This American life
Author Richard Ford meets Geordie Williamson
AFTER days of thwarted communication, during which the author and his interviewer have been foiled by technology or time zones, it is a shock to finally track down Richard Ford. The courtly Mississippi-born writer, the most quintessentially American of his major contemporaries, is sipping roomservice coffee in a grand Stockholm hotel. When I wonder at the incongruity of his presence in the heart of Scandinavia, Ford chuckles down the line. It turns out his previous novel, Canada, a taut crime drama published last year, has become a big hit in Sweden.
“For reasons no one understands,” he explains, “it has become a kind of everybodyreads-it-on-the-train bestseller, and now it’s out in paperback and it’s No 2 on the bestseller list. Nothing like this ever has happened to me in the United States. It’s like a Woody Allen movie.”
While it may be true that Ford has never sold by the stack at home, he has been accorded the kind of critical esteem that only the best writers of a generation inspire. That said, overnight success of either kind has come slowly to Ford. Full admittance to the first rank of American fiction came with 1987’s Rock Springs, a collection of short fiction published more than a decade after the appearance of the author’s debut novel, A Piece of My Heart.
The language of those breakthrough stories in Rock Springs, written across many years, form a core sample of Ford’s development. They owed something to the cool metafictional experiments of William Gass and Donald Barthelme in the 1960s and 70s. Yet they took as their subject matter the same down-home American reality that shaped more recent work by Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff (or “Ray” and “Toby” if, like Ford, you’re on terms of easy intimacy with the giants of what came to be known as dirty realism). The stories dealt with small-town lives, blighted by circumstance, in a register of uncommon balance and grace.
Rock Springs, however, was published on the strength of the work that preceded it. Ford’s third novel, 1986’s The Sportswriter, established a name for the author after years of relative invisibility and poor sales — a period so disenchanting for Ford that he quit fiction to write sports journalism. When the magazine he worked for folded, Ford returned to his desk and lent his new fictional protagonist the same job. He cast The Sportswriter’s protagonist as a baby boomer transcendentalist, dreamily auditing the national temper as he cruised the streets of New Jersey, a copy of Emerson’s SelfReliance in his glove-box. Frank Bascombe has since become a signal figure in postwar American literature: a character as memorable in his way as John Updike’s “Rabbit” Angstrom.
But where Rabbit is a middle American set apart by his outsized appetites, Bascombe is memorable mainly for his ordinariness. Critic Elizabeth Hardwick (in an essay that described Ford’s talent as “as strong and varied as American fiction has to offer”) made the point that “there is no outstanding typicality” in Frank. Instead, “he has mysteriousness of the agreeable, nice person, harder to describe than the rake, the miser, or the snob”. A kind, funny and gentle man, yes, though not merely pleasant. There was more than enough edge to Frank to support two subsequent fictional excursions: 1995’s Independence Day (which managed to win that year’s PEN/Faulkner Award as well as a Pulitzer) and The Lay of the Land in 2006.
Today, tutored by long-form cable television, we may characterise The Sportswriter and its partner works as “dramedy”. Their narratives are loose-limbed, digressive and episodic; the tone is genial throughout, albeit with outbreaks of melancholy. They are compressed tales, covering a brief period in each instance. And all of them hang on the strength of a central actor. Luckily, Frank Bascombe has an omnivorous attentiveness to the world around him; he observes multitudes. And his company grows on the reader without recourse to overt charm or special literary effects. As Frank tellingly writes in The Lay of the Land: I no longer credit the epiphanic, the seeing through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering detail. These are lies of the liberal arts to distract us from the more precious here and now. Life’s moments come at us heedless, not at the bidding of a gilded fragrance.
All of which makes the language of the Bascombe novels very different to, say, that of Updike, the figure with whom Ford is most often compared, a writer whose incorrigible poeticism is indiscriminately applied to everything from pubic hair to petrol stations. Nowhere is this gap more pronounced than in Ford’s latest Frank Bascombe fiction, the first in eight years, published this month and set once again in New Jersey in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Its droll title: Let Me Be Frank With You.
When asked about the increasingly relaxed and roomy prose style of the new work, which takes four short novellas and braids them together, Ford speaks of his love of Updike but also of the distance between them. “That magisterial quality that John had was just his nature. And that more rangy quality is more my nature. I am naturally incautious. I’m not scrupulous about most anything.” And it is this very un-literary approach that distinguishes the Bascombe books. Readers are so engaged by daily detail that the larger canvas of Frank’s life is registered only as a miraculous afterthought. Across the course of three novels readers have matured alongside the narrator. We have seen him lose two wives, mourn his dead son Ralph, survive prostate cancer, and fall in and out of love and amity with a broad species of women and men. We have watched him evolve from a young man of literary promise (some praised
early short stories, a stalled first novel) fallen on hard times and journalism, to a not discontented retirement, funded by prosperous years working as a realtor in Haddam, New Jersey: a sleepier version of Princeton, where Ford once taught, without the university. The choice of career for Frank is inspired. But how on earth did the author know, years in advance of 2008, the degree to which real estate would become an index of the health of the American polity?
