This Amer­i­can life

Au­thor Richard Ford meets Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

Richard Ford




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