Nationality: American. Born: Jackson, Mississippi, 16 February1944. Education: Public schools in Jackson, 1950-62; Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1962-66, B.A. 1966; Washington University Law School, St. Louis, 1967-68; University of California, Berkeley, 1968-70, M.A. 1970. Family: Married Kristina Hensley in 1968. Career: Assistant professor of English, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1978-79; lecturer, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1980-81; teacher, Harvard University, 1994. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1978, 1983; New York Public Library Literary Lion award, 1989; American Academy award, 1989; Echoing Green Foundation award, 1991; Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1997. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10023-2031, U.S.A.
A Piece of My Heart. New York, Harper, 1976; London, Collins, 1987.
The Ultimate Good Luck. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981; London, Collins, 1989.
The Sportswriter. New York, Vintage, and London, Collins, 1986.
Wildlife. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, and London, Collins, 1990.
Independence Day. New York, Knopf, 1995.
Rock Springs. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987; London, Collins, 1988.
Women with Men: Three Stories. New York, Knopf, 1997.
Bright Angel, 1991.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1990. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Editor, The Granta Book of the American Short Story. London, Granta, 1991.
Editor, The Essential Tales of Chekhov. New York, Ecco Press, 2000.*
Richard Ford comments:
I'm stymied in an attempt to introduce my work. I wish I could write something about it that would make it seem wonderful and irresistible. My belief is, though, that anybody's work ought to introduce itself from its first moment, and I would prefer to take my chances that way rather than to put on the critic's cap regarding my own efforts or risk confusing my later opinions about my book or my story or my essay with any of their actual effects. Writers, in my experience, often gain very lofty opinions of their oeuvres once their oeuvres are out of writerly control. Any number of wondrous intentions, structures, and philosophical underpinnings can be made to dress up a simple story after the fact. I've probably been guilty of it myself, though it's only human.* * *
Near the end of The Sportswriter, Frank Bascombe tells a young woman in whom he's interested that he never lets himself feel sorry for anyone he writes about, "since the next person you're liable to feel sorry for is you, and then you're in real trouble." While the settings of Richard Ford's fiction range from Montana to Arkansas to Mexico to New Jersey, his theme seems to remain constant. Emotional entanglements—with others, with the self—are to be avoided.
In A Piece of My Heart, after eight years of marriage to Jackie, Robard Hewes leaves their home in Bishop, California, and drives his truck to the Arkansas bank of the Mississippi River. There, in the sleepy town of Helena, he takes up again with Beuna, with whom he had a brief affair 12 years earlier. He has been led to do this because for a year Beuna, married to an obsessed minor-league pitcher, has been writing him letters persuading him to come see her and renew their affair. Robard, whose own marriage has lost some of its flavor, knows that fooling with another man's wife is risky business. But having made his decision to do it, he is bent on carrying out his mission.
In Arkansas, Robard encounters Sam Newel, just down from Chicago, where he was about to complete his education in the law. The two men end up sharing quarters on an island that is the destination of hunting parties from out of state. Sam has been urged to spend some time on the island by his girlfriend Beebe, who thinks Sam needs to raise his "tolerance for ambiguity" and to learn to keep going "when nothing is very clearly defined," a notion that sounds very much like the poet John Keats's "negative capability."
Although it is obvious that Sam has a precarious hold on life, Robard does not like him or offer him anything resembling pity. Nor does Sam see anything in Robard worthy of his respect. Sam, burdened with intellect and guilt, thinks Robard is an impulsive fool. That Robard is not a reflective person clearly, in the view of the author, is very much to his credit; when called by his instincts, Robard acts. Sam's troubles are due to his willingness to dwell on the same old issues.
A Piece of My Heart is divided into seven parts. The first and last and two parts in the middle are Robard's; three alternate parts in the middle are Sam's. The effect of this path-crossing is that Sam is moved away from his Hamlet-like tendencies and Robard begins to reflect, in particular to realize his mistake in leaving Jackie. His realization, though, comes too late, for he is shot as a trespasser before he can start back to California.
Ford's second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, is about 31-year-old Harry Quinn's adventures in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he is trying to gain the release from prison of a young American drug smuggler. Quinn is a more thoughtful Robard. Just as Robard left Jackie, Quinn too let a good woman get away from him. But he is given a chance to get Rae back when she writes and asks whether he would be interested in helping to get her brother out of a Mexican prison. As a former Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Quinn has the skills and cast of mind needed for dealing with corrupt prison officials and the Mexican underworld.
