrases to sum up the economic and moral status of someone, like a toy manufacturer named (perfectly) Bodo Heisinger:
In the old days he had manufactured squirt guns, peashooters, wind-up she-monkeys who combed their monkey hair while jiggling a hand mirror—nowadays, of course, children wanted hideous outer space aliens, monstrously muscled and distorted. He had anticipated that and his company was doing extremely well.
Although compared to Sigmund Adletsky, a nonagenarian who with his wife, “Dame Siggy,” is buying Heisinger's apartment (while resisting the purchase, for high sums, of the apartment's contents), Bodo is in a lower league: “The sums named were as trivial to the Adletskys as change slipping from your pants pocket between the sofa cushions and down into the upholstery.”
Bellow's protagonists are always looking at their faces and telling us about them: Wilhelm at the opening of Seize the Day sees his reflection in the glass cupboard at the newsstand of the Hotel Gloriana and decides, while allowing “for the darkness and deformations of the glass,” that “he thought he didn't look too good” (details follow). Herzog, on page two, catches “the shadow of his face in a gray, webby window. He looked weirdly tranquil.” Harry Trellman has had years of practice at noting his “Chinese” aspect: “a pair of fat black eyes, a wide mouth with a sizable lip. Wonderful materials for the insidious Fu Manchu look.” Bellow has invested much of himself in these men, whether on the down-and-out path like Wilhelm, or moving toward an embrace of life, like Herzog and Harry, and I think there is a strong autobiographical note in The Actual. Harry is proud of his special gift of composure—“Not to look impressed”; at one point near the end Amy urges him to speak up: “Most of your communication has got to be inward, so that even when you're with somebody else you more than half talk to yourself.” Harry is supposed to have made his pile in business, but I suspect he is really a novelist, a spy, like Bellow, devoted to delivering the goods on all these worldly, aggressive, hard-nosed and now aged Jews. When on the final page of the book Harry tells us, “I turned back from myself and looked into Amy's face,” we are invited to take it as a move out of self-absorption into the actual. Still, on the back cover flap, in color, is a lovely picture of Bellow sitting out in the backyard, in relaxed clothes, legs crossed, arms folded, a nice smile on his face topped by a good-looking fedora. I thought of Tommy Wilhelm's belief that “when a man is smoking a cigar wearing a hat, he has an advantage; it is harder to find out how he feels.” Saul Bellow, even without the cigar, hasn't lost his caginess.
Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson. Alfred A. Knopf.
The Untouchable, by John Banville. Alfred A. Knopf.
A Crime in the Neighborhood, by Suzanne Berne. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Kowloon Tong, by Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Bear and his Daughters, by Robert Stone. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Women with Men, by Richard Ford. Alfred A. Knopf.
The Puttermesser Papers, by Cynthia Ozick. Alfred A. Knopf. The Blue Flower, by Penelope Fitzgerald. Houghton Mifflin Company. Reality and Dreams, by Muriel Spark. Houghton Mifflin Company. Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood. Doubleday.
Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon. Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
The Actual, by Saul Bellow. Viking.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 751
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 to join Joséphine Belliard, a subeditor at a textbook publishing house in Paris. Martin's fumbling, ill-timed, and ultimately dangerous efforts to press a relationship with Joséphine reveal his pitiable lack of self-awareness. As Joséphine says, “You cannot live a long time where you don't belong. It's true?”
Martin's discontent is the distasteful but familiar product of one who has led an unadventurous, counterfeit existence and who neither “pleased others” nor “pleased himself.” He is a character in denial of his culture, one who, in his wife's phrase, “takes [himself] for granted.” As such, he is, as he admits at one point, “dangerous” to others, a fact that is borne out in his failure to protect Joséphine's son against assault. The insincerity of his life is mirrored in the miniature toy world that attracts his eye: “a whole little Paris made of wood, a kit a child could play with and arrange any way he saw fit.” Martin's naïve optimism is the flip side of a cynical lack of self-respect and an underlying cultural alienation. His daydreams of Parisian adventure are superficial, but his fiasco at least serves to open a process of self-reflection, from the moment in fact that Joséphine “look[s] at him bitterly” and charges, “Who do you think you are? You're nothing.”
Readers who are familiar with Richard Ford's superb Western books—Rock Springs and Wildfire—will be interested to know that he has returned to the Western subject in Jealous. As in several stories in Rock Springs (“Great Falls” and “Optimists,” for instance), Jealous is narrated by an adolescent facing an ominous crisis in family life. Traveling to visit his mother in Seattle, Larry has already formed many opinions, including judgments of his aunt, Doris (who “had a reputation for being wild”), and opinions about his parents' separation. If he seems a bit too self-assured, his attitudes also reveal his insecurity in his own culture. In tracing this kind of insufficiency, Ford's narrative project appears to suggest Gilles Deleuze's terms of a “minor literature,” always in the state of becoming and moving toward an awareness of the suffocating reality of its marginal status. When his aunt accuses Larry of being a “real hick,” Larry feels anger and shame: “I wanted to get out of Montana. … I was missing something, I thought, an important opportunity. And later, when I would try to explain to someone how it was, that I had not been a farm boy but had just led life like that for a while, nobody'd believe me.”
The final story in the collection returns the setting to Paris, a feature of the book that suggests the importance of expatriation and translation as thematic motifs. The very title of the story (Occidental) implies the cultural baggage which Ford invokes. Charley Matthews, the author of a single, unsuccessful novel now being translated into French, was previously a professor of African American literature—a literature as foreign to his experience as is Paris. Matthews's pathos and his sympathy as a character rest in his having arrived at the stage in life when, like Martin in Womanizer and Larry's father in Jealous, he admits his insufficiency and attempts to start anew on a more honest footing, yet the tragic ending of this story and its contemporary sense of the tragic as somehow accidental or unmomentous suggest that starting anew is no easy task, in a personal or collective sense.
Women with Men is one of Richard Ford's most sensitive and contemplative works of fiction. It reveals Ford as an artist posing a new and difficult task. The three long stories in the collection are linked by their themes of exile and loneliness and their tone of frustration and irresolution. They reveal Ford as a writer possessed of a maturing sense of life's complication, yet he continues to record contemporary experience in an acutely observant and artistically honest manner.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6371
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.” Since Ford's writing has begun to be compared with that of Walker Percy, it would be well to consider the first sentences of The Last Gentleman, perhaps Percy's most canonical work and a book that announces its very different concerns: “a young man thinking,” the emptiness of physical existence (“The rock jutted out of the ground in a section [Central Park] known as the Great Meadow”1), and the issues of ontology and perspective represented by the young man's telescope. It is not until the eleventh paragraph of Percy's novel that another human being enters the narrative, a fact that suggests the most important contrast between Percy's and Ford's sensibility: despite his interest in theories of language and “intersubjective” communication, Percy's fiction envisages quests in which reflection, whether solitary or dialogic, serves as the protagonist's supremely important activity. Richard Ford's central characters, however, are engaged in quests of a far less private and individualistic nature. Indeed, Ford's writing expresses an urgency concerning, the collective future of American society, and, through his continual process of humorous satiric deflation, he suggests the absurdity of a privatized solution to the malaise of contemporary middle-class existence.
Richard Ford's essay review of Lancelot, “Walker Percy: Not Just Whistling Dixie,” is an important statement of Ford's artistic relationship to Percy. Indeed, the essay might be viewed as evidence that Ford is writing “in the tradition” of Walker Percy, but it is in fact a “tribute” that one must read with particular care, alert to what is said and not said and to the way in which Ford turns Percy's kind of sardonic irony on Percy himself. Ford begins with large praise for Percy's ability as a stylist: “From a writerly point of view, I'd rather read a sentence written by Walker Percy than a sentence written by anybody else I can think of. Percy, to my mind, is the best sentence-writer around.”2 The initial emphasis on (and limitation to) the “writerly point of view” should raise an alarm, and indeed Ford proceeds in terms that clearly restrict his praise to the level of style and technique, as in his concluding assessment of Percy's “lovely facility for writing prose, the very thing he does best” (p. 564). Furthermore, Ford qualifies his approbation by raising certain questions about Percy's ideas and attitudes. What Ford says, in sum, is that he has learned from Percy's example as a stylist, especially from his use of “voice” and descriptive language, but that he is skeptical concerning the direction of Percy's moral philosophy after the publication of his first novel, The Moviegoer.
In fact, what Ford says about Percy's social vision is highly ambivalent. Of the character Jamie Vaught (a character that Percy treats with the utmost seriousness in The Last Gentleman and, significantly, one whom Percy connects most explicitly with the religious theme of that novel), Ford could quip that Jamie is one “who passes out good advice and good vibes throughout the book and, before he dies, makes everybody feel better” (p. 560). If, as he stated, Ford admires Percy's “faith that there is a curative, that there is a wholeness toward which his characters can aspire” (p. 561), he suggests that he may not share with Percy the same sources of wholeness and faith. Discussing Percival in Lancelot as a character who “has set himself apart from the run of men by becoming protector of various restorative and pious virtues with which he could heal the world if only it would give him a chance,” Ford adds that it's “chiefly Lancelot's 1970s update of the dolorous knight's tale,” with his “worldly” and “fleshly” calling, “that provokes our interest”—not Percival's role as virtuous healer (p. 562). Of “Lance's windy disquisitions” (the apocalyptic rage that Ford explicitly identifies with Percy as well as Lancelot), Ford writes that “we've simply heard it before, most of it long before the Sixties' glibness made it a cliché” (p. 563). Indeed, Ford writes that Lancelot is “a novel which Percy seems to have handled without a great deal of certainty or much real interest in the ideas he passes on as truth” (p. 563). Ford concludes his assault on the novel by stating unequivocally: “I think it all just got too grim for Percy; the specter of his own mean and incomplete vision flew back at him, and he tried to make it a joke, but it was too late” (p. 564).
