America’s Moral Landscape in the Fiction of Richard Ford
by Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is professor of communications at Loyola University in New Orleans and the author of Books for Believers (Paulist Press). This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 1, 1989 p 227. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
I discovered Richard Ford while looking for a novel to accompany Tocqueville, Habits of the Heart, and the travel narratives of Jonathan Raban and William Least Heat Moon in a course on American character. I sought one that would help illuminate the moral consciousness of America in the ‘80s, a nation bogged down and hemmed in by the individualism it had long touted as its strength; a tough and belligerent nation, still stunned and whimpering from the Vietnam war; a country whose politicians were campaigning on "family values," while it seemed that hardly a family was not sundered by abandonment or divorce; a post-Christian society, even pagan, that thirsted for a taste of faith.
I had considered Russell Banks’s Continental Drift, the story of a frustrated, priapic New Hampshire boiler repairman whose life disintegrates when he uproots his family to chase the American dream to Florida. James Atlas called it "the most convincing portrait I know of contemporary America." But the protagonist, Bob DuBois, though in the narrator’s eyes a "decent," ordinary man, seemed to me too destructive, too crazy, too criminal.
In the summer of 1986, when the Greenwich Village bookstores were crowded with Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City -- a novel whose method of demonstrating the bankruptcy of our culture, one critic said, is to chronicle its parties -- and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less than Zero and Don DeLillo’s White Noise, all in shiny paperback covers, I remembered a New York Times review that called Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter a novel about a good man. I found in Ford far more than I had hoped for: a writer who, by his own account, had "apprenticed" himself to America; whose stories and characters so spring from their landscapes and physical situations as to personify the spirit of the motels, roadside bars, lakes and highways where we encounter them; and who may well be, as his friend Raymond Carver (who died last summer) said, "sentence for sentence … the best writer at work in this country today."
In spite of the critical success of The Sportswriter (1986) and Rock Springs (1987) , the collection of short stories recently issued in paperback, Ford has neither made best-seller lists nor become a familiar name, even in English departments. He resists categories and comparisons. Though born and raised in Faulkner-Welty country, he declares himself "sick of the whole subject" of southern writing. Though a pal and contemporary of Carver, he denies membership in the so-called minimalist school, which, according to Madison Bell ("Less Is Less," Harper’s, April 1986) , concerns itself with surface details and fosters a nihilistic vision. Whatever the validity of a comparison to Hemingway, which rings true in Ford’s many hunting and fishing scenes, his task as profiler of this generation is more complex. He focuses his camera on ordinary -- and sometimes outlaw -- lives, people who for the most part eschew self pity and are slow to judge. Ford helps us, too, withhold judgment.
The Sportswriter begins on Good Friday morning. Frank Bascombe, a 38-year-old feature writer for an unnamed sports magazine (like the defunct Inside Sports, where Ford once worked) , narrates the three-day action, mixed with flashbacks, in the present tense. In a cemetery he meets his ex-wife, referred to only as X, for a private memorial service at the grave of their son Ralph, who had died four years before at age nine. They live in a mythical Haddam, New Jersey, modeled somewhat on Princeton, where Ford and his wife, Kristina, lived while he taught writing at Princeton University and she taught city planning at New York University.
The afternoon of the funeral, Frank flies to Detroit with his girlfriend, Vicki, a hospital nurse; to interview Herb Wallagher, a paraplegic former professional football star, for what had been conceived as a standard spiritual-courage-triumphs-over-bodily-injury story. But Herb is clearly loony, the drugged, bitter opposite of what the American sports hero is supposed to be.
On Easter Sunday they return to New Jersey for dinner in Barnegat Pines with Vicki’s family, which includes her turnpike toll-taker father, Wade Arsenauft, who spends his time in the basement restoring an ancient Chrysler; her querulous younger brother, Cade, a future police officer; and her stepmother, Lynette, a widowed, divorced, pious Catholic. At table she has them all join hands for grace, and Frank, uneasily grabbing Wade’s and Cade’s, can’t help thinking "what strange good luck to be reckoned among these people" rather than "cruising some mall for an Easter takeout . . . lost in the savage wilderness of life."
But before the afternoon is over, X calls to tell Frank that his friend from the Divorced Men’s Club, Walter Luckett, has killed himself, and Vicki, to emphasize that they don’t have enough in common to marry, punches him in the mouth. "Easter has turned to rain and bickering and death." The novel ends with Frank pacing the beach in Florida, waiting for the arrival of a 20-year-old Dartmouth woman who admires his writing. He says he has finally finished mourning his lost son. Maybe now he will finish the novel he had put aside for sports journalism. And maybe not.
In The Sportswriter Ford is able to reproduce a broad and complex cross-section of American middle-class life. Reading The Sportswriter with a map of the United States on the wall and a roadmap of New Jersey on the desk gives one a new sense of America as an organism, a network of flight plans and super highways and back roads linking Alaska, Texas, Detroit, Florida, mid-Manhattan, the Jersey coast and the New England countryside and leading all of us in and out of one another’s moral choices and dreams.
