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.)

Rock Springs

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

All ten of the stories collected here have previously appeared in magazines (four in ESQUIRE, including the title story, and two each in THE NEW YORKER and GRANTA); one story, “Communist,” was selected for THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, 1986.

“Empire,” at nearly forty pages the longest story in the collection, exemplifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of Ford’s stories. Forty-two-year-old Vic Sims is traveling by train with his wife Marge from Spokane, Washington, where they live, to Minot, North Dakota, where Marge’s sister Pauline has been placed in a mental-health clinic. A group of soldiers are traveling on the same train, including several women. Marge, who has recently undergone surgery to remove a malignant tumor, takes a “snooze pill” and retires to their sleeping car; Sims ends up in the compartment of one of the army women, Sergeant Benton. In the early morning darkness, he is awakened by the stopping of the train; he returns to find Marge awake too, watching the prairie fire that has caused the delay. In bed with her, aware of her vulnerability, he experiences the epiphany that gives the story its title: He feels “alone in a wide empire, removed and afloat, as if life was far away now, as if blackness was all around, as if stars held the only light.”

This outline of “Empire” leaves out the flashbacks against which the present events of the narrative take on added meaning, and it does not do justice to the nuances of the telling, but it offers a model which most of the stories in the collection follow to the letter. These are carefully constructed fictions that pivot on a single incident, in the manner of the classic short story. They are overwhelmingly bleak, although Ford grants his characters the ability to summarize their condition with the dark poetry of Sims’s epiphany. With their deft patterns, their connoisseurship of American speech (at least one narrow slice of it), Ford’s stories bring to mind a remark he made in a NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW symposium: “Characters are language, not people.” True, perhaps--but is it something to brag about?

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Of the ten stories in Ford’s collection Rock Springs (1987), eight—including the title story—are told in the first person, narrated by self-reflective men who seem compelled to tell what happened. The voices behind these stories possess a ragged, rough-hewn lyricism whose loss-tinged, nostalgic narrative tone leans toward the elegiac. Ford earns reader sympathy for men like Earl Middleton—men who might, at first glance, spell nothing but trouble—by exposing the soft sides beneath their typically hard-shelled exteriors. Earl is a thief with a heart, and Ford forces the reader to accept this fact at face value. He achieves this effect in his fiction with a style that is seemingly styleless. He allows his characters not only to feel, but also to respond to the situation at hand.

In “Rock Springs,” Ford puts a language of both emotion and rhetoric in the hands of a man not often given the chance to speak, to tell how he views and lives in this world. When Earl directs his closing lament to the reader, it is hard not to align even the coldest heart with his. Ford’s storytelling power derives its authenticity and grace from his ability to find the poetry in everyday speech. In a molasses-paced, flat-voweled narrative voice that is boyishly charming and seductive in its apparent simplicity, Ford lures his readers into a landscape of dashed hopes and deflated dreams, breakdowns and breakups, a world where the luckless find the strength to go on living and looking for love, looking right through all the brightly lit signs that keep telling them to stop.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. September 6, 1987, XIV, p. 6.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, August 1, 1987, p. 1094.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 27, 1987, p. 13.

The Missouri Review. X, no. 2, 1987, p. 71.

National Review. XXXIX, December 4, 1987, p. 55.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIV, November 5, 1987, p. 12.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, September 20, 1987, p. 1.

Time. CXXX, November 16, 1987, p. 88.

The Village Voice Literary Supplement. September, 1987, p. 19.

The Wall Street Journal. November 10, 1987, p. 34.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, November 1, 1987, p. 5.