Again, there is plenty of evidence for Percy's technical influence on Ford, and Fred Hobson in “Richard Ford and Josephine Humphreys: Walker Percy in New Jersey and Charleston”3 has furnished convincing evidence of it. A careful reading of Hobson's essay, however, shows that he focuses on Percy's “writerly” influence largely to the exclusion of thematic issues. As Hobson shows, Ford's narrator in The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe, resembles Percy's narrator in The Moviegoer, Binx Bolling: Frank “is another in that line of reflective and somewhat paralyzed well-bred, well-mannered, and well-educated young southern white males who tell their stories in the first person and are moved by the need to connect” (p. 55). Both narrators, as Hobson points out, are given to inventing or appropriating terms to explain themselves and their views of the world, such as Binx's “everydayness” or “certification” and Frank's “forgetting” and “literalism vs. factualism.” Hobson finds other similarities of character and plot: both Binx and Frank are “watchers: one watches movies, the other watches sports” (p. 56), and “beyond that, it is the tone, the language, the cadences, the detailed social observation, the attention to southern types that links Ford with Percy” (p. 57). But, I will maintain, it is not the ideas—the ideological or philosophical grounding which, more so than literary style or narrative technique, define the author's identity and relationship to the world. As Hobson admits, “There is much more one could say about The Sportswriter, particularly how this novel, which is so much like The Moviegoer in certain ways, is so very different in others” (p. 57).
In contrast with Walker Percy's central figure of the “wayfarer” embarked on a quest for existential identity, Ford's protagonists are less decisive but more tolerant, focused not on the problem of one's very existence but on getting by, helping others in the small ways that one can and going on to the next day. Unlike the more expansive quests undertaken by Percy's heroes, Frank Bascombe never really leaves Haddam, New Jersey. What he may be said to be seeking is “solace,” and solace, in contrast with “mystery” or “being,” implies a context quite different from that of quest. The context in which one seeks solace is pain: solace from what, one asks? A reading of The Sportswriter uncovers the sources of Frank Bascombe's pain, not in an existential and religious context but in those complicated relationships of family, intimacy, and labor which are suggested in the novel's first lines.
The distinction between Percy's and Ford's sensibilities is suggested by Ford's theorizing of the writer's task. In several interviews and essays, as in his fictionalized comments, Ford consistently stresses the untranscendent nature of literature, and its limited and minor quality in relation to experience.4 For Ford, writing is always a matter of attention to the “small” and less ponderous matters of existence; in his view existence is open-ended and inconclusive, the pleasing “frame of mind” of “not knowing the outcome of things”5 The only truth, Ford writes, is “life itself—the thing that happens” (p. 374). As in his merciless satire of the literature faculty at Berkshire College—“born deceivers of the lowest sort” committing “terrible deceptions and departures from the truth” (p. 222)—Ford is angered by the travesty of literature involved in its misuse for conveying “ideas” and the illusion of permanence (“time-freed, existential youth forever” [p. 222]). Speaking with uncharacteristic directness through his narrative persona in The Sportswriter, Ford writes: “Some things can't be explained. They just are. And after a while they disappear, usually forever, or become interesting in another way. Literature's consolations are always temporary, while life is quick to begin again” (p. 223).
One misreads Ford by sacrilizing and allegorizing the secular language that his narrative employs. There are, for example, such clues as Frank's declaration that he “couldn't care less” if his children turned out “godless” (p. 204), so long as they do not grow up “factualists” lacking a sense of the mystery of life, or the novel's derisive satire of Easter service at Haddam's First Presbyterian Church, where Frank slips in for a few minutes only to find that “nothing here could matter less than my own identity” (p. 237). Leaving the service of “confident, repentant suburbanites,” Frank reflects that he is “‘saved’ in the only way I can be (pro tempore)” (p. 238). In an angrier mood, Frank charges that Jesus “makes life a perfect misery for as many as he can, then never takes the heat. He should try resurrection in today's complex world” (p. 294). These fictional passages are echoed by Ford's comment to Kay Bonetti that The Sportswriter is “not a Christian book. The kind of redeeming that goes on in that book is entirely unreligious; it's really Frank figuring out ways to redeem his life based on nothing but the stuff of his life” (p. 85).
Frank Bascombe is shown striving, often unsuccessfully, toward an understanding of social reality. In the course of representing this striving, Ford has his protagonist indulge in a use of abstract terminology and descriptive generalization that resembles that of Percy's heroes, but in Frank's case his grandiose philosophizing seems trivial and inconsequential, and his caricatures of everyone around him, from “cheerleader” Vicki Arcenault to Haddam banker Carter “Knot-head” Knott seem a means of avoiding rather than connecting with others. It is as if, in a highly subtle maneuver, Ford has turned Percy's sardonic style upon itself. In contrast with his essential goodness and human understanding, Frank's philosophical discourse is flawed and escapist, as in his facile distinction between a “literalist” (“a man who will enjoy an afternoon watching people while stranded in an airport”) and a “factualist” (one who “can't stop wondering why his plane was late” [pp. 132-133]). In contrast with this kind of impertinence, Frank is capable of the most sincere feeling, as in the understated description of his relationship to his deceased and beloved parents, who left him alone to enjoy a childhood pleasantly oblivious of the adult world: “They simply loved me, and I them. The rest, they didn't feel the need to blab about” (p. 205).
One of the superficial similarities between Percy's and Ford's writing rests in their mutual appreciation of the absurdity of American political groupings. Percy's writing is marked by attacks on “liberal” ideas, as well as by disdain for Southern conservatives. Ford also writes some very entertaining satire at the expense of liberals, but equally his ridicule is directed at conservatives such as Frank's ex father-in-law, Henry Dykstra, “somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun” (p. 122). The thrust of Percy's politics, however, is more radical in its effort to reinstate the authority of a religious community. According to Percy's analysis in “The Loss of the Creature” and other essays, the rise of a scientific and rationalistic culture in the nineteenth century led to an increasingly alienated culture in which human beings lost a meaningful relationship to their own being. The sense of “creatureliness” can only be restored following an apocalyptic crisis leading to the restoration of a relationship to the “everydayness” of existence.6 As Percy portrays this “return” at the conclusion of such novels as The Second Coming and Love in the Ruins, it coincides with the establishment of an “interpersonal” relationship with another human being. Percy implies that the recovery of everydayness—the recovery from a condition of “suicide”—points to psychological and spiritual reintegration, including the apprehension of the “mystery” of human existence.
In a meticulous and insightful essay, Edward Dupuy points to a similar dialectic of loss and return operating in The Sportswriter. For example, Dupuy cites the poem which Frank Bascombe, who carries it to Ralph's grave, describes as “a poem about letting the everyday make you happy—insects, shadows, the color of a woman's hair” (p. 19), a description that I would read as sentimental and insincere. Dupuy characterizes Frank's attitude at this point as “the freedom and dispensation of the ex-suicide,” revealing an emotion that reflects Frank's “relenting nature.”7 Although Dupuy does not explicitly identify Percy as the source, the terms in which he discusses Ford connect Ford's references to “relinquishment” with Percy's dialectic of loss, crisis, and acceptance of “mystery.” It can be demonstrated, I believe, that these are not the terms in which Ford conceives of his own writing: to cite one of many examples from The Sportswriter. When he derides the sense of being “anxious in the old mossy existential sense” (p. 145) or describes crazed Herb Wallagher as “alienated as Camus” (p. 208), he is shown to be mocking the sort of existential anxiety that informs Percy's novels and such essays as “The Man on the Train.” Frank's anxiety is of a different order, the product of cultural and social disturbances rather than the disturbance of “being itself,” and one would have even more difficulty fitting Frank Bascombe's later history in Independence Day into Walker Percy's mold: surely by this point, a dozen years after the conclusion of The Sportswriter, Frank must have learned an acceptance of mystery, if he is ever to do so, yet it is clear that his pain has not been relieved by his relenting. Why? Perhaps because the historical world continues to impinge on Frank's private existence. Even if he has learned a greater degree of “acceptance” in his own affairs, as he enters middle age Frank finds himself more and more engulfed in the difficulties of others (represented primarily by his son's emotional distress).
Indeed the term “mystery” suffers a process of comic deflation in The Sportswriter since, for Ford's rather ingenuous hero, “mystery” is not that much different from a romantic adventure. A conspicuous example of mystery in this sense is Frank's one-semester affair with Selma Jassim, Berkshire College's resident literary theorist. Frank is attracted to Selma in part because of their similar skepticism (like Frank she “preferred to stay as remote as possible” [p. 227] from other people, particularly from other altruistic Christians on the Berkshire faculty). Frank comments that “mystery emanated from her like a fire alarm” (p. 229), and in Frank's case mystery leaves him with only a nostalgic remembrance of happiness at a quite human level.
Frank's potential loss of contact with society, following the death of his son and the ensuing divorce, remains an issue throughout the novel, and after the climax of Walter Luckett's suicide, Frank is shown as reestablishing more meaningful human contacts. However he may ridicule Walter's hapless psychological condition, the fact of Walter's very real despair intrudes, as Frank thinks repeatedly of “poor Luckett” over Easter weekend. Later Frank realizes that he “might've warned” Walter that he was making “a terrible mistake” (p. 304). Indeed, it is Walter's death that “has had the effect on me that death means to have; of reminding me of my responsibility to a somewhat larger world” (p. 368). That afternoon Frank even feels a solidarity with Sergeant Benivalle of the Haddam police force, a very different sort of man from himself, and adds that “it never hurts to show someone that their own monumental concerns and peculiar problems are really just like everybody else's” (p. 323)—after which he invites the sergeant to attend meetings of the Divorced Men's Club. While this encounter undoubtedly suffers the same satiric diminishment as nearly all assertions of sentiment in the novel, it is also a step toward Frank's social reintegration, for a section of narrative that is not qualified by satiric humor follows soon after. Visiting Walter's apartment with X, Frank feels for a moment that he shares “the grief poor Walter must've felt alone here but shouldn't have” (p. 335). In the lonesome night after Walter's death, Frank drives to the Haddam train station, where, watching the arrivals and reunions of passengers, he realizes that “[t]o take pleasure in the consolations of others, even the small ones, is possible” (p. 341). Walter's suicide note, which he reads later, causes him to consider how “we get bound up with people we don't even know” (p. 350). By the end of the novel, this larger world includes even a new contact with his deceased father, through the intermediary of Frank's forgotten cousins in Florida. Uncharacteristically, Frank comments toward the end of the novel: “I have taken the time to get to know them” (p. 370).
Frank's own heritage (and Ford's as well) is clearly within the provincial and working-class culture that his cousins still inhabit (and which contrasts markedly with the privileged milieu of Walker Percy's fiction): his parents, originally from rural Iowa, have moved about from one working-class job to another before settling on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. When Frank's father dies in 1959, his mother remarries the plebeian if modestly successful Jake Omstein of Skokie, Illinois. Frank's character is shaped by his family's misfortune, but also by its integrity, and by his own uncomfortable position on the margin of the American Dream. The major events of his personal history—his working-class roots, the premature death of his father, his separation from his mother after her remarriage, the relatively early death of his mother, his lonely schooling at Gulf Pines (“Lonesome Pines”) Military Academy, his chance ROTC assignment to the University of Michigan, his marriage and divorce with X, and the tragic death of his son—are inseparable from the social context in which he has lived; they are not merely idiosyncratic events in a personal history but reflect the shared history of a generation. Indeed, by assigning his birth-year as “1945” (a significant year later than Ford's own birth), marking the end of the War and the beginning of a new collective history, Ford suggests the representativeness of Frank's story. His unabashed sentimentality concerning love and family, his nostalgia for the carefree misdemeanors of frat life, his odes to pastoral suburbia, his tendency toward boosterism, inspirational talk, and even pomposity—all are Ford's means of assembling the novel from the collective voices of contemporary American culture.
Frank does suffer from a sense of alienation, of course, as well as a gentler condition of abstraction that Ford terms “dreaminess,” but these conditions have a cultural or social, not an existential basis. The confusion and incoherence he feels results from the superficiality of his cultural roots; due to his transient and disjunctive family history and the national history of dramatic social change during his lifetime, Frank is alienated from home, family, and local culture. He is an apologetic and indifferent Southerner, and like many in his generation it is difficult even to speak with any assurance of his “home.” His life lacks a historically grounded sense of identity based on local or regional connections, and as a result Frank reacts to all crises with benign fatalism, denying the pain he has lived through (“Let things be the best they can be. Give us all a good night's sleep until it's over,” he says [p. 52]). That Frank's life and to a large extent the suburban culture in which he grows up lack coherent significance is attested by the superficiality of his social relationships at the beginning of the novel, as the narrative ironically asserts the “meaningfulness” of Frank's least sincere relationships: for example, his weekly visit to Mrs. Miller, the palm-reader who for five dollars says “hopeful, thoughtful things that no other strangers would ever think to say to me” (p. 100). If Frank finds particular solace in his palmist, “the stranger who takes your life seriously” (p. 100), he is generally content with even more ritualized relationships or with solitude. In a particularly droll and ironic passage, Frank lauds his family's use of catalogue shopping as “the very way of life that suited us and our circumstances … we were the kind of people for whom catalog-buying was better than going out into the world” (p. 195) Surely it is not just Frank Bascombe and X who are the comic butt of this mocking narrative voice: “A lot of people we know in town did the same thing,” Frank notes, adding that “[y]ou can see the UPS truck on our street every day” (p. 196).
The need for social connection is reiterated in The Sportswriter, as for example in the account of Frank's brief friendship and correspondence with Peggy Connover (ironically, a friendship that proves the immediate cause of his divorce from X). In the supportive, asexual relationship of man and woman, Frank discovers a reward of happiness, and of the letters from Peggy that follow their brief meeting he says, “[I]t pleased me that somewhere out in the remote world someone was thinking of me for no bad reason at all and even wishing me well” (p. 147). From a complicated series of signs, Frank begins to infer that “life … is not as disconnected and random as it might feel” (p. 143). Yet the problem of “being a stranger to almost everyone” (p. 152) continues to worry Frank to the point that he rationalizes its advantages: “I have a clear slate almost every day of my life, a chance not to be negative, to give someone unknown a pat on the back, to recognize courage and improvement, to take the battle with cynicism head-on and win” (p. 152). This passage is certainly undercut by derision, but it simultaneously acknowledges Frank's recognition of the origin of his predicament. As he admits not long afterward, however, it is cynicism of a particularly selfish kind—“lifelong self-love and the tunnel vision in which you yourself are all that's visible at the tunnel's end” (p. 172)—that is his problem.
It is hardly coincidental that the incoherence and isolation of Frank's life are mirrored in the lives of many others in the novel, as Frank discovers (though never fully admits) that his own despair is symptomatic rather than individual. In Wade Arcenault, Vicki's father, Frank discovers another who shares the grief of sudden loss: Wade's first wife, Esther, died suddenly when Wade was forty-nine, casting him into a lifelong despair that he buries in his “devil's dungeon”—the basement workroom where he locks up all pain. Another important example is Herb Wallagher, an ex-pro lineman from Walled Lake, Michigan. Herb's paralysis resulting from a ski-boat accident duplicates the freakishly accidental, arbitrary quality of Frank's own inexplicable loss of a child. The narrative of Frank's visit with Herb bears close scrutiny, for it is one of the more significant of Frank's failed attempts to establish connection with others. From the moment the day begins with an unexpectedly heavy snow falling from an overcast sky, the meeting of Frank and Herb is threatened by catastrophe. Herb's residence turns out to be less imposing than one would expect of an ex-pro-lineman, and Herb himself is “much smaller” than Frank thought he would be. Frank senses that neither Herb nor his wife, Clarice, has “gotten what he or she bargained for” in life (p. 155), and indeed Herb has drifted into angry self-pity, having given up his job as “spirit coach” of other athletes. Herb, in fact, turns out to be dangerously paranoid, living in a state that is “too close to regret” (p. 164)—the sort of regret that Frank must avoid at all costs. For Frank, the significance of this encounter is surely something of a lesson in the despair to which he also is susceptible. It is a warning about the consequences of withdrawal from society—a bunkered isolation and a ruined life seeking refuge at “Walled Lake.” It seems appropriate that Frank should flee from Walled Lake in the comfortable fellowship of Mr. Smallwood's cab. For his part, Smallwood is on to Herb Wallagher: “‘Sur-burban peoples, I'm tellin you. Houses full of guns, everybody mad all the time. Oughta cool out, if you ask me’” (p. 165). Back with Vicki at the hotel. Frank senses a new wariness and “gloomy remoteness” in their relationship (p. 170), but Detroit itself, with its unpredictable weather, is capable of inspiring hope as well as loss. As Frank puts it, “You can never completely count on things out here. Life is counterpoised against a mean wind that could suddenly cease” (p. 171).
There is also an element of solidarity in Frank's unusual degree of sympathy with subaltern figures—his willingness to cross social boundaries, to empathize with the excluded, and to submit the class assumptions of his suburban community to critical examination. Indeed, Ford represents Frank Bascombe as a “human weak link, working against odds and fate” (p. 254)—a man who sympathizes with other weak links. A failure himself (explaining, for example, his choice of profession as “I failed at everything else, and that's all I could do” [p. 308]), Frank sympathizes with failure in the world around him. His social tolerance naturally involves him in conflict with his own class, although Frank's “class” is more ambiguous than it might seem at first. From The Sportswriter one learns that at age twenty-four, Frank moved into “a large Tudor house” at 19 Hoving Rd., Haddam, New Jersey, bought from profits from a movie contract for his first book. The section of Haddam where Frank lives is upper middle class and culturally elite: in the cemetery behind his house, “three signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried in sights of my son's grave” (p. 4), yet Frank has “nothing in common” with his neighbors, the Deffeyes, and is “invited to few of their or anyone else's cocktail parties” (p. 5). Frank's “voice” is “a frank, vaguely rural voice” (p. 11). His preference is for companions like Vicki Arcenault, a matter-of-fact working girl newly arrived in the Northeast by way of Waco and Dallas.
Surprisingly, perhaps, in Vicki—whom Frank has originally typed in the most dismissive fashion—the narrative suggests that he begins to discover some reality of feeling outside himself. During their argument after he is caught jealously looking through her bag, Frank records his imagining of this reality of her suffering, and he broadens his imagination of human pain beyond Vicki and himself to include “the least of us”: “She has seen all this before. Motel rooms. Two A.M. Strange sights. The sounds of strange cities and sirens. Lying boys out for the fun and a short trip home. Empty moments. The least of us has seen a hundred. It is no wonder mystery and its frail muted beauties have such a son-of-a-bitching hard time of it” (pp. 137-138). At this point Frank cannot, however, imagine Vicki in terms other than condescension, as his trivializing of an imagined marriage shows (“A life of possible fidelity, of going fishing with some best friend, of having a little Shiela or a little Matthew of our own …” [p. 140]). Yet if Frank cannot imagine well enough at this point, the text records that his imperfect imagining is interrupted twice by emergency sirens in the city, “as if the sirens were going out into this night for no one but me” (p. 141). It is indeed “outside” that Frank needs to relocate his imagination, for Frank is at least enough of a “loner” for X to accuse him of being one. Certainly it is significant that the best he can do for friendship is a relationship like that with Bert Brisker, an acquaintance with whom he “had nothing to talk about”: “[W]e see each other on the train to Gotham, something that happens once a week” (p. 45).
Despite his irresolute and flippant manner, Frank is represented as a figure with serious ethical concerns. One of the most striking moments in The Sportswriter is his memory of a dream in which “someone I knew … mentions to me—so obliquely that now I can't even remember what he said—something shameful about me, clearly shameful, and it scares me that he might know more and that I've forgotten it, but shouldn't have” (p. 144). The representation of “shame” is not exactly fashionable in postmodern art, for the reason that it implies a stable social culture out of which an act can be judged “shameful.” Of all ethical intuitions, shame is the most historical. It is asserted out of a coherence of social responsibilities—a continuity that, as Charles Newman notes, is necessarily discounted in postmodern art in which language constitutes its own reality, but in which, paradoxically, “[a] truly autonomous language could convey no human relations whatsoever.”8
It is the coherence of social existence that underlies Ford's employment of Frank to interrogate “the good life” of post-war America (“Just exactly what the good life was—the one I expected—I cannot tell you now exactly” [p. 3]). The peculiar seductiveness of this culture, with its promise of limitless opportunity and freedom, is suggested in Ford's description of “the bricky warp of these American cities. … Choices aplenty. Things I don't know anything about but might like are here, possibly waiting for me. Even if they aren't” (p. 7). Frank's relationship with X marks his entry into bourgeois American culture—a culture which he initially finds distasteful. One recalls Frank's first meeting with X, who impressed him as “a rich [Michigan] girl, and I didn't like rich Michigan girls” (p. 35). X in fact is “an opinionated Michigan girl, who thinks about things with certainty and is disappointed when the rest of the world doesn't” (p. 19). Nor does Frank approve of the country club milieu of her family: “I hated the still air of privilege and the hushed, nervous noises of midwestern exclusivity. I thought it was bad for the children …” (p. 66).