“Complete luck,” Ford replies. “It’s like most things, it looks heroic, but it actually just turned out to be the work of chance. I was looking around at the end of The Sportswriter for a subject I knew something about, that I could hang on Frank as a vocation. And I just literally backed into realty. But, once I started, it felt pretty good. I realised that I was able to generate a vocabulary about morality, about ethics, about the American moral climate.”
It is a rich field of fictional inquiry, made only more dramatic in this instance by natural catastrophe. The suburban realm so beloved of Frank Bascombe — “serenely settled, arborial, inward-gazing … all that pretty possibility set apart from the regular social frown and growl” — has been battered by the storm’s ferocity. Indeed, the first section of the novel sees Frank returning to what remains of his old home on the Jersey shore. When quizzed on what this moment says about the “American moral climate”, Ford is adamant it not be seen as overly emblematic, while conceding that responsible readers have every right to draw their own conclusions. Certainly he accedes to the notion that the new Bascombe novel unfolds at the tail end of a lost decade for the US. When asked what that period has wrought, Ford grows eloquent.
“An intensified brightness about ourselves, and an intensified indifference to ourselves in the wider world. Those are the worst things. A kind of myopia steeped in some kind of narcissism. Which I actually believe President Obama has done his dead level best to ameliorate. Given all, given the financial situation, given the rise of the right wing, and given the paralysis that exists in the legislative branch, his best efforts have been stifled, and I think his best efforts have been quite good, they just haven’t been able to succeed.”
And this is the world that Ford summons up in fragment: isolated and angry, at a moment in history when it is urgently required to open up and lead. It is also a time when demographic shifts in the US’s social makeup have led to anxiety and even paranoia on the part of white America. In a latter section of Let Me Be Frank
With You, Bascombe is door-knocked by a black woman who claims to have grown up in his house. The story she relates is a small domestic tragedy of racial tension, but it seems remarkably timely in the era of Ferguson’s riots.
But, for Ford, this is a far older subject of discussion. It began with his decision to leave the south as a young man, fearful of being infected by the racism around him. A certain weariness enters Ford’s voice as he explains how America’s black communities have been “vulcanised by race”. If he is critical of a retreat into identity politics on the part of the African-American population, he regards the unwillingness of white Americans to enter into honest dialogue as “rather sinister” and ultimately destructive for both sides.
“I wrote about race in Independence Day, wrote about it in The Lay of the Land. I am helpless not to write about it. And it is certainly something that Americans, white and black, have got to figure out a way to do better — although I have my doubts that they ever will.”
Beneath the humour and the melancholy of the stories in Let Me Be Frank With You is the single bass note of age and the losses that accrue as a result of time’s passing. Frank has survived cancer but his body continues to humiliate him with its frailty. Ford, who is a spry 70 this year, is keen to distance himself from any vulgar concordance with fiction: “Frank’s old so Frank sounds old and talks about (being) old but, in the process of making him be, I don’t feel old as the guy writing those sentences down.”
With age, though, comes a certain perspective: on one’s own writing and on the work of younger generations. When asked whether he feels the excellence he and his peers brought to American literature has been continued by newer voices, Ford speaks warmly of the brilliance of Aleksandar Hemon and Jonathan Franzen, though somewhat more sharply of younger writers as a whole: “I wish they were a little bit less disdainful of us. It just comes with the territory, I guess. Particularly me and (Tim) O’Brien and to some extent Carver and Toby Wolff. They love DeLillo, and DeLillo’s lovable, but they’re not very friendly to us. But I have very high regard for them.”
Ford’s coffee is long finished by now, and a long day of interviews and appearances awaits him. But there is one final paradox to ponder. How can it be that the author has lavished so much attention on one man’s ordinary defeats and sadnesses, during a period in which the declination of an older American ideal has continued apace, and still maintain that sense of joy, of irreverence and unexpected wonder?
“I think it comes out of the American grain in me,” Ford replies. “I’m an Emersonian by nature, but I’m also a sort of Groucho Marxist by nature — which is to say if nothing’s funny, nothing’s serious to me. There’s a line of Henry James who says that the great theme in the world is the connection between bliss and bale, between things that help and things that hurt.”
He concludes: “I’m just never satisfied if something’s not a little bit funny. I don’t think I’ve got you leaning in the right direction if it’s not.”
Let Me Be Frank With You, published by Bloomsbury, is out this week. The issues of race raised by the Ferguson protests, above left, resonate in Ford’s books
(YOUNGER WRITERS) LOVE DELILLO, AND DELILLO’S LOVABLE, BUT THEY’RE NOT VERY FRIENDLY TO US
(OBAMA’S) BEST EFFORTS HAVE BEEN QUITE GOOD, THEY JUST HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO SUCCEED
THAT MAGISTERIAL QUALITY THAT JOHN (UPDIKE) HAD WAS JUST HIS NATURE