Harsh Light

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

Sep 13, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

"Sometimes these characters are thin people because they seem rootless; not just thin but frightened, or bored -- although sometimes fear is expressed as boredom. But I think it is a highly vertiginous and highly dramatic situation (to write about) in which a person is not persuasively attached to some institution that would make life seem safe. They do things. They do the unexpected. You might also say that a person, who he or she is, is most vivid under those kinds of uncertain conditions. I'm more affected by the underlying human condition than I am about the institutions that create the sense of safety."

Without ideology, or with little moral ground beneath them, Ford's characters are often comic in the situations in which they find themselves, sometimes irritating or even repugnant. In a number of Ford's stories, there are alarming situations in which children are neglected, forms of neglect that often result in disastrous, even shocking, consequences. The seemingly benign adulterer Martin in "The Womanizer" takes his mistress' child for a walk, just because the self-absorbed Martin is bored, and then loses the boy.

"I think things like this happen," says Ford. "It is in my vision that it is a particularly more frequent thing to happen than other kinds of moral issues that are in my stories. But I think it is a moral issue, because it has to do with good and bad: what's good and what's bad."

Ford recognizes that these characters, and the things they do, are often unappealing and not prone to sympathetic readings. "Books like that, and stories like that, particularly told in the third person -- Americans don't like stories like that. They don't like stories in which they can't find anybody to sympathize with. Europeans like stories like that, because they're used to reading Balzac and they're used to reading all kinds of books written in the third person. Flaubert's like that, Madame Bovary's that way. Is there a sympathetic character in Crime and Punishment? I don't think so. Certainly not Raskolnikov.

"I just think this is the story I have to write, and these characters are not sympathetic, but they are useful to you." He describes a scene in the story "Jealousy" from Women with Men in which the 17-year-old narrator, Larry, is under the care of his Aunt Doris as they wait for a train in Shelby, Mont., that will take them to his mother (his mother and father have separated) in Seattle for Thanksgiving holiday. Doris has been drinking most the day and heads for a bar before the train arrives. In the Oil City bar, with Larry looking on, she engages in a drunken conversation with an Indian. Moments later, a scene of terrible violence ensues, for which Doris is partly responsible. "When Doris and the speaker, Larry, get (back) into the car," Ford continues, "she's cold. She feels terrible, and what she basically does is sexually molest this kid, casually, does it by thinking she's pleasing him.

"Well," Ford lets out a sigh, "it's a harsh vision. But that's my job."

He laughs at this curious description of his vocation, but he's also serious. It's tough to write so acutely about human frailties, he says: "It's tough because you know that you're not maximizing in these stories all the good that human beings are capable of. In effect you're stressing syllables in the human syntax that maybe don't get stressed very much, and maybe that's why you want to stress them. But in choosing these things, you're having to look away from other things that you would conceive as being leveling or ameliorative, and that would make a sound argument against people suffering just this thing that they suffer, this solipsism.

"So it's tough in that way. It makes me feel, sometimes, stingy-spirited. But it's not the only kind of work I've ever done. I've done other kinds of work, too, and probably if I keep on working as I have, I'll do other kinds of work yet. But I think it's probably a fault one could complain of in those stories, that they don't fully maximize all of the human spirit. The excuse is that (the stories) want to show you something that you don't ordinarily want to look at."

Anyway, Ford adds as a reminder, "One of literature's great virtues is that at the end of Women with Men you close the book and you leave it behind. You don't have to live here. King Lear doesn't have to be your uncle."