But in Ford’s world our dreams are usually symptoms of our pain. Herb Wallagher dreams of strangling three old women by a roadside until he sees some yellow-eyed deer watching him. And Frank has a vision of Wade walking down a long, empty hospital corridor on a visit from which he won’t return. Frank, the Good Samaritan, shrinks from these dreams, but still hears the dreams confessions and bears their burdens.
Walter has to confess a homosexual encounter to someone, and he picks Frank: "You’re a man with rules Frank," he says, "You don’t mind, if I say that? You have ethics about a lot of important things."
"I don’t mind, Walter, but I don’t think that I have any ethics at all, really. I just do as little harm as I can. Anything else seems too hard."
Frank shrinks from Walter’s attachment. But he is Walter’s one true friend. Frank proclaims himself an individualist, though he is not the individualist about whom Tocqueville warns and whom Robert Bellah and colleagues describe in Habits of the Heart. He is the individualist as writer, who must learn to turn his loneliness into creative energy rather than fall into self-pity. Alone in his magazine office he reflects that while writers need to belong to a club, "for real writers, unfortunately, their club is a club with just one member." Ford repeats the sentiment in a Harper’s essay, "First Things First" (August l988) : "Writing is dark and lonely work, and no one has to do it. No one will ever care much if it doesn’t get done at all." For Ford to close The Sportswriter without indicating whether Frank will retrieve either his wife or his talent may frustrate some readers, but it is an aesthetic decision consistent with the character he has introduced.
Frank, says critic Robert Towers, is a "post-Christian man of good will trying to find his way in a world bereft of the certainties of its religious past." The Sportswriter’s real subject is the modern American’s search for integrity: through sports, through art, through religion,, through simply living up to one’s day-to-day obligations, through the little commitments we make to one another in friendship and love, even when our marriages fall apart. Integrity can also mean settling for less, as it does for Wade Arsenault, whose heroism is in "moving down in rank." It is a move that Frank, with his saintly tolerance, understands.
In one of the novel’s funniest passages on America’s psychic investment in sports, Frank stops at a roadside watering hole named for Sweet Lou Calcagno, center for the ‘56 Giants. It’s one of those sports nostalgia bars, emblazoned with pictures of Jack Dempsey and Spike Jones embracing the beloved host. Frank contemplates a "where-are-they-now?" interview -- only to discover that Sweet Lou was gunned down 30 years before by gangsters and that his widow, the bartender, hates the sound of his name.
There is no salvation through the cult of the sports hero because sports -- and sportswriting -- deals with only the surface of life. Nor is there salvation in literature, as Frank learns in a stint teaching English at an isolated New England college, for it denies the reality of death. On religion, Ford holds his fire. Ford’s mother was thought to be Catholic because she was raised for a while in a convent, and the sisters’ kindness stuck. But institutional religion seems to have neither wounded nor healed Ford himself, and his characters search for meaning or "mystery" on the fringes of the church: Frank consults a psychic adviser and ducks in the side door at Haddam First Presbyterian, and Vicki stops at a wayside shrine. Ford seems neither angry enough to reject these characters’ pseudo-faith nor inspired to bring them inside the faith.
Nor does salvation come though sexual activity or the institution of marriage. Almost everyone in Ford’s fiction is divorced, adulterous or living with someone whom he or she will desert within a few pages. Life seems to make sense mostly on the mediocre dignity achieved by Vicki’s family, and especially in Franks loyalty to the pathetic Walter, whose impulsive kiss he brusquely rejects and whom he really doesn’t like very much, but to whom he represents integrity and a little wisdom.
Part of the focus of the book is on the interaction, on an uncharted Mississippi River island, between two uprooted young men and their eccentric old hosts, who in their odd way seem to have some stability the young men seek -- until one of the old men is killed in a bizarre fishing accident. But most of the energy is sexual -- one young man carries on an affair with his cousin, who is married to a minor league baseball player. She promises him an ecstatic trick if they can just get into a shower bath in the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. They don’t get to Memphis, but when she does try out her "plastic bag" trick in the shower, he is revolted and breaks away, deciding not to participate in a degrading sexual act just when he has his life in order. Then, like the old man, he dies absurdly, shot by a trigger-happy youth "guarding" the mysterious island.
