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.
Time has passed and Beuna is married to W. W., a broken-down bushleague ballplayer and a deputy sheriff. Beuna does not find much satisfaction in W. W., and since she knows where Robard lives she begins to send messages to him and to make disturbing phone calls, delivered with a panting absolute demand for a reunion. Robard finally takes off to meet her. His emotions are murky and guarded and he means to return. Beuna’s insistence over the weeks and months gives Robard the sense that something has entered his life he can’t altogether deny. He is broke and to complete his destiny he takes a job at the estate, acting as a guard on the island to keep poachers away.
His true “business,” as he calls it, is to go into town in the evening to find Beuna. They meet and bed down in a scabby rent-a-cabin place, where she says the proprietor wouldn’t care if you took a “goddamn sheep in here.” For the tryst, Beuna has brought a plastic bag of excrement. There is a merciful blackout of the subsequent congress, but at last it is the cue for Robard to climb out of the pit of Eros, find his truck, and get back to the island. W. W. is nosing after him in his Plymouth, shotgun at the ready. Almost free of the pursuing Furies Robard meets his death, his release, when he is shot as a poacher by a boy who is taking his place as guard on the island.
The backcountry landscape, the waters of the river at night, the woods, the sullen towns are rendered with a tireless fluency. As a principal in a sordid tangle of compulsion, Robard, nevertheless, is conceived in tragic terms and is the most touching of Richard Ford’s doom-stricken young men, rushing to certain destruction, to Beuna, who, by the unfortunate meeting on the road, has become “a piece of my heart.”
Ford’s second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, is another trip altogether, this time to Mexico, around Oaxaca. It is a steamy ride through the south of the border labyrinth, with characters who are defined by situation, plot, intrigue, and dénouement. They have a certain brittleness as they act out their roles; and there is a cinema noir aspect to the landscape of drug smuggling, prisons, bribery, disappearances, threats of murder, and actual murder. Quinn, a Vietnam vet, and his mistress or whatever, Rae, are engaged in an effort to get Rae’s brother, Sonny, out of the hell of a Mexican prison.
Sonny has been picked up for drug smuggling and his escape or release is to be accomplished by bribery, mysterious connections, and enigmatic maneuvers under the direction of a shadowy lawyer named Bernhardt, who, along the way, is murdered for his efforts in the matter or perhaps for some other malfeasance. Also there is a character, a “spade,” to use the locution of the drug world, named Deals. Deals is out to get Sonny since, as a partner, he believes Sonny has skimmed the profits of one of their big drug exchanges. He also thinks Sonny wants to be in jail to escape the serious retribution he, Deals, has in mind. The language is rich, there is, or so it seems, a deep saturation in the countryside, the bars, the alleys, the prison, the midnight world. No one is sympathetic; there’s not much to be said for Quinn, and Rae, embarked on her act of charitable rescue, is stoned most of the time. Sonny is not an object of moral concern since he is stupid, greedy, and a natural loser. The Ultimate Good Luck has a curious sheen of high glamour as a genuinely imaginative example of a genre, if that is the proper word for this visit to the underworld.
The Sportswriter followed the first two novels and preceded the Western stories and the novel Wildlife. Frank Bascombe is the sportswriter, living by choice in Haddam, New Jersey, a pleasant suburban town of moderate physical and social dimensions, suitable to Bascombe’s moderate expectations from life. He has published a book of stories which did moderately well, started and abandoned a novel, and is moderately content to be something of an oddity in the arts, where an early kiss from the Muse is likely to leave a lifelong discoloration on the cheek. He is not a failed writer but one who fails to write another fiction or poem. What is to prevent your writing, dear? the forlorn wife in George Gissing’s New Grub Street asks of her miserable husband trapped in the period of the three-decker novel. Bascombe’s answer would have been a cheerful: I prefer not to.
But even Bascombe’s cheerfulness is moderated by the dark wings of melancholy, after the death of his son Ralph, and the divorce from his wife, here called X. The most remarkable aspect of this engaging character is his remove from paranoia, the national and literary mode of the time. Bascombe is offered a job on a well-known sports magazine, published in New York, to which he chooses to commute. Needless to say he does not take sports or sportswriting with undue seriousness.