Unlike Sam Newel, Quinn, despite the horrors of Vietnam, will not let the past take hold of him. He is determined to live in the present, free of anxiety. Quinn is convinced that the ultimate good luck comes only to those who live in the present. What Quinn learns, though, is that even living in the present is not sufficient for outrunning loneliness. Thus he is glad for the opportunity to win Rae back.
Quinn, whose language is spare and hardboiled, is a typical Ford protagonist. In language and temperament, Quinn is very much a descendent of Ernest Hemingway's heroes. Near the beginning of this novel is one of the best pieces of descriptive prose to be found in all of Ford's writing, and it too is reminiscent of Hemingway. It is a description of two teenage Mexican boys boxing. At first they haven't the heart to hit each other, but the bout ends with one boy poking the other's eyeball out of its socket.
The Sportswriter is Ford's best-known novel. His protagonist, Frank Bascombe, has a Hemingway-esque attraction to contests of strength and skill. But while Hemingway's characters enlist in wars and gather at bullfights, Bascombe is drawn to the safer, relatively antiseptic world of sports. After the death of his young son, Bascombe quits writing fiction (where clearly the more rigorous existential challenges lie) for sports writing because sports teach that there are "no transcendent themes in life": "When a contest is over, it's over, finished. That's the way life is, and any other view is a lie. Athletes are completely happy living in the present."
Though these thoughts echo Quinn's desires to live only in the present, Bascombe is more reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's Prufrock, or Mary McCarthy's Peter Levi, than a Hemingway protagonist. Bascombe thinks and observes but cannot act. When an acquaintance who clearly is suicidal reaches out to him after they have been on a fishing trip off the Jersey coast, Bascombe responds with anything but compassion. His only action is non-action: constant internal philosophizing that helps him maintain his emotional distance but accomplishes little else. He knows that "for your life to be worth anything you must sooner or later face the possibility of terrible, searing regret. Though you must also manage to avoid it or your life will be ruined."
Bascombe returns in Independence Day, the sequel to The Sportswriter. He has changed careers again—he's now a real estate agent—and moved into his ex-wife's house in the fictional town of Haddam, New Jersey. His investment in "homes" suggests a yearning for attachment. Independence Day indeed portrays Bascombe's shift from what he calls his "Existence Period"—detached bachelorhood without crisis—to his consideration of "The Permanent Period" of marriage and a deeper commitment to fatherhood. "Independence" here represents the freedom to move toward such intimacy. But in the end, "The Permanent Period" remains a concept. Like Prufrock pondering the peach, Bascombe does not act. Watching the Fourth of July Parade in the closing scene of the book, he only feels "the push, pull, the wave and sway of others" from a distance.
In Women with Men, a collection of three novellas, Ford's protagonists continue to wallow in these cerebral epiphanies. They think themselves to the truth, or at least to deeper insight, but they either do not act at all, or their actions degenerate into aimlessness. The fruitlessness of his characters' contemplations begs the question: What is the value of epiphany without action?
In "The Womanizer," Austin, a happily married man, leaves his wife to take up with a French divorcee. Certainly this is an action, a way of seizing control of one's romantic fate, of turning decisively away from commitment. Yet this pursuit fails terribly. On an outing, Austin loses sight of his lover's young son. The boy is molested, and Austin's affair ends bitterly as a result. Austin blames himself, then sinks into self-centered rumination: "How could you regulate life, do little harm and still be attached to others?" He might as well be asking, "How do you get everything you want without consequences or mistakes?"—more a childish plaint than a serious existential query.
Ironically, his much younger teenage protagonist in "Jealous" seems more willing to accept limits of desire. He yearns for his flirty Aunt Doris, and even gets close enough to think "she was going to kiss" him. His heart-pounding panic when she doesn't, though, is short-lived. He tells himself: "it's you who's causing it, and you who has to stop it." He lets himself revel in the closeness she does allow him, a moment of contentment before the selfish hungers of adulthood get a chance to overtake him.
Adult responsibility, in Ford's world, is usually up to female characters. Men leave their children for new lives. Women reject lovers who cannot protect their children. Even when children are not in the picture, women are able to take control in a way Ford's men can only sadly marvel at. Helen in "Occidentals" insists on being responsible for the terms of her life and her death. Matthews is awed by her actions, but, like so many of Ford's male characters, can only ponder what is missing in his own life: the "spiritual component she'd wanted," the dignity and status of a man committed to something beyond himself.