Unlike A Piece of My Heart, the second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck (1981) , is fast-moving and compact. As before, the central characters are marginal and rootless, yanked from one risk-filled relationship to another without a firm sense of whom they can trust. Harry Quinn, a Vietnam veteran, has come to Mexico at the request of his girlfriend, Rae, to buy her, drug-dealing brother out of prison. This novel’s style is part Dashiell Hammett, with its hard brutality, bitter dialogue, murders and betrayals. It is also reminiscent of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, with a displaced American, an evocation of Vietnam, and, especially, a scene in which a Baskin-Robbins store explodes, killing innocent bystanders, revealing to Harry and Rae that they are involved inadvertently but inexorably in an evil far beyond what they had foreseen. In the end, Harry survives a shootout and wonders if he has "perfected something in himself by killing three people he didn’t know, when he had come at the beginning simply to save one, and if now he had pleased anyone anywhere. Though he thought if he hadn’t pleased anybody, at least he’d tried to, and had performed it under control, and he hadn’t coped so bad by himself at the end. He thought, in fact, that he’d done fine."
The Sportswriter’s cosmopolitan milieu of death-denying Jersey suburbs and wry commentary on New York magazine journalism has made its author more accessible to professors, who will start working him into their curriculum. On the other hand, Rock Springs and some recent essays on Ford’s early family and college life represent a return to the basics. The basics are the people William Least Heat Moon or John Steinbeck would meet driving a pickup truck north from New Orleans along the Mississippi to Arkansas and Tennessee, and west through Missouri and Nebraska and Wyoming to Montana (where the Fords live now) to the coast. These are the people Richard Avedon photographed for his startling book of portraits of Westerners -- grimy, half-naked, grotesque, but with dignity intact. It is a bleak land of silos, railroad tracks, trailer parks and seedy bars, and of hunters, thieves and adulterers. The small-town, vagabond, grow-up-quick life has provided Ford his fundamental inspiration.
Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1944. His father was a traveling starch salesman and his mother’s father, a former prizefighter and dining car attendant, ran a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the family lived for a while. When Richard was 16, his father "woke up gasping on a Saturday morning and died before he could get out of bed." Before that, Richard had had some scrapes with the law. His mother sat him down and told him that he was on his own and should stay out of jail because she wouldn’t get him out. His mother had various jobs, and for a while had a boyfriend who was a married man. Once, worried when she didn’t come home, the 17-year-old Richard tracked her to the man’s apartment. For Ford, discovering this relationship was, like a father’s death, a moment from which a hundred stories would spring.
The stories in Rock Springs touch on the shocks that a young man receives when he’s 16; on characters who, like those in The Ultimate Good Luck, hang out at dog tracks, or who have had scrapes with the law, steal cars and push dope; and on the fleeting presence of strange men and women whom we recognize, without being told, as home-wreckers. Nearly all deal with infidelity. In "Great Falls," an adolescent boy and his father go duck hunting and return to find a blond young Air Force man named Woody keeping mother company. The father shoves a pistol under his face and sends him away. The family then falls apart, the father is killed in an accident and the mother wanders from man to man. The narrator wonders whether it is some "coldness in us all" that "makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road -- watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire."
In the longest, richest story, "Empire," Victor Sims, a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, Marge, head east from Spokane across Montana by train. Marge, who has recently survived a cancer operation, sleeps in their compartment while Victor roams around, reminiscing about past love affairs and flirting with a woman army sergeant.
In an extended story-within-a-story, he remembers a tryst with their neighbor’s sister -- who had consorted with a dope-pushing Satanist motorcycle gang -- while Marge was in the hospital. Victor had awakened from their lovemaking in a wild dream about hanging himself, and months later a voice claiming to be "the devil" had called threatening to take Marge in punishment for his adultery.
Victor accompanies the sergeant to her room and takes off her clothes. They discuss the fact that neither has nor ever wanted any children. The sergeant tells Victor a story of looking for her father one night and finding him with another woman (a story much like the one Ford tells about looking for his mother) Victor returns to his wife and they look out the window at a spectacular fire raging on the plains, a fire they imagine does not threaten them or anyone on the train. "The world’s on fire, Vic," Marge says. "But it doesn’t hurt anything. It just burns till it stops." The fire can be a number of things: Victor’s adulterous passion, which may well destroy his marriage; the cancer that almost killed Marge and may well return; an image of Vietnam; or, like the explosion in The Ultimate Good Luck, a sign of the unacknowledged dimension of every human act.
Ford told me once that his ambition is the same as William Dean Howells’s: to "create a literature worthy of America." Surely he shares Howells’s realism, social conscience and occasional moralism. For Ford, there is no fire in human relationships that doesn’t hurt something. In a memoir of his grandfather, the hotel owner, Ford describes how his grandfather "inhabited" his job, painstakingly fulfilled every workaday task, and prayed aloud each morning that he would do it well. Ford concludes: "Everything counts, after all. What else do you need to know?"
Ford has said several times that his goal is to write something that would compare with the end of Frank O’Connor’s story "Guests of a Nation." It describes an Irish boy, an IRA recruit in the 1922 war, who participates in the pointless reprisal executions of two British soldiers the captors had grown to love. It is a story about sin, the end of youth and the infinite weight of moral responsibility. The boy recalls, in words that could have come from Rock Springs: "And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again." In time a good many Americans may say that about reading Richard Ford.