Pick­ing up the pieces of his past

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Richard Ford is one of the great Amer­i­can re­al­ists. For 30 years he has been pro­duc­ing fic­tion that comes with a shock of recog­ni­tion. He presents us with the faces and voices, the land­scapes and in­ci­den­tals of con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica while also re­con­fig­ur­ing them into pat­terns that de­light the mind with their images and their mu­sic.

Some­times he has looked like a nat­u­ral-born heir of Ernest Hem­ing­way with a tac­i­turn prose and a vi­sion of what is rough as well as what is de­cent.

Some­times, as in the Frank Bas­combe nov­els that be­gin with The Sports­writer (1986), there is more fancy, even dandy­ish prose, as well as a sen­si­bil­ity that is lit­er­ary and side­long and can seem like some kind of per­sona of the au­thor.

Now he has writ­ten a mem­oir of his par­ents, the sto­ries of his mother and fa­ther, penned 30 years apart. It is a re­mark­able book, mov­ing and grave. It is also sort of what Harold Bloom likes to call a wis­dom book. It hits with the power of a not-quite-glimpsed truth.

Here he is on what could be called his fa­ther’s lack of in­ner re­sources, though that’s not quite the habit of mind Ford ex­hibits: I do not know about my fa­ther’s faith — if he had any. He might have said he did — af­ter his heart at­tack — but he did not prac­tise one, not as long as I knew him. I knew he didn’t take plea­sure in books — where he could’ve found what we all find if we don’t have faith: tes­ti­mony that there is an al­ter­nate way to think about life, dif­fer­ent from the ways we’re nat­u­rally equipped. Seek­ing imag­i­na­tive al­ter­na­tives would not have been his habit.

This is beau­ti­fully put and it’s a re­minder of how much the easy aes­theti­cism of ed­u­cated peo­ple does con­sti­tute a sort of im­plicit spir­i­tu­al­ity, and an ad­van­tage that dif­fer­ent but in no way in­fe­rior peo­ple do not have.

The no way in­fe­rior is im­por­tant to Ford. This first part of Be­tween Them, about his fa­ther, was writ­ten 30 years af­ter the se­cond part, about his mother, oc­ca­sioned by her death in 1981. It is a tremen­dous homage to the mute, in­glo­ri­ous re­al­ity of the nov­el­ist’s fa­ther.

What was it James Joyce wrote in that frag­ile, del­i­cate poem about the man he im­mor­talised as Si­mon Dedalus? “O fa­ther for­saken / For­give your son!”

That is, of course, the ut­ter­ance of a son who be­came a fa­ther. It has as its oc­ca­sion the death of Joyce’s fa­ther and the birth of his grand­son. And so its Latin ti­tle Ecce Puer ( Be­hold the Boy), which echoes Pi­late’s words to the crowd, points both ways. There is ter­ri­ble poignancy in in­di­cat­ing how a baby will even­tu­ally suf­fer his equiv­a­lences to cru­ci­fix­ion and how an old dead dad was once some­body’s in­fant.

Isn’t there the ghost of a mem­ory, long ago, of Ford say­ing that some­times par­ents don’t have that much sig­nif­i­cance for a writer? This mem­oir be­lies and de­fies that with a vengeance even though Ford’s por­trait of his fa­ther, Pre­ston Ford, makes no at­tempt to glam­or­ise or trans­fig­ure.

Pre­ston’s fa­ther com­mit­ted sui­cide. Pre­ston sold starch for a liv­ing, in the Amer­i­can south, trav­el­ling hither and yon for a long time, of­ten apart from young Richard, then not, af­ter he had a heart at­tack as a mid­dle-aged man.

It’s a por­trait of an or­di­nary man that re­fuses the im­pli­ca­tion of its own ad­jec­tive.

Ford was born long af­ter his par­ents would have given up on the idea of hav­ing kids. His ar- ri­val, 15 years into their mar­riage, must have com­pli­cated lives where his par­ents would have been for­ever in each other’s pock­ets, sip­ping and suck­ing at life as if it were so much bour­bon.

One of the no­table things about this book is how Ford makes his fa­ther’s lim­i­ta­tions look like the in­signia of his in­di­vid­u­al­ity.

And then there are the dreams: the coun­try boy who falls in love with sub­ur­bia, the man who would like to be able to fish, the fan­tasies about new cars. He loses it with young Richard over a Christ­mas tree, he runs to fat, he goes bald, and there’s the in­no­cence of his smile, how he was felled by a heart at­tack, how he lived for the glow of his wife’s com­pany, the fight they had, drink­ing, at that par­tic­u­lar restau­rant, how their son lay be­tween them and soaked up their love and the heartache of their loss.

Though Ford never cried for his fa­ther when he died, as he re­calls in his af­ter­word, this first, be­lated part of Be­tween Them is there by way of el­egy and apolo­gia, a la­ment of a Makar for a

Richard Ford wrote the sto­ries of his fa­ther and mother 30 years apart

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