Clearly, Ford is interested in analyzing the dynamics of this culture in its relationship to “the rest of the world.” Dupuy accurately notes that when Frank returns to Haddam at the end of The Sportswriter, he sees suburbia in a new light—no longer “neutral” and comfortable but “a lie … it tries to provide closure while at the same time excluding the ultimate closure—death” (pp. 102-103). Frank particularly notes the deceptive optimism of the suburbs—not just the deception of a way of life that excludes the existential consciousness of mortality, but the everyday lie of middle-class culture itself, its promise of a bounteous and happy life that rests upon the assumption of an ever-expanding base of wealth and power. Ford interrogates the superficiality and oppressiveness of the suburbs conveyed, for example, in those moments of vacuous praise, including Frank's unctuous ode to “the suburbs I love,” where “from time to time” the odor of “a swimming pool or a barbecue or a leaf fire you'll never ever see will drift provocatively to your nose” (p. 14). Early in his married life, Frank objected to the disingenuousness of communities like New Lime, Connecticut (“sad Shetland-sweater, Volvo-wagon enclaves spoke to me only of despair and deceit, sarcasm and overweening informalities” [p. 39], but his complaint now extends much further. Haddam itself is full of affluent men such as the five members of the Divorced Men's Club, among whom Frank sometimes feels “an awful sense of loss … as profound as a tropical low” (p. 82). Frank says flatly that “the suburbs are not a place where friendships flourish” (p. 79), and his unfortunate relationship with Walter Luckett, who weirdly imagines Frank to be his “best friend,” is evidence of this.
It is of course an index of Frank's pain that he seeks a “neutral” place in which to live. Haddam, however, is not merely neutral—it is dangerously unreal, as even Frank admits: “You could complain that such a town doesn't fit with the way the world works now. That the real world's a worse and devious and complicated place to lead a life in …” (p. 51). The unreality of this existence can be gauged by its effect on Frank's children, particularly on his son. Who is more the product of suburban society than Paul, Frank's delinquent, antisocial teenage son? Even in The Sportswriter Paul Bascombe was shown to “display a moody enthrallment” (p. 107); by the time period of Independence Day his moodiness has changed to fierce detachment and instability. Who better than Paul to illuminate for his middle-aging father the insincerity of middle-class life? Their trip from New River, Connecticut, to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, is an ironic pilgrimage to the shrines of American national pastimes (and perhaps to the increasing commercialization of those pastimes)—but it is a pilgrimage of a postmodern and not a medieval kind, conducted by a pair of tight-lipped, street-wise, cynical detectives bent on unmasking the contradictions and myths of American culture at century's end. Within this culture, purportedly the land of opportunity and universal happiness, father and son encounter their own images in the mirror of American society: a homeless, transient father and daughter living out of an automobile; a succession of middle-class, professional types befogged by their own “success” and insincerity; a black truck driver searching without a clue for the “right place” to buy a house. Most important, they encounter their own grief and despair (metonymically focused on the loss of Ralph and the divorce of Frank and X but expanding to embrace a much larger society). They are faced with the need to divest themselves of their security and contentment within a deadening suburban environment, and to take on risk, involvement, and pain—the attributes of true responsibility and membership.9
In The Sportswriter Ford is not content to represent Frank's experience in existential terms, although he does present his character as that of a man frequently nostalgic, reflective, and lost in “dreaminess”; in the sequel, Independence Day, the narration is considerably less focused on the inner self, as Frank, now well into middle age, is even more entangled in a web of social responsibilities. A rich cast of memorable secondary characters peoples the novel, suggesting that Frank's life is inseparable, as indeed it is, from all those in his family and community. Prodded by such meetings, and by Frank's openness toward others, the narrative moves eventually from grief to healing, from solitude back to society. Later, in Independence Day, Frank attempts, with truly heroic courage and will, to step back into the roles of father and husband, and he reenters the community of Haddam and the world as he engages a host of friends, associates, and strangers in purposeful communication. Not surprisingly, Frank's interest in “mystery” is largely absent in this sequel; he is too busy attending to the intricacies of selling real estate, developing a stable relationship with Sally Caldwell, and, most important, nurturing his troubled children (if from a distance). If there is mystery during this “Existence Period” of middle age that Frank has entered, it is in the possibilities of human kindness and love.
I began this essay by reading the opening lines of The Sportswriter, contrasting them with those of The Last Gentlemen as a way of suggesting the profound difference in sensibility in the writing of Walker Percy and Richard Ford. It seems appropriate to conclude by examining the final paragraph of Independence Day, which would take us as far along with Frank Bascombe as we can yet go. Watching the Fourth of July parade in Haddam, Frank reflects on his own independence: the prospect that his son will come to live with him in the future, that he may “soon be married,” that he will inevitably enter the “Permanent Period,” the “long, stretching-out time” that leads past middle age and ends with death. Significantly, however, watching the parade that involves so many of his townsfolk, Frank now sees that “[i]t is not a bad day to be on earth” (p. 450). Frank joins the crowd along the curb just in time to catch the end of the parade—just in time to “see the sun above the street, breathe in the day's rich, warm smell” and, in the final words of the novel, to “feel the push, pull, the heave and sway of others” (p. 451). Immanence, in Ford's view, is quite opposed to Percy's treatment in Love in the Ruins or The Last Gentleman. If Sutter Vaught in the latter of these novels seeks “descent” into immanence as an alternative to salvation, Frank Bascombe finds that “pleasure” is “eighty percent” of life's good (unfortunately he doesn't specify the source of the other twenty percent). If immanence is the last-chance of despairing figures in Percy's novels, it is the positive good in Ford's, one reason why Frank Bascombe has landed in “gloomy New Jersey” to begin with and stayed put at 19 Hoving Rd. in Haddam for nearly a quarter of a century, by the time of Independence Day. The present and here-and-now are never perfect, but they may possibly prove to be enough.
Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966), p. 11.
Richard Ford, “Walker Percy: Not Just Whistling Dixie.” National Review, 29 (May 13, 1977), 558.
The essay was published as Chapter 3 in Hobson's The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991) p. 55.
See for example Ford's comments in an interview with Kay Bonetti (“An Interview with Richard Ford,” Missouri Review, 10 , 71-96), and his discussion of art's relation to “lived life” in the essay “The Three Kings,” (Esquire, 100 , 577-587).
Richard Ford, The Sportswriter (New York: Vintage, 1986), pp. 369, 354.
Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature,” [Forum 2 (fall 1958), pp. 6-14.]
Edward Dupuy, “The Confessions of an Ex-Suicide: Relenting and Recovering in Richard Ford's The Sportswriter,” Southern Literary Journal, 23 (Fall 1990), 96-97.
Charles Newman, The Postmodern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1985), p. 81.
Richard Ford, Independence Day (New York: Vintage, 1995).
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2683
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 Richard were still in diapers—the ongoing obsession with the fortunes and “future of Southern letters,” it is hardly surprising that many critics have focused upon the “Southernness” of Hannah's and Ford's fiction. Ford began his career with a novel which he hoped “nobody would ever recognize as being southern”—yet A Piece of My Heart was dismissed as “neo-Faulknerian” by Larry McMurtry in the New York Times Book Review. Even though Ford subsequently made a “totally conscious decision to get myself out of the South,” critics have continued to suppose some significant relation between Ford's fiction and his birthplace.1 Hannah's work has received more subtle appraisals accounting for its parodic relation to canonical “Southern literature”; for example, Michael Kreyling cited Hannah's debut, Geronimo Rex, when formulating his theory of “postsouthernness.”2
However, when we assign the prefix “post” to the foundational or naturalized “Southern,” thereby emphasizing what distinguishes Hannah or Ford from Faulkner or Welty, we do not fully efface the etymological or ideological traces. Postsouthern literary critical discourse generally remains related to, if no longer rooted in, 1) the social geography previously known as “the South”; 2) the “Southern” literary tradition. To be sure, the two books under review here usefully highlight the fictional and theoretical shift within “Southern literature”—the postsouthern turn, if you will. However, the most striking aspect of Ruth Weston's book on Hannah is the use of eclectic theoretical approaches which transcend the present scope of (post)Southern literary criticism. In the case of Huey Guagliardo's collection, the most successful essays suggest that critics of Ford's work must look beyond the parochial boundaries of some neo-Faulknerian postage stamp of Mississippi soil.
In an immediate confession which might well chime with other female readers of Hannah's work, Ruth Weston admits that, “as a woman and a feminist,” her early excitement at Hannah's “virtuosity with language” was tempered by horror at “his depiction of, and his characters' treatment of, women” (p. 1). Yet this gendered dynamic between author and critic seems to usefully inform Postmodern Romantic's deeply considered, highly perceptive assessment of Hannah's flawed male protagonists. Building upon an essay which appeared in this journal in 1991—itself perhaps the best piece of Hannah criticism previously published—the first chapter observes that Hannah's men are pathological liars.3 However, Weston shows that such seemingly juvenile lies are actually tragic attempts to live up to masculinist “cultural mythologies of war and heroes” (p. 11). Weston ingeniously and convincingly argues that the lying rage of the archetypal “American manchild” is expressed in the very episodic nature of Hannah's plots: the narrative fails to develop because Hannah's males themselves fail to develop from boys into men.