—Paul Marx, updated by
Lisa A. Phillips
Nationality: American. Born: Jackson, Mississippi, 16 February 1944. Education: Public schools in Jackson, 1950-62; Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1962-66, B.A. 1966; Washington University Law School, St. Louis, 1966-67; University of California, Irvine, 1968-70, M.F.A. 1970. Family: Married Kristina Hensley in 1968. Career: Assistant professor, University of Michigan, 1975-76; assistant professor of English, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1978-79; lecturer and George Perkins fellow in the Humanities, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1980-81; lecturer, Harvard University, 1994; visiting professor, Northwestern University, 1997-98. Lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. Awards: Fellow, Society of Fellows, University of Michigan, 1971-74; Great Lakes College Association Best First Novel award, 1976; Guggenheim fellowship, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1979, 1986; Pushcart prize story, 1986; Best American Short Stories prize story, 1986; Mississippi Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, 1987; PEN-Faulkner Award for Fiction (citation), 1987; Northwest Booksellers Award for Fiction, 1988; New York Public Library literary lion award, 1989; American Academy award, 1989; Echoing Green Foundation award, 1991; Avery Hopwood Memorial Lecturer, University of Michigan, 1992; Governor's Award for Artistic Achievement (Mississippi), 1993; Fulbright Fellowship (Sweden), 1993; The Lyndhurst prize, 1993; The Rea Award for the Short Story, 1995; Officier, L'Ordre Des Arts et Des Lettres, Republic of France, 1996; Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 1996; Finalist, National Book Critics Circle award, 1996; PEN-Faulkner Award for Fiction, 1996; Humanist of the Year, Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 1997; Award for Merit in the Novel, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1997. Honorary degrees: University of Rennes, France, 1995; Loyola University, 1996; University of Michigan, 1998. Member: American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1998.
Rock Springs. 1987.
Women with Men. 1997.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Shooting the Rest Area" (in Paris Review #62). n.d.
"The Newel Vignettes" (in Michigan Quarterly). 1976.
"In Desert Waters" (in Esquire). August 1976.
"Snowman" (in Tri-Quarterly). Spring 1981.
"Middlewest" (in Antaeus). Autumn 1994.
"The Shore" (in Granta). Spring 1995.
"Privacy" (in The New Yorker). 22 July 1996.
A Piece of My Heart. 1976.
The Ultimate Good Luck. 1981.
The Sportswriter. 1986.
Independence Day. 1995.
American Tropical (produced in Louisville) . 1983.
Bright Angel, 1991.
Editor, with Shannon Ravenel, The Best American Short Stories 1990. 1990.
Editor, The Granta Book of the American Short Story. 1992.
Editor, Ploutghshares. Fall 1996.
Editor, with Constance Sullivan, The Fights. 1996
Editor, with Michael Kreyling, Eudora Welty: Collected Writings. n.d.*
Michigan State University, East Lansing.
"Richard Ford" by Frank W. Shelton, in Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Joseph Flora, 1993; "Frank Bascombe Awakes to Lessons of Independence" by Merle Rubin, in The Christian Science Monitor, July 1995, p.19; "The Poetry of Real Estaste" by Raymond A. Schroth, in Commonweal, October 1995, pp. 27-8.* * *
Richard Ford is best known for his two novels about Frank Bascombe, The Sportswriter (1986) and its Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel, Independence Day (1995). Both have been called "masterful works" that will ensure Ford's place as a great American writer. Admirers of the short story, however, will best remember Ford as the author of Rock Springs (1987), a collection that has guaranteed him a place in both general and textbook anthologies, especially with the stories "Rock Springs," "Communist," and "Great Falls"—stories that focus on adolescent boys trying to find someone on whom to model their lives and displaced men unable to establish a sense of identity or stability.
In his second collection of three long stories, Women with Men (1997), Ford is still concerned with the painful initiation of adolescent males and the dilemma of lost and drifting men, but the later fiction does not have the tight metaphoric technique of his best early stories. In two pieces that focus on American men in Paris—"The Womanizer" and "Occidentals"—the central characters are unsympathetic and humorless men who drift passively through relationships, affecting others only negatively. In "Jealous" Ford seems much more comfortable focusing on a young man in Montana, a country he obviously knows well, than on middle-aged men adrift in Paris, a city he seems to know only as the prototypical European site of American dreams and disillusionment.
In his best-known story, "Rock Springs," Ford creates a painful portrait of Earl Middleton, a man who drifts through life longing for stability but who is never quite sure how to achieve it. The final image of the story—when Earl wanders about late at night in the parking lot of a Ramada Inn near Rock Springs, Wyoming, looking into car windows at things he says he would have in his car if he had a car—establishes a painful, unforgettable picture of American transience.
