Politics Magazine

Rock Springs: Richard Ford out West

Posted on the 03 September 2011 by Erictheblue

Richard Ford is best known for the series of novels--The Sportswriter (1986), Independence Day (1995), and The Lay of the Land (2006)--about Frank Bascombe, a resident of suburban New Jersey whose life has been blighted by domestic woe (death of a child, divorce) from which he has nevertheless emerged, sanity intact and capable of illuminating every scene with his intelligence and powers of observation.  These books, now available between two hard covers in an Everyman's Contemporary Classics edition a la Updike's Rabbit Angstrom novels, deserve their high reputations.

But I like his short fiction even more--especially the stories collected in Rock Springs, which are set not in New Jersey but in the West, usually Montana, where the characters are not sportwriters or realtors but survivors, barely, of bad choices made in lives that hadn't started well, either.  (The sequence of bad choices stretches back in time.)  In the title story, a man named Earl is traveling with his girlfriend and young daughter from Montana to Florida in a cranberry Mercedes he stole off an ophthamologist's lot in Whitefish.  Here is the opening:

Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn't turn me in to the police.  I had managed to scrape with the law in Kalispell over several bad checks--which is a prison crime in Montana.  And I knew Edna was already looking at her cards and thinking about a move, since it wasn't the first time I'd been in law scrapes in my life.  She herself already had her own troubles, losing her kids and keeping her ex-husband, Danny, from breaking in her house and stealing her things while she was at work, which is really why I had moved in in the first place, that and needing to give my little daughter, Cheryl, a better shake in things.

This is not Bascombe-land.  The Mercedes breaks down in Wyoming and there is an interlude at a trailer home by a gold mine where Earl asks the sixtyish African-American woman who comes to the door if he can use the phone: much politeness and signs of trouble equal, approximately, to his own.  The Mercedes hid in the cottonwoods to the side of the road, tires sunk in soft sand, the trio get a cab to the Ramada Inn at the town of Rock Springs.  There is another interlude of food and love making, then Edna takes Earl up on his offer to buy her a bus ticket back to Kalispell.  So she's leaving in the morning.  When the girlfriend and the daughter are asleep, Earl goes outside to see about another car, and the story concludes:

I walked over to a car, a Pontiac with Ohio tags, one of the ones with bundles and suitcases strapped to the top and a lot more in the trunk, by the way it was riding.  I looked inside the driver's window.  There were maps and paperback books and sunglasses and the little plastic holders for cans that hang on the window wells.  And in the back there were kids' toys and some pillows and a cat box with a cat sitting in it staring up at me like I was the face of the moon.  It all looked familiar to me, the very same things I would have in my car if I had a car.  Nothing seemed surprising, nothing different.  Though I had a funny sensation at that moment and turned and looked up at the windows along the back of the motel.  All were dark except two.  Mine and another one.  And I wondered, because it seemed funny, what would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn?  Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared?  Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him?  Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him?  Would you think he had a daughter?  Would you think he was anybody like you?

I won't be able to give a rational account of the effect achieved by these words, at least upon me.  But I think it has a lot to do with the inventory of items in the car from Ohio, the way they suggest something different from the monochrome of distress and trouble that has preceded. "It all looked familiar to me, the very same things I would have in my car if I had a car." In my time hanging around Departments of English, I didn't notice that reading literature seemed to have made people more generous or humane, but this story by Ford, and others from the same volume about as good, seem like understated invitations to extend  sympathy's arc. 

You can read some of Ford's stories online.  Here is a recent one, "Leaving for Kenosha," published in The New Yorker of March 3, 2008.  Another gem. 

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