Subsequent chapters maintain the overall concern with masculinity while encompassing other thematic aspects of Hannah's fiction. Chapter Three emphasizes the link between lying and storytelling itself—both in oral traditions and in contemporary, self-reflexive fictions. A brilliant reading of Hannah's postmodern tall-tale “Evening of the Yarp” crystallizes both perspectives. It is also in Chapter Three that Weston advances the central, titular argument that, for all Hannah's postmodern irony, he is finally “a romantic writer—nostalgic and possessed of a great sadness,” yet more optimistic than “most postcontemporary writers” (p. 102). There are echoes here of Michael Spikes's thesis that Hannah is less a “Southern writer” than in the American Romantic grain of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.4 The fourth and final chapter considers Hannah's “comic vision,” tracing it back to “southern and southwestern humor” (p. 106) and Hannah's stylistic appropriation of the rock ‘n’ roll “riff.”
In Chapter Two, Weston begins by considering Hannah's characters' search for selfhood within the “Southern” context. Having made the routine references to Southerners' quest for self-identity since the Civil War, Weston considers how Hannah's contemporary men are caught between traditional, regional ideology and “the new moral consciousness engendered by the civil rights and women's movements” (p. 42). As the established Southern code of honor comes under pressure from these alternative perspectives, Hannah's male characters “do battle with the code by both aspiring to and struggling against its mythic, heroic ideal” (p. 47). In particular, Weston considers the Southern male mythos of war, as complexly expressed in Hannah's postmodern conflation of the Civil War and the conflict in Vietnam. In both Airships and Ray, the epistemological “literature of memory” is superseded by a postmodern, ontological confusion of “past war experiences and present reality” (p. 49). Some of this territory was covered nearly a decade ago by Kenneth Seib.5 As such, the truest value of Weston's own work on Southern men and war emerges when she turns to Hannah's more recent collections, Bats out of Hell and High Lonesome. There is a particularly fine reading of the relationship between the chaos of war and the repetitive, fragmented incoherent narrative in “Bats out of Hell Division.”
Weston's take on the “Southernness” of Hannah's work is not always so fully developed. “Nicodemus Bluff” is rightly identified as “a parody of that quintessential southern story of a boy's initiation into manhood—Faulkner's ‘The Bear’” (p. 24). However, Weston stops short just as she seems poised to explicate Hannah's postsouthern, parodic relationship to the Dixie Limited himself. And when Weston comments that “Interestingly, the theme of the alienated watcher is important to other southern writers, including Walker Percy, and most recently, Richard Ford” (p. 93), one is left wondering why “Southernness” is important or even interesting here. Are alienation or voyeurism really “Southern” themes? Are Percy, Ford, or Hannah “southern writers” at all?
Weston does not take the explicitly postsouthern turn explored by Lewis Simpson, Kreyling, and Scott Romine; indeed, a footnote acknowledges the rather different influence of Louis Rubin. Yet Postmodern Romantic takes Hannah's work beyond the existing scope of Southern literary theory through the sheer range of Weston's critical approaches, and her eye-opening associations between Hannah and other, non-Southern writers. Regularly engaging with short-story theory, Weston also utilizes Bakhtin and Barthes, and reaches back to earlier American literary critics like Leslie Fiedler and Richard Chase for valuable insights. There are frequent illuminating comparisons between the short stories of Hannah and Hawthorne; Salinger and Stephen Crane are cited to dazzling effect; and Weston even claims that Hannah's postmodern “reservoir of styles and genres” is “perhaps surpassed only by such intertextuality as is found in [Sterne and Joyce]” (p. 88). If this seems an outrageous claim, it is a tribute to the persuasive brilliance of Weston's intertextual associations that one is prepared to countenance the possibility. Only occasionally does a passing theoretical reference to Lacan or Derrida seem to need unpacking, or a litany of intertexts running from Shakespeare through Byron to Thomas Wolfe seem rather too freewheeling. Ultimately, it is Weston's ability to read the work within these larger literary fields which takes Barry Hannah—and Postmodern Romantic—beyond any limiting sense of “Southern literature.”
Turning to Perspectives on Richard Ford, one should first thank Huey Guagliardo for commissioning the first critical essays devoted to Ford's less celebrated works: A Piece of My Heart, The Ultimate Good Luck, and Wildlife. We should also be grateful to Guagliardo for collating most of the useful criticism which has so far been published on Ford. (Though I would immediately qualify that English novelist Nick Hornby's graceful chapter on Ford in Contemporary American Fiction  is conspicuous by its absence, even from the bibliography.) Academic criticism of Ford's work began in 1990 with Edward Dupuy's essay on The Sportswriter. A decade on, one is struck by how Dupuy anticipated those numerous other critics who have related Ford's work to Walker Percy's.
Indeed, only a year later, Fred Hobson situated Ford within a Percyan Southern literary tradition. Hobson's piece remains an inventive close reading of Ford's novel; however, its theoretical failings are more evident now than they were when the essay first appeared in The Southern Writer in the Postmodern World (1991). Though otherwise barely revised. Hobson's essay is retitled “Pest-Faulkner, Post-Southern?” The answer to that question remains “no,” if not immediately so. Considering that Southern shibboleth, “place,” Hobson starts from the skeptical position that the expatriate Mississippian, Frank Bascombe, provides a “postmodern definition of place” (p. 84). Yet by the end of the essay, Hobson concludes that Bascombe's “great desire … to link with place, whether the place is suburban New Jersey or Detroit” (p. 91) is somehow essentially “Southern.” It is worth considering what might have happened had Hobson updated his argument to encompass Independence Day. My feeling is that the flawed “Southern” approach simply could not hold with the second Bascombe novel. Assessing Independence Day, it is almost impossible to identify textual evidence which might support, even obliquely, “Southern” notions of “place” or “community.” Rather (as I have argued elsewhere), Bascombe's new job as a “Residential Specialist” enables him to understand that “place” and “community” are contingent upon the finance-capitalist production of space as real estate.6 Even more than The Sportswriter, Independence Day seems to me to be a book about postsouthern, late-capitalist America, not some Agrarian-rural or even Percyan-suburban “South.”
When I took a preliminary glance at the list of contributors to Guagliardo's volume, I did sense some kind of Southern academic and institutional investment in Richard Ford. The book is published by the University Press of Mississippi; all but one of the contributors is affiliated with a Southern university (three of them, including Guagliardo, are in the English department at LSU, Eunice); even Jeffrey Folks, the only “international” contributor (he works in Japan), is a Southern literary scholar. Happily, my preconceptions regarding Ford's unhappy relationship with the “Southern” conundrum were banished by the newer essays; following Ford himself, most of the contributors abjure regional and theoretical restrictions. It is true that Robert Funk seems obliged to begin by pointing out that, while Ford “is frequently included in the canon of southern writers, he picks most distinctly unsouthern locales” (p. 53). However, Funk's essay itself vindicates the non-Southern approach to Ford's work, considering The Ultimate Good Luck (set largely in Mexico, after all) within the generic context of detective fiction. The benchmarks here are Hammett and Chandler, not Faulkner.
A similarly innovative approach is offered by Priscilla Leder in her essay on gender relations in Rock Springs. Leder's brave thesis is that, for all that male voices dominate the narrative in Ford's short-story collection, the limitations of those men became all too apparent; women, by contrast, exhibit strength and mystery in their very silence. I call this a brave thesis because other critics have been far more skeptical regarding gender relations in Ford's work. In particular, I recall a review in Brightleaf by Doris Betts which expressed concern that, in both Independence Day and Women with Men, “several women … struggle for two-way communication with males.”7
Elinor Ann Walker begins her article on “Great Falls” and Wildlife by disavowing Hobson's “Southern” perspective, and noting that “Ford is much more apt to quote Sartre than Faulkner” (p. 122). Indeed, Walker's essay turns upon Ford's fascination with such existential concepts as being, knowing, and nothingness. Walker's essay is the most theoretically sophisticated expression of what Guagliardo calls the contributors' collective tendency to “place Ford's texts within the framework of the literature of alienation” (p. xii). Considering Ford's whole canon, this is a plausible organizing theme. However, I had serious reservations about the ways in which some contributors conceived “alienation.” Repeatedly, I came across generalizing references to “the individual's sense of displacement in a chaotic modern world” (Funk, p. 53) or “the isolation and loneliness of modern experience” (Leder, p. 97). In the failure to situate Ford's characters in relation to specific socio-economic processes, there emerges a tendency towards vulgar existentialism—what Edward Soja calls “pure contemplation of the isolated individual,” and what Henri Lefebvre, assessing Sartre's early work, once termed “excremental philosophy.”8 Most of the essays never consider that the alienation of Ford's characters might result from capitalism's role in “the [post]modern world.” Perhaps late Sartre might have been useful here; maybe, rather than invoking a vague idea of “alienation,” George Lukács's theory of reification could have been applied.
If one danger of vulgar existentialism is the tendency to generalize the individual's sense of alienation as “an inevitable part of the human predicament” (Guagliardo, p. 4), this tendency seems particularly apparent in Guagliardo's opening essay. Guagliardo proceeds from the premise that “Everyone is marginal,” as gnomically uttered by the Mexican lawyer Carlos Bernhardt in The Ultimate Good Luck. This worldview approximates Michel de Certeau's belief that “marginality is today no longer limited to minority groups, but is rather massive and pervasive.”9 Yet such a sweeping conception of marginality fails to make even the most basic socio-economic distinctions. Hence, Guagliardo uncritically equates Harry Quinn, an ugly American if ever there was one, with the Mexican-Indian “Marginales” scavenging for their very existence on a waste dump on the edge of Oaxaca. Even used “metaphorically” (p. 3), the concept of “marginality” descends into relativistic banality (“in a sense we are all homeless nomads” [p. 23]).
Part of the problem here is that Ford himself sometimes seems to push a pessimistic and vulgarly existential worldview—a worldview which can also spill over into the “grim nihilism” which Hornby sees in A Piece My Heart, or the agentless naturalism expressed in the oft-quoted last line of “Great Falls.” By contrast, the two Bascombe novels more clearly deal with “the individual's alienation from society” (p. xii)—contemporary capitalist society. William Chernecky's “Isolation and Alienation in the Bascombe Novels” successfully assesses Frank's battle against solipsism, his struggle to balance “self” against “public responsibility” (p. 166), and usefully considers each character's “socioeconomic footing in the great American crowd” (p. 168).