"Great Falls" begins with the ominous lines: "This is not a happy story. I warn you." The story is told by a young man who recounts watching his father put the barrel of a revolver under the chin of a man he has caught in bed with his wife. The narrator remembers the befuddled sense of helplessness his father felt, telling the man that he would like to hurt him in some way but not knowing how. The boy perceives that his father "seemed to be becoming someone else at that moment, someone I didn't know." When the boy meets his mother the next day, knowing that his father will never let her come back, he realizes that his life has turned suddenly, and he is left with puzzling questions to which he has never found the answers. The story ends with the narrator pondering the idea that perhaps it is just "some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand life when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us no more or less than animals who meet on the road—watchful, unforgiving, without patience or desire."
"Optimists," a similar story about a young man trying to come to terms with the relationship between his parents, also begins ominously, with the narrator describing a year when life changed for him and his family, the year when he was 15, when his parents divorced, when his father killed a man and went to prison for it, and when he lied about his age to join the army. The story focuses on the father accidentally killing a man for accusing him of failing to help someone who was dying of an injury. The boy knows that the event will change everything: "I began to date my real life from that moment and that thought. It is only this: that situations have possibilities in them, and we have only to be present to be involved." Ford often puts an attempt at thematic significance into the mouths of his characters, even when the realization is more sophisticated and more smoothly articulated than the character seems capable of. At the end of "Optimists" the narrator, who seems to be telling the story 15 years later when he is working as a laborer, sums up the story as follows: "The most important things of your life can change so suddenly, so unrecoverably, that you can forget even the most important of them and their connections, you are so taken up by the chanciness of all that's happened and by all that could and will happen next."
Although "Empire" focuses on a train trip by a man named Sims and his wife Marge, it also includes a flashback to an incident that occurred the year before, when Marge was in the hospital and Sims slept with a woman named Cleo who had been hanging out with a motorcycle gang called Satan's Diplomats. The title of the story derives from the gang's conviction that they are part of Satan's "evil empire." After Marge gets out of the hospital, Sims gets telephone calls from a man who says that the devil needs Marge and that they are going to kill her since Sims has given up his right to her by having sex with someone else. Sims dismisses the threat, and in the typical Ford explanatory voice the narrator expresses the dismissal in a sophisticated way: "Things you do pass away and are gone, and you need only to outlive them for your life to be better, steadily better. This is what you can count on." The things Sims does do not pass away, however, for on the train trip he goes to bed with another woman while his wife sleeps in her berth. When he goes to the washroom before returning to Marge, he looks in the mirror and thinks, "a deceiver's face … an adulterer's face, a face to turn away from. He smiled at himself and then couldn't look." Another key motif in many of Ford's stories—being on the edge of a new life—is expressed by Marge when he climbs into the berth with her, "We're out on a frontier here, aren't we sweetheart?" Although he does not feel guilty, Sims senses his isolation, "alone in a wide empire, removed and afloat, calmed as if life was far away now, as if blackness was all around, as if stars held the only light."
As in several of Ford's stories, "Communist" focuses on a young man who does not fully understand an event that occurs to him. The 16-year-old boy who narrates the story is trying to create a relationship with Glen, the man his mother is dating after the death of his father. The central scene is a goose hunt on which Glen takes the boy and during which the two kill dozens of geese. When Glen refuses to go out and get a wounded goose on the lake and the boy's mother tells him that he has no heart, he shoots the goose four times. The narrator, who relates the incident when he is 41, says that he thinks Glen was the first man he ever saw scared and that he felt sorry for him as if he were already a dead man, "Glen Baxter, I think now, was not a bad man, only a man scared of something he'd never seen before—something soft in himself—his life going a way he didn't like."
"Jealous," the coming-of-age story in Ford's collection Women with Men, takes place on the day before Thanksgiving in 1975 when a 17-year-old boy who has been living with his father in a rural area in Montana is going to Seattle to visit his mother. His mother's sister, Aunt Doris, a sexy free spirit, accompanies him. The plot focuses on their misadventures in the town of Shelby while waiting for the train. Doris meets a man in a bar whom the sheriff and deputies come looking for on suspicion of murdering his wife. The man is killed in a shoot-out in the bar; after Doris and the boy are questioned, they board the train for Seattle. Although Ford does not make it clear what effect the killing of the man in the bar has had on the boy, the story ends with him sitting on the train, feeling calm for the first time in his life.
The adolescent boys who face identity crises in many of Ford's short stories become the middle-aged men who can never quite find a home in many others. As adolescents Ford's male characters seem at the mercy of the adults around them, but even though they seem to learn something from the pain this causes them, the adult men they become somehow cannot accept responsibility and grow up. The result is a gallery of males in Ford's stories who are never able to be at home with either themselves or others.
—Charles E. May
See the essay on "Rock Springs."