Rock Springs: Stories
by Richard Ford
Atlantic Monthly Press, 235 pp., $17.95
“Low ceiling,” a distinguished novelist on an awards committee demurred when I spoke up for these stories by Richard Ford. 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 …