However, the most impressive piece of Ford criticism yet published remains Jeffrey Folks's “Richard Ford's Postmodern Cowboys.” “Postmodern cowboys” are those men in Ford's fiction who have been made into “transient laborers with few loyalties or social ties” (p. 147). Folks cites Jack Russell's “temporary and dissociated” (p. 145) labor, thereby reminding us that the tragedy of “gender relations” in Wildlife only comes to the fore when Russell loses his middle-class position at the local golf club and takes a seasonal fire-fighting job away from Great Falls (Russell later dies in an oil-field accident in Nevada). Folks rescues the socio-economic meaning of “marginality” by considering individuals struggling within a specific marginalized culture—the “provincial working-class culture” (p. 149) of the West—and by mediating the concept through Deleuze and Guttari. First published in Folks's own collection Southern Writers at Century's End (1997), “Richard Ford's Postmodern Cowboys” rather belies that book's title. For Folks shows just how completely Ford has turned away from Faulkner's Mississippi and towards Montana, Michigan, and New Jersey—away from “Southern writing” in the Agrarian grain and towards “the social and economic dilemmas of America as a whole” (p. 143).
Richard Ford quoted in Dick Ellis and Graham Thompson. “An Interview with Richard Ford,” OverHere: A European Journal of American Culture, 16 (Winter 1996), 114.
See Michael Kreyling, “Fee, Fie, Faux Faulkner: Parody and Postmodernism in Southern Literature,” Southern Review, 29 (Winter 1993), 1-15.
Ruth Weston, “‘The Whole Damn Lying Opera of It’: Dreams, Lies and Confessions in the Fiction of Barry Hannah,” Mississippi Quarterly, 44 (Fall 1991), 411-428.
Michael Spikes, “Barry Hannah in the American Grain,” Notes on Mississippi Writers, 23 (1991), 25-35.
Kenneth Seib, “‘Sabers, Gentlemen, Sabers’: The J. E. B. Stuart Stories of Barry Hannah,” Mississippi Quarterly, 45 (Winter 1991-92), 41-52.
Martyn Bone, “New Jersey Real Estate and the Postsouthern Sense of Place: Richard Ford's Independence Day,” American Studies in Scandinavia (Fall 2001, forthcoming).
Doris Betts, “Lost in Translation,” Brightleaf. September-October 1997, p. 14.
Edward Soja, Postmodern Geographies (London: Verso, 1989), pp. 131-132.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. xvii.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1747
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 in it, on the whole it made you feel worse about things, but worse in the way that comes of a hard-nosed look at the rhythms and routines of white-collar life. Certainly it was the novel in which Richard Ford came into his own. Before that, and especially in his first book A Piece of My Heart (1976), Ford had written a dense, opaque, Faulknerian prose, which readers who only know his later books would hardly recognize as the same brand. Or as Frank Bascombe, the central character of The Sportswriter puts it, when reflecting on his own short stories and his decision to abandon literature for journalism:
They seemed to have a feeling for the human dilemma and they did seem hard-nosed and old-eyed about things. It was also true, though, that there were a good many descriptions of the weather and the moon, and that most of them were set in places like remote hunting camps on Canadian lakes, or in the suburbs, or Arizona or Vermont, places I had never been, and many of them ended with men staring out snowy windows in New England boarding schools or with somebody driving fast down a dark dirt road. … They also seemed to depend on silence a lot. I seemed. I felt later. to have been stuck in bad stereotypes.
This is the great thing about Frank Bascombe: he is not easily deceived. The short stories in question are well received, the film rights are bought, and he gets an advance on his first novel. But realizing quickly that he does not have a good novel in him, he has no qualms, when the offer comes, at becoming a sportswriter on a glossy magazine. Nor is it a decision he especially regrets, though he does regret his lack of greater potential. But there is not much you can do about lack of potential, so Bascombe and through him Ford insist, and the best thing is just to knuckle under, live as productive a life as possible within given limits.
Ford's question in The Sportswriter, as before and since, was how you get by without delusion. Frank Bascombe is well-read, but thinks that literature is deception, and though he rubs up against religion he can muster no faith. In fact, all that gets him through when his son dies in childhood is an obsession with shopping through mail-order catalogues, and meaningless sex, of which he has quite a lot—Bascombe being, like all Ford's men, adept with women. The impressive thing about The Sportswriter, however, was the way Ford developed a style to match his narrator's world-view, the whole novel moving seamlessly between a highly wrought, faintly nostalgic, ultimately hollow modern lyricism—the shaft of light on a suburban lawn—and the truncated, democratic, boringly universal, overvalued language of sport. The result was a book that unsettled in the best sense, but also a book that left a bad taste in the mouth.
That taste had to do with the abrupt way the narrative handled, you might better say nailed, his peripheral characters. Now sometimes, it must be said, the unsettling thing about the way Ford nails a minor player is that he tells a truth you would rather not hear. But how about Barb, an air-stewardess, with whom Bascombe's girlfriend chats on a flight from New Jersey to Detroit?
Barb is a squat little strawberry blondie with too much powder make up and slightly heavy hands. She is interested in something called “price-points” and “mean value mark-up,” and whether or not an identical bag couldn't be bought at Hudson's boutique in a mall near her own condo in Royal Oak; it turns out she studied retailing in college.
Or Bosobolo, an African lodger, and the “dumpy white seminar girl half his age” with whom he may or may not be having an affair: “What a piece of exoticism it must be! A savage old prince, old enough to be her father, whonking away on her like a frat boy.” So that's Barb, and Bosobolo, and the seminar girl, nailed. Which is OK, because The Sportswriter is Frank Bascombe's book, and because he has not long lost his son, and because nailing people is his job.
Published in 1995, Independence Day, the sequel to The Sportswriter, found Frank Bascombe's circumstances changed in two significant ways. He had become a landlord in the black neighbourhood of his New Jersey town. Partly he does this to get acquainted with a group of people he thought he should know better, and there is, as a consequence, a new awareness in his handling of others. Witness his dealings with the guys who maintain his properties, the Lewis twins, who have both told him “on more than one occasion that by being born in Mississippi, even with all the heavy baggage that brings along, I naturally possess a truer instinct for members of their race than any white northerner could ever approximate. This is, of course, not one bit true, though theirs is an old-style-racial stationlessness that forever causes baseless ‘verities’ to persist on with the implacable force of truth.”
The narrator might be thought to be getting something off his chest here, that heavy baggage, perhaps, which if it means anything surely means a tendency to nail people too quickly, to fix them too readily according to colour or station. But if he is owning up to being weighed down here—and it is hard to tell because the sense is so tricky—the other big change in Frank Bascombe's life makes him more than ever inclined to the quick decision. He is now in real estate, and the people he deals with are clients, for instance the Markhams:
Sometime in the indistinct Sixties, each with a then-spouse, they abandoned their unpromising flatlander lives (Joe was a trig teacher in Aliquippa, Phyllis a plump, copper-haired, slightly bulgy-eyed housewife from the D.C. area) and trailered up to Vermont in search of a sunnier, less predictable Weltansicht. Time and fate soon took their unsurprising courses; spouses wandered off with other people's spouses; their kids got busily into drugs, got pregnant, got married, then disappeared to California or Canada or Tibet or Wiesbaden, West Germany.
And so it goes on, and so, I suppose, real estate agents go on, filleting “unpromising flatlander lives” for just the right amount of detail to enable them to close the deal. And so you could say the author has done his research, easily inhabiting the weary tone through which his central character is obliged to view the world. Except that recently in Ford's work that tone seems to have come too easily, the bad taste of the dismissive character sketch being more and more what you are left with. Even so Independence Day remained highly readable, because Frank Bascombe is smart and charming, and you want to know how his life unfolds.
A Multitude of Sins is a collection of ten short stories, and so lacks the architecture of an unfolding life. The basic narrative ground is familiar Ford territory, the sin in question being, for the most part, adultery, and the people who are committing it being, in the main, professionally successful, white-collar people who in all important respects are leading dissatisfying, unsurprising, unpromising lives. Adulterous “fucking” (the word Ford rightly insists on for what it is his characters do) is the way these people bring excitement into their otherwise orderly existences, and the stories mostly relate the cataclysmic moments when somebody finds out, or the adulterous relationship comes to an end, or the marriage breaks down, or an old scar is opened up. The stories' readability is partly in their basic voyeuristic appeal—the collection opens with a man staring into a neighbouring apartment where a woman is undressing—and partly from Ford's mastery of narrative pace. He knows how to hold back on a good twist, produce a shock in an insulated life. Even if, here, the twists and shocks are too often of the animal variety. What, one wonders, would hard-nosed Frank Bascombe have made of a story which turns on the mysterious arrival of a stray puppy at a middle-class house?
Not that Ford has gone sentimental on us. Quite the opposite, the constraints of the short story making his handling of people terser, thinner, than ever, lives reduced to the barest handful of details, to profiles in an agency file.
He was a Jew, like Eliott Gould, and had grown up in Roanoake, gone to Virginia then Virginia Law School. His parents had been small-town doctors who now lived in Boca Grande where they were by turns ecstatic and bored in a condominium doing nothing.
Of course, you could say that there is a lot of truth in all this, that people just are a series of highly predictable choices, including the predictable choice eventually to screw around. But then, if this is true, to ask a Bascombe-like question, what do we need our writers for? In The Sportswriter what Ford offered was an image of limitation. What he is serving up now is a limiting image.
The most impressive story in A Multitude of Sins is “Abyss”. The last and longest in the book, it follows two real-estate agents who are having an affair, and who, in the middle of a sales conference in Phoenix, decide to head out to the Grand Canyon. As they travel, Ford does what he does best, shows a fragile arrangement subtly breaking down, monitors the damage done to the psyches involved. It is a deft, highly observant performance. But at the end, a person described as an enthusiast trips and falls into the Grand Canyon. It is the death of a kind of Romanticism, I guess, which is all very well, and the denouement is skilfully managed, but where, you wonder, does the writer go from here?
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1281
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 holiday. For some deeper insights into the workings of the American mind, better to turn to that old-fashioned artifact, the book. The adventures of the mad Captain Ahab—the protagonist of Herman Melville's 1851 novel, Moby Dick, which chronicles the pursuit of a great white whale—may well have more to say about where the U.S. is headed in the long run than the latest bulletin from CNN. So, too, with that country's best contemporary writers, figures such as Richard Ford, whose most recent collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, dissects the vexed heart of the middle class. Or Jonathan Franzen, whose much-praised, hugely popular satire The Corrections takes deadly aim at everything that currently constitutes success in America.
Franzen's book, in fact, makes the perfect rebuttal to anyone who claims Americans are incapable of self-criticism. He portrays a United States headlocked by its own greed, where unprecedented levels of personal wealth have produced a large but spiritually bankrupt privileged class. Yet he also captures America's strong suit: a titanic energy wedded to an optimism capable of endless self-renewal. It's the dissonance between these two things—the entrapping, siren spell of new wealth, and the perennial struggle to fight free to a better tomorrow—that generates the book's magic, including its explosive humour. The Corrections is the smartest, funniest satire in years.
Like Walt Whitman's poems, Franzen's vast comedy seems powered by an energy that rises from an entire society. Yet despite its multitudes of characters and milieus, it's mainly the story of a single upper-middle-class family, the Lamberts. As the novel opens, the aging parents are still living in the family home in the fictional midwestern town of St. Jude. The cantankerous Alfred, who is losing his faculties to Parkinson's, is in perpetual battle with his wife, Enid, who is determined to get him out of his favourite chair and into the sort of happy activities she sees other retired couples enjoying. The kids, meanwhile, have fled for the money-mines of the East Coast. Gary, the eldest, has gotten rich as a portfolio manager, but suffers a perpetual cold bath of disrespect from his pampered wife and children. Chip, his college-teacher brother, beds one of his students and promptly gets fired. Suddenly poor, he tries to steal a salmon steak from an upscale New York deli by hiding it in his trousers. Like his sister, Denise, who loses her job as a high-end chef, he begins to glimpse a terrible truth: the shame of being poor in a society that exalts wealth above all else is almost more debilitating than poverty itself.
The novel parodies the public face of America, with its relentless habit of cheerfulness. That whole attitude is encapsulated in the monomaniacally upbeat ship's doctor Enid meets during a luxury cruise. He prescribes a mood-altering pill called Aslan, named for the Christ-like lion in the Narnia tales. The drug masks all guilt and shame—the secret burden of virtually every character in the book. The Corrections is a morality tale that reveals another, unofficial America, where loneliness and strangeness are the truth behind the smile. That old ghost of American life, puritanism, stalks afresh here, albeit in weird new forms. In a country where the pursuit of happiness is virtually a religion, Gary monitors the state of his soul with all the fervour of a pilgrim father. He's not looking for sin, in the old sense, but for any evidence he might be (shame of shames) depressed.
Meanwhile, Alfred's nightmares take the reader deep into the shady flip side of America's democratic inclusiveness. His mind addled by drugs and dementia, the old man thinks he's being attacked by one of his own turds, which taunts him for his secret fear and hatred of people who are unlike him. Alfred, it seems, can't stand foreigners of any kind. And he's disgusted by women with their “trail of Kleenexes and Tampaxes everywhere they go,” not to mention “fairies with their doctor's office lubricants, and your Mediterraneans with their whiskers and their garlic.” In fact, the only people Alfred approves of are upper-middle-class northern European men. Alfred's a caricature, perhaps, but exaggeration is the soul of satire. Franzen has propelled a dart into the heart of North American power structures, where attitudes like Alfred's are arguably more common than we'd like to believe.
The Corrections—the title carries a moral overtone, and refers to every possible meaning of the word, from stock market corrections to the penal kind—does have its shortcomings. Although it compellingly maps the secret suffering of its main characters, its frenzied scenes are rarely as good at conveying the experience of that pain to the reader. For a more intimate and finely tuned exploration of human dilemmas, better to turn to the superb, gently melancholy stories in Ford's A Multitude of Sins. Illicit liaisons are the mainspring of most of these tales. In fact, like Updike, Ford appears to treat the extramarital affair as such a normal event, it appears as virtually a rite of passage for any mature man and woman. Guilt still happens, though, as well as self-betrayal—which often proves as poisonous as the betrayal as others.
Take the story “Quality Time,” in which a journalist lies about what he actually feels in order to appear the man his lover requires. Or “Charity,” in which an ex-policeman makes impossibly big demands on his wife in order that she will refuse them—and so give him an excuse to leave her. These are tortuous situations, involving an exploration of the inner state of the characters—something Ford manages as deftly as any American writer since Henry James. And yet, to say that Ford's subject is duplicity is to miss his full achievement. Many of his characters manifest their own kind of integrity and courage in painful situations, such as the narrator in the splendid “Calling,” who recalls his youth as the son of a selfish, abandoning father. That story showcases Ford's ability to write a great dramatic scene. Re-creating a father-and-son duck-hunting adventure near New Orleans, Ford delineates the misty morning, the terror of the ducks and the psychological tensions among his human subjects with a thrilling, revelatory exactness.
Ford can make mistakes, such as the too-abrupt, melodramatic ending of “Under the Radar.” But he gives a unique perspective on the United States. A Mississippian by birth, an outsider by temperament, he reveals a private America that is sadder and in many ways wiser than the bright, brassy America on public view. Of course, like Franzen, he also conveys insights that finally take his work beyond what is simply “American.” The true state of the union may be found in Ford and Franzen, but so is the secret temper of our times. This is hardly surprising: the best writers have always appealed beyond their own societies. In making American experience so universally accessible, these two authors remind us of the deep well of ordinary, complicated humanness that lies beyond the stereotypes we too often mistake for the real thing.
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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 ‘Creche’ consists of two kids and their frightful father, their maternal aunt and grandmother: they have gathered at Christmas for some Fordian cosiness in a Michigan ski resort while Mum, who absconded with Vince because of his big dick, is in rehab. In ‘Under the Radar’ a young couple are driving to dinner in Connecticut. On the way, Marjorie tells Steven that she had an affair with their prospective host. The longest story, ‘Abyss’, is about two champion estate agents who have an affair and quickly come to despise one another on an illicit, fatal trip to the Grand Canyon. My own favourite is almost the shortest, ‘Reunion’. Here, the narrator comes face to face at Grand Central Station with the man who hit him for screwing his wife a year ago; the man is waiting for his daughter and is icily polite to the narrator, who cannot tear himself away.
These stories are not rib-ticklers then, but are they good? In the work of Chekhov, Cheever or Carver, with whom Ford is sometimes compared, the question does not present itself. Their material is rarely merry either, but most of their stories feel as if they have existed for ever: the author has seen and plucked something entire and round and seamless. Making comparisons like this is unfair of course, but the form invites it because there is nothing to hide behind.
If care were enough to guarantee excellence, then Ford could not be faulted, but it is his extreme care that betrays him. Nobody could accuse him of not thinking through his characters' feelings—he has done so exhaustively, so that one sometimes longs for a clear image in place of half a page of analysis. Yet to criticise him for failing to use images is not quite just because he often uses them well. Too often they seem ponderous or tired, however: while the duck-shooting sequence is neatly executed, the ghost of Hemingway hovers over it; the kite (with the dad in his wheelchair) at the end of ‘Charity’ is a cliché.
You can see what he is driving at in a sentence such as this:
It was the absence I mentioned before, the skill he had to not be where he exactly was, but yet to seem to be present to any but the most practiced observer.
But it would be hard to beat this for ugliness in the work of major short-story writers. Like the term ‘dalliant’—although, again, you can see what he means—the lugubrious word furrows what needs to be a smooth surface. The same applies to the characters' backgrounds. Two pages after someone has been introduced, you are informed where he or she went to school, what subjects they took and their grades, their football record, promotional path and career prospects. Some readers might find it gratifying that Ford has imagined all these details, but they point to a stiffness in his technique. Although the details of the assembly are always different, the way in which Ford's characters are assembled makes them seem rather similar. Moreover, the crafted ghastliness of so many of Ford's creations makes me suspect him of feeling contempt towards them.
For stories like these to work well they must be fluid. Readers with more familiarity with American life may not find them jarring. For my part, I scarcely recognise the people in Ford's world as belonging to the same species. If I do not find this to be an issue with Annie Proulx's weirdos or Chekhov's dropouts, then perhaps the problem is mine.
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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 to defeat feelings of alienation by forming human connections. Percy describes a “triple alliance” of reader, alienated character in a novel, and novelist that is created via the language by which the “unspeakable” experience of alienation is rendered speakable. The reader's response takes the form of consoling recognition: “Yes! That is how it is!” And the result, says Percy, is an “aesthetic reversal of alienation” (83).
Trained as a physician before becoming a novelist. Percy also came to view the novelist as a diagnostician of the modern malaise and to view literature as a kind of medicine for the human soul. Although Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Ford does not have a medical background and while his works lack the religious implications for which Percy's fiction is so well known, Ford does, like Percy, view the very act of telling a story as consoling and optimistic: and his 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. “If loneliness is the disease, then the story is the cure,” he says, using the type of literary/medical metaphor more commonly associated with Percy (Guagliardo 143).
Ford's novels, stories, and essays exemplify a meticulous concern for the nuances of language, a poet's preoccupation not only with the meanings of words but also with their sounds, as well as with the rhythm of phrases and sentences. Even in conversation Ford chooses his words and sentences with great care, aware as he is of their power and importance. As Gail Caldwell pointed out in a 1987 profile of the writer for The Boston Globe, “he talks the way he writes: in simple compound sentences as careful as they are reflective” (Guagliardo 40). In my own interview with Ford a decade later, he discussed his desire to reinvent language and the revelation that came to him as a young man that language, beyond its denotative function in communication, is also, as he describes it, “a source of pleasure in and of itself—all of its corporeal qualities, its syncopations, moods, sounds, the way things look on the page” (Guagliardo 153). As I replayed the tape of our conversation while editing a book called Conversations with Richard Ford. I noticed that Ford's slow and emphatic enunciation of the words corporeal and syncopations plainly displayed his own great pleasure in using language.
