From the stories in Richard Ford’s collection Rock Springs (1987): “This was not going to be a good day in Bobby’s life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail. He had written several bad checks, and before he could be sentenced for that he had robbed a convenience store with a pistol—completely gone off his mind.” Bobby’s ex-wife is giving him his last breakfast and the man she is now living with is telling the story, with some disgruntlement (“Sweethearts”).
In the title story, the narrator, Earl, with his daughter, Cheryl, her dog, Little Duke, and Earl’s girlfriend, Edna, are driving through Wyoming in a stolen car.
I’d gotten us a good car, a cranberry Mercedes I’d stolen out of an opthamologist’s lot in White-fish, Montana. I stole it because I thought it would be comfortable over a long haul, because I thought it got good mileage, which it didn’t, and because I’d never had a good car in my life.
The car develops trouble in the oil line and they have to abandon it in the woods. Somehow the little group gets to a Ramada Inn, and after a bit of food and lovemaking Edna accepts Earl’s offer of a bus ticket and takes off.
There he is, Earl, with Cheryl, the dog, and no car. They might as well be dead, as immobile as the stone urns for geraniums outside the inn. In the dark of night in the parking lot: “I walked over to a car, a Pontiac with Ohio tags, one of the ones with bundles and suitcases strapped to the top and a lot more in the trunk, by the way it was riding.” Standing beside the car, Earl’s inner soliloquy runs:
What would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?
Another story, “Optimists,” begins: “All of this I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back.” The father was working in the railroad yards when a hobo tried to jump off a train and was cut into three pieces. The father comes home ashen and trembling from the horrible accident he has seen. At home some recent acquaintances of his wife are playing cards. The visitor, more or less a stranger to the father, turns out to work for the Red Cross. He interrupts with a pedantic interrogation about tourniquets, resuscitation, all the while insisting that technically, as it were, the hobo didn’t have to die if the father had acted properly.
In a rage of grief and the presumption of the lecture, the father hits the man, and the blow kills him. He goes to prison, comes out in a state of deterioration, begins drinking and brawling, and disappears, off somewhere. The years pass and one day the son sees his mother with a strange man shopping for groceries at a mall. The son and mother talk briefly, but with a good deal of inchoate affection. And that is more or less it. “And she bent down and kissed my cheek through the open window and touched my face with both her hands, held me for a moment that seemed like a long time before she turned away, finally, and left me there alone.”
The smooth and confident use of the first-person narration in these brilliant stories is especially remarkable when they are told by petty thieves, the stranded and delinquent. Here the “I” is not remembering or recasting, but living in the pure present, in the misbegotten events of the day. The focus is of such directness, the glare of reality so bright, that the shadow of the manipulating author does not fall inadvertently on the deputed “I”—who is in no way a creature of literary sensibility. The tone and rhythm of the composition, the feat of being inside the minds, or the heads, as they make their deplorable decisions and connections, infuse the pages with a kind of tolerance for false hope and felony and rotten luck.
The Montana landscape in Rock Springs is empty and beautiful and lonely. The men do whatever kind of work turns up and are always being laid off. There is nothing but hunting and fishing, sex, and drinking and fighting. Wives go off to Seattle or Spokane, just for a change. Young girls and not-so-young men turn up in the taverns and get into a lot of trouble for themselves and others. So your wife has taken off with a groom from the dog track and a couple of huge, rough women turn up at your door with a deer gruesomely slain lying in their pickup; and you will be glad for their knock, for the company, which will be a mistake. Recklessness is the mode of life, but what the stories seem to be saying is that people are not always as bad as what they do, something like that. No judgment is solicited, and yet the desperation and folly arouse pity, the pity that everywhere sends girlfriends, mothers and children, grandparents and old pals trundling out to the prisons for visiting hours.
In the novel Wildlife (1990), a son is the observer of the sudden defections and panics of his parents. “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.” The tactful, muted eloquence of the tone is a sort of balance for the unstable inner and natural landscape. It is Great Falls, Montana, and the forest fires of summer are still smoking and glowing in the autumn sky. The parents have lived and been to college in Washington state and have come to Montana from Idaho, thinking money could be made from the oil boom. But prosperity does not extend itself to them and so the father works at the airbase for two days a week and otherwise as a golf pro at the local country club. He is rudely laid off at the club because of a false accusation. In Ford’s fiction the West, with its fabled openness under the big sky and all that, is a place of emotional collapse from forced or glumly accepted idleness, an invitation to dangerous brooding over the whiskey bottle. After such an acute brooding and character upheaval the father somehow gets a chance to save his soul, or self-image, by being allowed to take a place with the knowledgeable firefighters in the forest, although he has no experience beyond the flaming egos on the golf course.
The mother is alone for three days. She and the son visit the voracious Warren Miller, a man with a limp and soon to die of a “lengthy illness,” a man with lots of money, grain elevators, and other assets, and a wife who has gone off somewhere, a man with a house. In the house the mother and the son spend the night after the older folks have been drinking and dancing. The unresisting mother is seduced and on the spot decides to leave her husband and set herself up in a rented flat, there to accommodate what she foolishly believes will be a better life with Warren Miller. Shifts in direction, improvisations, sleepwalking into calamitous consequence seem to be in this fiction part of the effect the Western states have upon the mind. The characters are still pulling the wagon across the frontier, looking for a place to settle.
The father comes down from the burning hills to meet his domestic surprise. In a fury ignited by betrayal and alcohol, he picks up a can of gasoline at the local pump and, thinking his wife is inside, sets fire to Miller’s house; the fire is not serious and no charges are filed. Miller indeed fled the scene with another woman in tow, not the wife. After some years of wandering, the mother returns to Great Falls, and the son reflects that something has died between them but something remained. “We survived it.” A benign accent in the style of narration covers Wildlife in a forgiving mist. The quiet pacing through the threat of the landscape and the predatory challenge of experience is a compromise, the rain falling on the blackened trees.
Before he went West, so to speak, in his stories and in the novel Wildlife, Richard Ford had published three books of fiction: A Piece of My Heart (1976), The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), and The Sportswriter (1986). A Piece of My Heart, the first, is an elaborate, stylistically ambitious, and complex novel, somewhat in the Southern Gothic vein. The setting is Mississippi and there are two old people in their decayed mansion, the man a relentlessly loquacious, cursing, shrewd old fellow. The estate is connected by boat to an island where people from town pay to hunt duck and for the turkey shoot in season. Two young men, each of whom has an alternating section of the book, come to the spread. One is a Columbia graduate enrolled in the University of Chicago Law School; he’s in a slump and his girlfriend thinks that, since he is a native Mississippian, he might pull himself together by a spell at the estate, owned by a relation of hers. This character, perhaps on echo of Faulkner’s Quentin Compson, is not entirely successful, owing to the mingled yarn in the knit of his rather far-flung situation.
The other young man, named Robard, might be a character in one of the stories in Rock Springs. His fate is powerfully and alarmingly conceived in the intense thicket of the action. Robard wakes up in the dark of early morning, looks at his wife peacefully sleeping, and, although he has gentle feelings for her, takes off without leaving a word. His journey, his hardscrabble trek to the swamp of sex, has come about from a curious, oblique feeling of obligation to experience. Some years before, Robard had picked up a young woman on the road when her car broke down. They ended up in a motor court for a raw, lascivious night or two, and for Robard that was the end of it, but not for her, Beuna by name. Beuna is a seriously dreadful encounter, a sex fiend, a sort of barnyard creature of befoulment—illustrating, if such is the need, the joke of the assertion that the pornographic imagination and desires arise from books and movies rather than from the somehow inevitable contents of the human mind.