Harsh Light

Fiction writer Richard Ford sheds illumination on lives we don't have to lead

In photographs of the American fiction writer Richard Ford, say in those that grace the jackets of his five novels and two story collections published over the last quarter-cent-ury, he almost seems transparent, or translucent. Now that he's into his middle 50s, his hair's turned white, the hairline receded about as far as it can go. His skin looks as if it were stretched tautly across his lean frame in those photos. He has pale hunter's eyes. These are images that suggest a character who can move subtly through scenes of lived experience, enter and exit, observe, record.

Ford's stories strongly reinforce this impression. They are remarkable for -- among many things -- their accuracy. Not just for the external details of place, for which he is often noted, but, more important, for his precise, and at times unnerving, realizations of the way people think. Unnerving because they think just like us, those thoughts we'd be most unlikely to share with anyone, ignoble thoughts. In Ford's most recent collection of stories, Women with Men, for instance, the morning after Charley's girlfriend, Helen, tells him -- in their dingy Paris hotel room -- she has cancer, he figures the best thing for him to do is leave her sleeping alone and see the sights of the city by himself. "He didn't know if Helen had cancer or was experiencing pain," he thinks to himself as she sleeps. "You only knew such things with proof, had seen the results. There were the bruises, but they could have simple explanations -- not that she was lying.

"But to let her sleep in hopes she'd feel better after, that's what he'd want if he were Helen. Until then, he could walk out into the Paris streets alone, for the first time, and experience the city the way you should. Close up. Unmediated." While Charley's away, Helen commits suicide.

Ford proves again how Aristotle was right: Man is a rational animal, meaning that he can rationalize anything. Ford also reaffirms his own ability to imagine reality -- that most unimaginable thing -- to somehow know, and create mirrors to our lives we would probably prefer not to look into, if they were not in these stories. "When that guy wanders off through the streets of Paris while his girlfriend's killing herself," Ford says during our interview, "I think we're all capable of it, and that we need to know that we're capable of it as a caution to ourselves. Those are all cautionary tales (in Women with Men)."

Unlike that spectral presence on those book jackets, Ford is a reassuringly solid figure to encounter in person. Those clear eyes are more friendly than piercing. He gives a firm handshake and is fit, and part of that lean physique is made up of muscular, well-defined shoulders, a reminder of the Golden Gloves boxer he was in his youth. In the office he's been allotted in Washington University's Duncker Hall as Hurst visiting professor, he's finishing up a conversation with a student who dropped in to talk about Ford's novel Independence Day, the dual Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner Award winner in 1996. He's doing what he's supposed to do as Hurst professor -- make himself available to graduate students for the next three weeks -- and he's doing it graciously.

They've been talking about another one of those things Ford invented that turns out to feel entirely accurate, real. The protagonist of both Ford's novel The Sportswriter and its sequel, the award-winning Independence Day, Frank Bascombe, in the latter book is going through a phase of his life (middle-aged, divorced, separated from his children, selling real estate in New Jersey -- a career path distant from his former aspirations as a writer) he calls the "Existence Period." A kind of ethos for the detached, the Existence Period is Frank's attempt to lead an uncomplicated, pleasant life, built on a kind of faith, or a practice he describes as: "to ignore much of what I don't like or seems worrisome and embroiling, and then usually see it go away."

When Ford hears how a number of people who've read Frank Bascombe's odyssey in Independence Day, especially those of Frank's age, feel they know the Existence Period all too well, the author chuckles appreciatively. It's just something he made up, but "I guess it makes sense in a way."

Although Independence Day could serve as an ideal one-volume primer to explain to any foreigner the vagaries of American life in the complacent, prosperous post-Cold War era, Ford never sets out to create stories that are representative of a time. Characters such as Frank Bascombe or Martin Austin in the story "The Womanizer" in Women with Men who one moment on a whim calls his mistress, and when her line is busy, calls his wife instead -- move through life as variable as the wind. Ford is drawn to that sense of rootlessness because "that's an idea of the human condition, that we're basically blown this way and blown that way, and we find all kinds of institutions to cling to: marriage, the church, vocation, a sense of right and wrong -- they are all constructs we attach ourselves to, or don't, that would convince us that life is not quite as variable as the wind.

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