Over the years, the author's remarks repeatedly have made clear his devotion to language. “When you talk to Ford,” reports Michael Schumacher in a revealing 1991 profile in Writer's Digest that focuses on the creative process, “you are likely to hear plenty of discussion about language and writing good sentences … Ford has dedicated his writing life to the composition of individual sentences, and everything—theme, meaning, usefulness—rises from those sentences. It's a point Ford can't seem to emphasize enough.” Ford, whose works most often originate not in complex plot outlines but in a single sentence, tells Schumacher: “The sentence is where one important, individual experience of literature takes place” (Guagliardo 93).
At times Ford's works have originated in a name or even in a single word. This was true of the short story “Great Falls.” “The name was just magic in my ears,” says Ford. “I like the way it has a long a and a short a. I like the way it makes a kind of iamb in your mind's ear—Great Falls, Great Falls. I like the idea of things going downhill.” According to Ford, “Those kinds of language-determined things are much overlooked in the ways people talk about literature—the affection a writer has for any one isolated piece of language, a word or a phrase. Whenever I see Great Falls on the page,” he says, “it has a little brio about it and I immediately want to start writing something after it” (Guagliardo 87). Following the publication of Independence Day (1995), the first novel to win both the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award. Ford disclosed that his preoccupation with the word independence led to the creation of that work. The author, whose writings and interviews are often sprinkled with references to American popular culture, pointed out that the word became implanted in his mind after listening to Bruce Springsteen's song, also titled “Independence Day.” As Ford explained. “The word kept coming up in one context or another … and there's this great line of Henry Miller's, one of the most interesting things I've heard anyone say: ‘Never think of the surface except as a volume.’ So when I see a word that I'm interested in, what that means to me is that the word has a kind of density to it, and if I can dedicate some language to it I can invent something. So I decided to write a novel in which I would use this word a lot, and maybe even write a novel in which it would be a primary concern” (Guagliardo 122).
In a 1983 essay for Esquire magazine. Ford credited his fellow Mississippian, William Faulkner, with first revealing to him the consoling power of language: “Faulkner—partly because I was a kid in Mississippi, and so was he, and he was writing in Mississippi when I was growing up—treated me with and to language which was about things that made the world more orderly to me.” Faulkner's gift. Ford explained, extended beyond language that gave meaning and order to the world: “There are all kinds of things in Faulkner the meaning of which you don't know, but you kind of luxuriate in the language, in an almost osmotic way. Feel what it's about … and when I didn't understand things, console myself into believing that it was all right just to feel the words, speak the words to myself, let the words live in my mind.” It was, specifically, Faulkner's novel Absalom, Absalom! which revealed to Ford, as he puts it, “the singular value of written words and their benefit to lived life.” Faulkner's novel, says Ford, is a testament to the “efficacy of telling” and to language's powers of consolation against whatever ails the human spirit (“The Three Kings” 581).
Ford's devotion to language is inextricably linked to another of his chief concerns, what he refers to as “the fabric of affection that holds people close enough together to survive.” His fictional characters struggle to connect with others in an effort to overcome feelings of loneliness and isolation, while acknowledging that language often fails to reverse feelings of alienation. Ford nevertheless believes that words have the potential “to narrow that space Emerson calls the infinite remoteness that separates people,” for, as he says, “[y]ou get to participate in other lives through the agency of language” (Guagliardo 120).
Ford's belief in the affirmative power of language, its power to order experience, to console and to heal, and to bridge the gap between self and other, is shown in a novel such as Independence Day by his attempt to reinvent, or at least broaden, the conventional meaning of the word independence. He has pointed out that the line “Just say goodbye it's Independence Day,” from the Springsteen song about a son leaving home, led him to contemplate the fact that the word is most often used to signify isolation and the severing of human ties. Realizing that “independence in the most conventional sense means leavetaking, putting distance between yourself and other people, getting out of their orbit,” Ford explains that he began to wonder if he could give the word another meaning, a more affirming quality. Ford allows that in his novel he intended the word to suggest “a freedom to make contact with others, rather than the freedom to sever oneself from others,” acknowledging that while “anyone can sever ties” he views himself as a writer of works that are “more affirming” (Guagliardo 123). Again and again, Ford's art, constructed of language, testifies to his profound belief in the power of narrative to forge human connections.
Although Ford believes in the “efficacy of telling,” at the same time he recognizes that language is often ineffective. Ford's Frank Bascombe, the protagonist and narrator of both The Sportswriter and its sequel, Independence Day, is a character who, like his creator, understands the importance of language in reaching others as well as its limitations. Throughout Independence Day, for example. Frank tries desperately to forge a connection with his troubled teenage son, Paul, in order to help the boy find his way in the world. He frets about “not owning the right language” (17) to communicate with a boy who has erected a variety of protective barriers against human contact. Paul, for example, has a habit of constantly wearing headphones, of emitting periodic barking noises, and he spends a great deal of time “thinking he's thinking.” In Independence Day there is a great deal of emphasis upon the role that language plays in helping one to achieve or avoid connections with others. As he tries to connect with Paul, Frank expresses his faith in the affirmative power of language: “My trust,” he says, “has always been that words can make most things better and there's nothing that can't be improved on. But words are required” (353).
The importance that Frank attributes to words is shown, in both The Sportswriter and Independence Day, by his tendency to assign names or to label various experiences or states of mind. Terms such as “dreaminess,” “factualism,” “realism,” and what Frank refers to in Independence Day as his “Existence Period philosophy” are reminiscent of Percy's Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer using terms such as “the everydayness” and “the malaise” to describe his feelings of alienation, as well as his use of Kierkegaardian terms such as “rotation” and “repetition” to describe his strategies for defeating those feelings.
Frank Bascombe's passive, stoical life in the Existence Period, a philosophy which implies, among other things, a midlife willingness “to let matters go as they go and see what happens” (10-11), often results in “physical isolation and emotional disengagement” (390). Frank often finds himself using language to distance himself from others. As a successful real estate agent, he even takes pleasure in what he calls his skillful use of “strategizing pseudo-communication” (76). With his son Paul, however, Frank's inability to find the right language is quite painful, leaving him as “lonely as a shipwreck.” At times, he says, even their “oldest-timiest, most reliable, jokey way of conducting father-son business” fails, and their “words get carried off in the breeze, with no one to care if [they] speak the intricate language of love or don't” (265-66). It is impossible, of course, for Frank to view his son with the same Existence Period disinterest with which he views his clients.
The final scene of Independence Day is perhaps the most moving passage in Ford's fiction, and the author's own testament to the “efficacy of telling.” The novel's closing calls to mind a scene toward the conclusion of Percy's The Moviegoer, in which Binx, when asked what he plans to do with his life, replies: “There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons” (233). At the end of Ford's novel, Frank Bascombe is awakened from a sound sleep in the middle of the night by a ringing telephone. Most likely it is Paul on the line, but the caller is less important than the fact that Frank responds with healing words. After saying hello from the darkness, Frank silently listens to the muffled sounds on the other end of the line; he hears a breath, a sigh, and a sound that he takes to be “a receiver touching what must've been a face.” Feeling sure that he knows the caller, Frank finally speaks: “I'm glad you called,” he says, pressing the receiver to his ear and opening his eyes in the darkness, “I just got here. Now's not a bad time at all. This is a full-time job. Let me hear your thinking. I'll try to add a part to the puzzle. It can be simpler than you think.” Soon the connection is gone, and Frank drifts off to sleep in the darkness. Dreaming that he is in a crowd of people watching a 4th of July parade, Frank feels “the push, pull, the weave and sway of others” (451) as he finds himself immersed in the great current of human experience and excited by the infinite possibilities that it offers. By the end of the novel it is clear that Frank is abandoning his Existence Period philosophy.
In “First Things First: One More Writer's Beginnings,” one of several memoirs written for Harper's magazine, Ford describes writing as “an existential errand” involving “dark and lonely work,” and he explains that the main goal of writers is “to discover and bring to precious language the most important things they [are] capable of, and to reveal this to others with the hope that it will commit an effect on them—please them, teach them, console them. Reach them” (75-76). Ford's fictional characters strive but seldom succeed in forging meaningful connections with others. Language often fails them in their quests for human contact, so they lapse into solipsism as they desperately try to come to terms with their own loneliness. Richard Ford, who likes to quote Emerson's line about the “infinite remoteness” that separates us all, dramatizes again and again in his work the importance of communication and affection in redeeming the loneliness inherent in the human condition; but Ford's characters, such as Frank Bascombe, must first locate themselves, face up to their own isolation before achieving that sense of connectedness for which they are searching. If they succeed in locating themselves, then they sometimes find consolation, even redemption, in the very act of telling their stories to others. As Ford has said, “If loneliness is the disease, the story is the cure.”
Ford, Richard. “First Things First: One More Writer's Beginnings.” Harper's Magazine (August 1988): 72-76.
———. Independence Day. New York: Random House/Vintage, 1995.
———. The Sportswriter. New York: Random House/Vintage, 1986.
———. “The Three Kings: Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald.” Esquire (December 1983): 577-87.
Guagliardo, Huey, ed. Conversations with Richard Ford. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2001.
Percy, Walker. The Message in the Bottle. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1984.
———. The Moviegoer. New York: Knopf, 1960.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 191
Ford, Richard, and Bonnie Lyons. “Richard Ford: The Art of Fiction CXLVII.” Paris Review 38, no. 140 (fall 1996): 42-77.
An interview conducted in July 1996 in which Ford discusses his writing process, the development of his writing, and his experiences growing up in the South.
Ford, Richard, Paris Review, and others. “The Man in the Back Row Has a Question VII.” Paris Review 43, no. 158 (spring-summer 2001): 297-304.
An interview with several authors in which Ford and others answer a question about the experience of rejection in their literary careers.
Orr, Philip W. Review of Rock Springs, by Richard Ford. Georgia Review 42 (spring 1988): 210.
A negative review of Rock Springs, stating that its stories “suffer from a minimalness and emptiness of soul.”
Additional coverage of Ford's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 5; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 11, 47, 86, 128; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 46, 99; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 227; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; and Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2.
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