I make my other calls snappy—one is to an athletic shoe designer in Denver for a “Sports Chek” round-up box I’m pulling together on foot injuries…. Another call is to a Carmelite nun in Fayetteville, West Virginia, who is trying to run in the Boston Marathon. Once a polio victim, she is facing an uphill credentials fight in her quest to compete, and I’m glad to put a plug in for her in our “Achievers” column.
The scene shifts, as it often does in this work crowded with incidents and people met along the way, shifts to a trip to Detroit to interview Herb Wallagher, an ex-lineman who lost his legs in a ski-boat accident and is now in a wheelchair. The interview is not profitable, even though the sportswriter tries to rouse Herb about the game of football: “But I’d still think it had some lessons to teach to the people who played it. Perseverance. Team work. Comradeship. That kind of thing.” To which, Herb replies: “Forget all that crap, Frank.”
The trip to Detroit is made with Vicki, cute and with far greater common sense than Bascombe, she being a nurse in the local hospital. She talks about a “C-liver terminal, already way into uremia when he admitted, which is not that bad cause it usually starts ’em dreamin about their pasts and off their current problem.” Scenes and characters float into this suburban novel on the wide stream of Bascombe’s obstinate receptiveness. The Divorced Men’s Club, which Bascombe attends, brings him into an encounter with poor Walter Luckett, whose wife has taken off to Bimini with a man named Eddie Pitcock. Walter has a secret he wants to share. After a few drinks with a Wall Street colleague, he finds himself going to bed with him, not once but again and again in the fellow’s New York apartment. Walter is troubled and as naive as a country-boy sailor on his first shore leave in Naples or some such place. In what could be called a sentimental confusion, for that is his nature, he commits suicide one night.
One of the most brilliant scenes is Bascombe’s Easter Sunday visit with Vicki’s family. Her father, a turnpike toll-taker, has somehow gotten an old Chrysler into his small, wet basement and is restoring it fin by fin, with full attention to broken and rusted chrome. Her brother, Cade, a boat mechanic, is on the wait list at the Police Academy. Cade has already “developed a flateyed officer’s uninterest for the peculiarities of his fellow man.” Lynette, the father’s second wife, is working on the crisis line at the Catholic church. She has “transformed her dining room into a hot little jewel box, crystalcandle chandelier, best silver and linens laid” for “the pallid lamb congealed and hard as a wood chip and the…peas and broccoli flower alongside it cold as Christmas.” In the midst of all this, Bascombe’s thought is: “what strange good luck to be reckoned among these people like a relative welcome from Peoria.”
The Sportswriter is a sophisticated book that celebrates life as it comes and speaks in its voice, often with devastating humor, and a hypnotic sinking into every spot of the turf. Easter Sunday: “the optimist’s holiday, the holiday with the suburbs in mind” and the sermon about the Resurrection: “Well now, let’s us just hunker down to a real miracle, while we’re putting two and two together…let’s just let plasma physics and bubble chambers and quarks try to explain this one.” The vitality of the novel lies in the freedom and expressiveness of this first-person excursion through New Jersey, Detroit, the Berkshires, and the bearable shambles of Bascombe’s life.
Independence Day, Richard Ford’s new novel, returns to Frank Bascombe. Rabbit Redux?—not quite. Bascombe is an upscale ruminant, now in his forties, with opinions about everything, and Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in the glove compartment. There is no outstanding typicality in him; instead he has the mysteriousness of the agreeable, nice person, harder to describe than the rake, the miser, or the snob. As a professional, or a working man, his resume is unsteady—short-story writer, sportswriter, and now a “realtor.” The wobbly nature of Bascombe’s status makes him a creditable collector; nothing need be rejected, not the trash of the road signs, clichés produced with a ring of discovery, the program on TV, the decor of the Sleepy Hollow Motel on Route 1, or the “fanlights, columned entries and Romany-fluting” of the houses on the better streets.
