Rock Springs is a collection of stories Ford wrote during the 1980’s. There are no heroes in the traditional sense in these short works, nor are there villains. Some readers might be inclined to label the characters “victims,” for certainly the environment and the influence of other people determine the characters’ actions, often for the worse. Yet Ford should not be confused with the naturalistic authors of the early 1900’s who portrayed hapless human specimens under a microscope.
Though the situations in which characters find themselves seem, for the most part, not of their own making, rather than being dehumanized or victimized, they become more credible and sympathetic. Many are loners struggling to find some meaning in limited lives lived out against harsh environments. In the title story, Earl, the narrator, is a petty criminal fleeing bad-check charges in Montana with his girlfriend and his daughter. As his troubles mount—his car breaks down and his girlfriend decides to leave him—he experiences a self-revelation. He comes to see himself as a victim of happenstance, unable to take charge of his life: “There was always a gap between my plan and what happened, and I only responded to things as they came along and hoped I wouldn’t get in trouble.” Like many Ford stories, “Rock Springs” concludes as it begins, with a question that remains unanswered.
Like several protagonists in the stories, Les, the narrator of “Communist,” is a teenager. On an illegal expedition to hunt migrating Siberian geese with his mother, Aileen, and her friend Glen, he acquires a painful truth about life and himself. When Glen decides to leave a wounded bird to die, Aileen rejects him, explaining her action by asserting, “We have to keep civilization alive somehow.” Years later, remembering the incident, Les thinks, “A light can go out in the heart. All this happened years ago, but I can still feel now how sad and remote the world was to me.” With “Communist,” Ford perfected the type of ending that is a hallmark of his stories: The protagonist analyzes past events because, like Sherwood Anderson’s character, he wants to know why. Anderson’s influence is clearly evident in Rock Springs, and Ford has often expressed admiration for Anderson’s plain diction and his fondness for simple American people. All these elements permeate Ford’s own fiction in his choice of characters and the style of his narration.
In Rock Springs, Ford reveals hopes and desires of characters whose limited lives belie their depth of feeling and capacity for love. Most of the endings are, to some degree, positive, for they involve hope on the part of characters that some understanding of reality is possible. No matter how insignificant their lives and acts appear on the surface, Ford makes readers observe, listen, and identify with these people. He believes that a short story should treat readers to language, make them forget their problems, and give “order to the previously unordered for the purpose of making beauty and clarity anew.”
Earl Middleton is a man looking to change his luck. He has had his fair share of trouble in his life—troubles with the law, love, and work—and now he is hoping for a fresh start, a new beginning. He decides to hit the road, to get out of Montana, where he has recently gotten into trouble over several bad checks, which can put him into prison in Montana. For Earl, the troubles do not end in Montana. He seems to breed bad luck and trouble, to bring them along with him, even though he claims that he believes in crossing the street to stay out of trouble’s way.
For Earl, trouble follows and hounds him like the fumes of exhaust that stream out from the back of his car, a cranberry Mercedes stolen from an ophthalmologist’s lot. He gets halfway through Wyoming...
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