Rock Springs

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Although Rock Springs is Richard Ford’s first collection of short fiction, none of these stories is amateur work. Ford has been publishing short stories since 1971, and all ten of the stories in this volume have appeared previously, four in Esquire, two in The New Yorker, and the others in various literary magazines. As is common in American publishing, this collection follows the wide success of a novel; at forty-two, Ford finally achieved general critical acclaim for The Sportswriter (1986), his third novel, which followed the earlier A Piece of My Heart (1976) and The Ultimate Good Luck (1981).

The stories in Rock Springs are broad in scope and revolve around major events in the lives of the characters. Told in the tradition of great realists such as Sherwood Anderson and Frank O’Connor—Ford, in fact, is often called a “new realist,” along with such contemporary short story writers as Richard Yates and Raymond Carver—the typical Ford story is rooted in the moral significance of the protagonist’s action.

Since Ford’s concerns are traditional, it is not surprising that in most of his stories the narrative strategy falls into a classic pattern: The protagonist looks back over some event in his life and reflects on its significance. In the first-person stories which make up the bulk of the collection, the narrating protagonist is a white, nonviolent, working-class male whose motivation is an impulse to analyze the event for its meaning in his life. Usually, the narrator is a man in his early forties, and in four of these stories, he recalls an event in late adolescence that involved some loss, the decline of his family relationships in particular. The story “Great Falls” begins “This is not a happy story. I warn you,” setting the tone for the book. Although there are triumphs in the lives of some of these characters, their successes are limited: A sense of loss is a major element in their lives.

In “Great Falls” the narrator relates that in 1960, when he was fourteen, his father was a retired air force sergeant who worked a civilian job on the air force base outside Great Falls, Montana (all but one of these first-person stories are set in Western Montana, three of them in the Great Falls area). His father is a man with a perverted passion for killing wild game; he slaughters geese and ducks and then illegally sells the dead birds at a local hotel. One night, instead of stopping off at a bar as usual, the father and his son drive directly to the family home in the country, where they discover a young air force man in the house with the narrator’s mother. The father orders the man outside to the yard, where the father pushes a revolver under the man’s chin. The tension created by this scene is almost unbearable as the narrator and his mother look on—but finally the father does not fire, and the young man drives off with the narrator’s mother. The next day, the narrator visits his mother at a motel during his noon hour from school: She is leaving town alone, for his father will not take her back. The narrator walks back to school realizing that his life had “turned suddenly,” although he did not know exactly how or in which way at the time.

In relating this story, the narrator evaluates the significance of that “turning” in his life, which marked the death of his family. In struggling with the larger meaning of this personal event, the narrator decides that there is “some coldness in us all, some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life.” This coldness is a lack of human compassion which makes human existence seem like “a border between two nothings.” It makes people “no more or less than animals” which meet by chance on the road—“watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire.” The narrator’s father dies in an accident five years after forcing the mother to leave, and although the narrator occasionally sees his mother by chance, he is not very close to her. His comment on the nature of human existence—“a border between two nothings"—is a final statement on his inability to reconcile himself to the loss of his family.

The central event in “Optimists” involves a similar loss, but in this story there is a critical difference which allows the narrator to accommodate that loss. In 1959, when the narrator, now an adult, was fifteen, his father—a brakeman for the railroad—accidentally killed a...

(The entire section is 1835 words.)