Selling real estate is a good way to get about town, but a poor way to reach “closure.” The business is a serial plot of indignities—tune in tomorrow. Joe and Phyllis Markham have decided to get out of their hand-built house in Vermont, “with cantilevered cathedral ceilings and a hand-laid hearth and chimney, using stones off the place,” to try a suburban New Jersey life style and better schools for their daughter. They “have looked at forty-five houses—dragging more and more grimly down from…Vermont.” The fearsome negotiations, or lack of them, provide a miserably comic underpinning to Bascombe’s days and nights.
The other block of the story is a hazardous trip, a Fourth of July journey with his son, Paul, to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, where they stay in The Deerslayer Lodge. Paul is a thoroughly complicated and unpredictable young man of fifteen. He has stolen boxes of condoms, for which he had no use, from a pharmacy; he barks like a dog in memory of his dead dog and probably in memory of his dead brother, Ralph. Underneath his basket of misdemeanors and off-tone noises, he is a gentle teen-ager and will probably come to resemble his father’s more acceptable waywardness. At the Baseball Hall of Fame, Paul seriously damages an eye in the batter’s cage, a tourist attraction that allows one to seem to swat a ball like Babe Ruth. His mother, now remarried to a rich architect, comes up in a helicopter and takes him to New Haven for surgery.
There are many other diversions: Sally, Bascombe’s girlfriend, the renters of a house he owns, old friends, and new passersby. And as always with Richard Ford, the sense of place, towns, houses, highways is luminous in lavish, observed detail.
I drive windingly out Montmorency Road into Haddam horse country—our little Lexington—where fences are long, white and orthogonal, pastures wide and sloping, and roads…slip across shaded, rocky rills via wooden bridges and through the quaking aspens back to rich men’s domiciles snugged deep in summer foliage….and here, wedges of oldgrowth hardwoods still loom, trees that saw Revolutionary armies rumble past, heard the bugles, shouts and defiance cries-of earlier Americans in their freedom swivet, and beneath which now tawny-haired heiresses in jodhpurs stroll to the paddock with a mind for a noon ride alone.
In passing it might be remarked that Ford is the first, if memory serves, to give full recognition to the totemic power in American life of the telephone and the message service. At one point he pauses at the Vince Lombardi Rest Area, across from the Giants Stadium, to check his messages. There are ten of them, listed with content, among them obscenities from Joe Markham, client. Often Bascombe will interrupt the plot to make a dreamy call to a former lover, who may not immediately place him or may be cooking dinner. In The Sportswriter the call is to Selma, a friend from his spell as a teacher at Berkshire College. In the present novel, he gets on the line to Cathy, a medical student he spent time with in France a few years back. He’s hoping for “a few moments’ out-of-context, ad hominem, pro-bono phone ‘treatment.’ ” Ring, ring, ring, click, click, click, and the machine answers: “Hi. This is Cathy and Steve’s answering mechanism. We’re not home now. Really. I promise.” In Frank Bascombe’s world a good deal of the information necessary to move forward is given over the phone.
(Recently, in the O.J. Simpson trial, the prosecution, following week after wearying week, month after month building its beaver dam of circumstantial particulars, spent quite a lot of time with the record of O.J.’s car phone around the time projected for the murders. The record keeper for the phone company dutifully went down the list, the purpose seeming to be that the number of busy signals and no-answers might slip into the mind of the jurors as yet another twig forming the rage that led to double homicide. No-answer motivation.)
Independence Day, if you’re taking measurements like the nurse in a doctor’s office, might be judged longer than it need be. But longer for whom? Every rumination, each flash of magical dialogue or unexpected mile on the road with a stop at the pay phone, is a wild surprise tossed off as if it were just a bit of cigarette ash by Richard Ford’s profligate imagination. The Sportswriter and Independence Day are comedies—not farces, but realistic, good-natured adventures, sunny, yes, except when the rain it raineth everyday. The new work, Independence Day, is the confirmation of a talent as strong and varied as American fiction has to offer.
August 10, 1995