In this just-released collection of short and long stories, Richard Ford returns to a form he explored more often early in his career, before the Frank Bascombe novels that brought him the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, and the wonderful subsequent novel Canada, which may be his best work if The Sportswriter isn’t.
The opening story here, “Nothing to Declare”, tells the tale of a chance encounter with an old flame, and the afternoon walk they share through the French Quarter and along the Mississippi. Sandy McGuinness spots a woman he hasn’t seen since a school-break trip to Iceland that ended their relationship. They meet by chance decades later in a noisy bar where Sandy and some law firm colleagues are drinking. She’s drunk enough, and he’s open enough, for this to turn into most anything. And what it turns into is an account of their respective ambivalences, not-quite-regrets and wondering-what-ifs, all told in snippets of laden and open-ended dialogue, narrated in language that pulls us into the heads and hearts of each of them, in what writers call a “free indirect style” that colors in around the edges. Each takes the measure of the months they had and the decades they missed.
“Happy” is named after a dour and too-often-unpleasant woman, Bobbi Kamper, who for many years has peopled the periphery of a group of now-aging artists and writers and the like. Her husband Mick, with whom she’s not lived for some time, gave her the nickname in irony, a commodity he traded in while editing for a significant publishing house after his own novel did okay many years ago, but he couldn’t come up with another. Over the course of a last night in Maine before heading back to their lives in New York and beyond, they all look back not very wistfully, and forward uncertainly, after a tepid toast to Mick’s recent passing.
In the first of two long stories, “The Run of Yourself” explores life after losing one’s wife of many years, with so many more to go. Peter Boyce takes a summer rental on Cape Cod, near the one they had rented for years and Mae died in two years back. He recounts her battled with breast cancer, her courage near the end, and the way she chose to go. He decides to leave early, drive straight through to their home in New Orleans, then stays. “Small, graduated adjustments were all he needed” to go on.
“Not that Mae, here or gone, was a small matter. She was now his great subject. But why she’d done what she awfully did was, at this day’s end, not business she’d wanted to share. And not business he could do anything about. There was nothing further to learn or imagine or re-invent around here. Love now meant only to take in and agree.”
In something of a return to the territory of Ford’s first collection of stories, Rock Springs, “Displaced” is the tale of a sixteen-year-old boy, who tells us about life after losing his father. The story itself is activated by the presence of a not-much-older Irish immigrant hooligan, Niall, who lives for a time in a rooming house across the street in Jackson, Mississippi. It begins:
“When your father dies and you are only sixteen, many things change. School life changes. You are now the boy whose father is missing. People feel sorry for you, but they also devalue you, even resent you—for what, you’re not sure. The air around you is different. Once, that air contained you fully. But now an opening’s cut, which feels frightening, yet not so frightening.
“And there is your mother and her loss to fill . . .”
Niall dubs our protagonist “ole Harry” and takes him under his wing at the widow’s urging. They take the taxicab Niall drives for a living (because his own father is a drunk) to a drive-in movie night, where “Harry” is taken with Niall’s cool and cocky demeanor. “He had a natural understanding of whatever stood in front of him.” But Niall has secrets of his own, and after a scrape with the law and a short stint in the military at the suggestion of a judge, he’s written that he’s gone to New York to catch a freighter back to Ireland.
“When I read the letter, I wondered what kind of boy would I say Niall MacDermott was. We go through life with notions that we know what a person is all about. He’s this way—or at least he’s more this way than that. Or, he’s some other way, and we know how to treat him and to what ends he’ll go. With Niall you couldn’t completely know what kind of boy he was. He was good, I believed, at heart. Or mainly. He was kind, or could be kind. He knew things. But I was certain I knew things he didn’t and could see how he could be led wrong and be wrong that way all his life. ‘Niall will come to no good end,’ my mother said a day after his letter came. Something had disappointed her. Something transient or displaced in Niall. Something had been attractive to her about him in her fragile state, and been attractive to me, in my own fragile state. But you just wouldn’t bank on what Niall was, which was the word my poor father used. That was what you looked for, he thought, in people you wanted closest to you. People you can bank on. It sounds easy enough. But if only—and I have thought it a thousand times since those days, when my mother and I were alone together—if only life would turn out to be that simple.”
This is Richard Ford, still doing it—and teaching it to some fortunate ones indeed at Columbia—after all these years.
In an earlier post (4/7/2020) I explained how my first novel came to be, the individuals I’d met or encountered whose physical attributes, and the interior lives and circumstances I imagined for them, became the characters and story line for Strays.
In a book on writing published ten years ago which I’ve only just come across, Colm Tóibín explains how the last great novel Henry James wrote, The Golden Bowl, was conceived. Five years after The Portrait of a Lady was published, one of the two people whose villa in Florence inspired that novel got married. James then wrote to the father, introducing him to Constance Fenimore Woolson, who was on her way to Florence. His purpose was to have these four people—the younger married couple, and the older pair of new acquaintance—living in proximity, to stimulate his imagination. As Tóibín puts it in All a Novelist Needs (2010):
“In other words, James in London could contemplate the four of them in Florence—the father severed from his only daughter, to whom he was devoted, by her marriage, and the arrival of the outsider to offer comfort or provide company for the father. All four living in close proximity.”
It would be another seventeen years until James even started writing the book that was the product of all this rumination, and his notes written in journals down all the years. But the book is not about those real-life characters; it’s the product of contemplation, about their plight as they go about their lives in close proximity. Tóibín continues:
“This is all a novelist needs, nothing exact or precise, no character to be based on an actual person, but a configuration, something distant that can be mulled over, guessed at, dreamed about, imagined, a set of shadowy relations that the writer can begin to put substance on. Changing details, adding shape, but using always something, often from years back, that had captured the imagination, or mattered somehow to the hidden self, however fleetingly or mysteriously.”
More recently, in conversation on stage with Richard Ford (https://vimeo.com/192459241)
Tóibín says more about these early stages of the writing:
"A novelist's job is almost to be as stupid as possible, except in the cunning moment when you need to structure something, when you need to be very intelligent indeed.”
That structuring will come later, Tóibín says, but for now:
“[Y]ou need almost an empty mind, where you can let any image in, follow it along, and allow an emotional charge, almost the way actors and singers can work.”
One needs to sit and watch and listen, he says, to the characters as they interact with each other and meet situations some of which they hadn’t counted on; and to those around them who want something else, something inconsistent perhaps with what your main characters want. For this work, you clear your mind and go on instinct, not intelligence.
“The more instinct you have as a novelist the better."
At least until that “cunning moment.”
It’s been said that the The Lay of the Land, the final book in Richard Ford’s Ralph Bascombe trilogy, was “less successful” than the others. I don’t subscribe to that theory; in my view, it’s the most successful . . . except for the end. Which is a big exception. The climax felt incongruously violent and unnecessary, not unlike Richard Russo’s to Empire Falls. Both felt contrived for Hollywood or something, unworthy of either writer or either work, detracting from the elegant realism that hums through both these great pieces of American literature.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .