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The landscape of Women with Men ranges from the northern plains of Montana to the streets of Paris and the suburbs of Chicago, where...
The landscape of Women with Men ranges from the northern plains of Montana to the streets of Paris and the suburbs of Chicago, where Mr. Ford's various characters experience the consolations and complications that prevail in matters of passion, romance and love. A seventeen-year-old boy starting adulthood in the shadow of his parents' estrangement, a survivor of three marriages now struggling with cancer, an ostensibly devoted salesman in early middle age, an aspiring writer, a woman scandalously betrayed by her husband--they each of them contend with the vast distances that exist between those who are closest together. Whether alone, long married or newly met, they confront the obscure difference between privacy and intimacy, the fine distinction of pleasing another as opposed to oneself, and a need for reliance that is tempered by fearful vulnerability.
In three long stories, Richard Ford captures men and women at this complex and essential moment of truth--in the course of everyday life, or during a bleak Thanksgiving journey, seismic arguments, Christmas abroad, the sudden disappearance of a child, even a barroom shooting. And with peerless emotional nuance and authority he once again demonstrates, as Elizabeth Hardwick has written, "a talent as strong and varied as American fiction has to offer."
Unlike Ford's earlier efforts, Women with Men is a mixed bag, equal parts superficial and profound. Its best story, Jealous, returns to the Montana of Wildlife and his 1987 story collection, Rock Springs, using language that is laconic but precise to reflect the deep disquiet in its characters' hearts. Revolving around a 17-year-old boy named Larry, who, with his Aunt Doris, sets off to visit his mother in Seattle for Thanksgiving, the narrative explodes into serendipitous, nearly random violence that highlights the at-times-incomprehensible forces in Larry's world. Ford expertly delineates the interior life of adolescence, describing Larry's odd mix of reticence and engagement, his not-quite-passive sense of being on the verge of life. As the boy declares, "I wanted to get out of Montana, where we didn't have a TV and had to haul our own water and where the coyotes woke you up howling and my father and I had nobody to talk to but each other. I was missing something, I thought, an important opportunity ... And after that it would always be impossible to explain how things really were."
Women with Men runs into trouble when Ford veers from the familiar to the foreign textures of expatriate life. Both The Womanizer and Occidentals, the longer writings that bracket Jealous, take place in Paris and involve men who, at least in part, desire refuge from marriages gone awry. Although these pieces have their moments, each suffers from a meandering structure, relying on aimless walks through the city to establish the ramifications of exile, the way "it didn't feel the least romantic. It felt purposeless, as if he himself had no purpose, and there was no sense of a future now."
Perhaps the key issue is that Ford is a quintessentially American author, whose work loses its authority when cast on foreign soil. Certainly his descriptions of Paris are flat, two-dimensional, as if written by Charley Matthews, the novelist/protagonist of Occidentals, who had "never been to Paris, had simply chosen it on a whim." That's a difficult irony, for place (or its evocation) has long been Ford's most essential writerly attribute; one can't imagine Rock Springs, or even The Sportswriter, without recalling the delicate ways in which geography and action connect. Yet throughout much of Women with Men, that interplay is missing, as if, in the words of Charley Matthews, "[H]e could never write about Paris -- the real Paris. He would never know enough." --Salon June 23, 1997
In "The Womanizer," Martin Austin, married but childless, becomes interested in a Frenchwoman named Josephine when he's in Paris on business. The difficulty is—for Austin and for the reader—that he seems not to know what he wants either with her or from her, with the result that Ford offers page after page of clunky vacuity as if simply to put something between start and the end of the story ("He wasn't looking for a better life. He wasn't looking for anything. He loved his wife, and he hoped to present to Josephine Belliard a different human perspective from the ones she might be used to"). More revelatory in this unrelenting non-tale is what Ford says of Austin later—that "very little pleased him much at all." The main character in "Occidentals" is, if anything, even more dreary than Austin. Ex-academic Charley Matthews has written a novel about his divorce and is now quite joylessly in Paris—with mistress Helen—to meet his French publisher and translator. Trouble is, as he quickly discovers, both are out of town for a few days, so he'll have to wait. Helen—a lively ex-dancer who's suffering from cancer—tries to cheer him up; he grows only more hatefully dour, though, until she takes things—perhaps believably to some—into her own hands. "Jealousy" makes for a breath of fresh air with its Montana landscape and Hemingway-esque economies—as a boy, accompanied by his attractive young aunt, witnesses a saloon killing on a snowy night before catching a train to Seattle.
Scraps and leavings, seemingly, caught between the labored and the imitated.
In the last days that I lived with my father in his house below the Teton River, he read to me. Seated at the kitchen table after work or on the cold mornings when I dressed in front of him by the stove, he read out loud to me from the Havre or the Conrad newspapers or from magazines -- Lifes or Geographics -- or from old schoolbooks that had been bound in twine and abandoned in the back rooms by some previous, unknown family who'd left behind the things they couldn't take.
We were alone there. These were the months following my mother's first departure, and we had lived out from Dutton since my school year began. My mother had left the summer before, at the end of a long period of troubles between them, and almost immediately after that my father quit his job in Great Falls and moved us up to Dutton, where he took a new job, working on farm machinery. He had always liked a drink, and so had my mother, and they had had friends who drank. But in Dutton he quit drinking altogether, quit having any whiskey around the house. He worked long days in town, and trained his bird dogs in the evening, and I went to high school. And that was what life was like.
It may have been, of course, that he was expecting some important event to take place, some piece of new news to suddenly reach him. Possibly he was waiting, as the saying goes, for lightning to strike, and what he wanted was to be in the right place and in the right frame of mind to make a decision when it happened. And it may have been that he read to me as a way of saying, "We don't know all there is to know. There's more order in life than seems to be. We have to pay attention." That is all another way of saying that he was at a loss. Though my father had never been a man who stood by and watched things get the better of him. He was a man who acted, a man who cared to do the right thing. And I know that even on the day these events took place he was aware that a moment to act may have come. None of it is anything I blame him for.
On the day before Thanksgiving, it rained an hour before daylight, when I was waking up, then rained through the afternoon, when the temperature fell and snow began and the front of the mountains disappeared into a bluish fog, so that it was no longer possible to see the grain elevators in Dutton, ten miles away.
My father and I were waiting for my mother's sister to arrive to take me to the train in Shelby. I was going to Seattle to visit my mother, and my aunt was going with me. I was seventeen years old then. It was 1975, and I had never ridden on a train before.
My father had come home early, taken a bath, dressed in a clean shirt and slacks, then sat down at the kitchen table with a stack of Newsweeks from the town library. I was already dressed. My bag was packed, and I was standing at the kitchen window watching for my aunt's car.
"Are you familiar with Patrice Lumumba?" my father said after reading to himself for a while. He was a tall, bony-chested man with thick black hair and thick hands and arms, and the table seemed small in front of him.
"Was she a singer?" I said.
"He," my father said, looking out the lower lenses of his glasses as if he were trying to read small print. "He was the African Negro Eisenhower wanted to poison in 1960. Only Ike missed his big chance. His other enemies blew him up first. We all thought it was mysterious back then, of course, but I guess it wasn't that mysterious." He took his glasses off and rubbed them on his shirt cuff. One of the setters barked out in the pen. I watched it come to the fence by the corner of the granary, sniff through the wires, then walk back in the misting snow to its house, where its sister was in the doorway. "The Republicans always have secrets," my father said, holding his glasses up and looking through them. "A great deal goes on before you wake up to life."
"I guess so," I said.
"But you can't change it," he said, "so don't let it eat at you."
Through the window I saw my aunt's big pink Cadillac appear suddenly up on the horizon road, rushing ahead of its snow cloud, still a mile out.
"What're you going to tell your mother about living out here out-of-sight-of-land all this fall?" my father said. "That there's an atmosphere of mystery on the open prairie?" He looked up and smiled at me. "That I've been neglecting your education?"
"I hadn't thought about it very much yet," I said.
"Well, think about it. You'll have time on the train if your aunt will leave you alone." He looked back at the Newsweek and laid his glasses on the table.
I had hoped to say something to my father before my aunt arrived, something about my mother, that I was happy I was going to get to see her. We had not talked about her very much.
"What do you think about Mother?" I said.
"With respect to what?"
"Do you think she'll come back out here after Thanksgiving?"
He drummed his fingers on the metal tabletop, then turned and looked at the clock on the stove. "Do you want to ask her about it?"
"No, sir," I said.
"Well. You can. Then you can tell me." He looked at the window as though he was checking the weather. One of the dogs barked again, and then the other one barked. Sometimes a coyote came into the yard out of the wheat fields and set them off. "Eventually the suspense falls out of the story," he said. He closed the magazine and folded his hands on top of it. "Who's your best friend now? Im just curious."
"Just my ones in the Falls, still," I said.
"Who's your best one in Dutton?"
"I don't have one now," I said.
My father put his glasses back on. "That's too bad. It's your choice, of course."
"I know it," I said, because I had already considered that and decided I didn't have time to get to know anybody there.
I watched my aunt's car turn onto our road and the pale beams of her headlights burn through the snowy air.
A mile farther down the road, a blue mobile home sat out in the fields, unprotected from the wind. The farmer in town who owned our house owned it, too, and rented it to the civics teacher at the high school. Joyce Jensen was her name. She was in her twenties, and was a heavyset woman with strawberry-colored hair, and my father had slept some nights down there in the last month. "Yoyce Yensen," he called her, and always laughed. I could see a new car parked in front of her trailer, a red one beside her dark one.
"What do you see out there?" my father said. "Have you caught sight of your aunt Doris?"
"She's got her lights on," I said.
"Well," my father said, "then you're gone, you just haven't left yet." He reached in his shirt pocket and took out a little fold of bills with a rubber band around it. "When you get to Shelby, buy your mother a bijou, he said. She won't expect it. It'll make her happy." He handed the money up to me, then stood to watch my aunt drive to the house. "There's a moment in the day when you miss having a drink," he said. He put his hand on my shoulder, and I could smell soap on his skin. "That's the old life. We're on to the new life now. The lucky few."
My aunt honked her horn as she came past the caragana row into the house lot. She drove an Eldorado Cadillac, a '69, faded pink with a white vinyl top. Her wipers were on, and the windows were fogged. She had parked that car in front of our house in Great Falls, and I had given it a good inspection then.
"Let me step out and tell your aunt Doris a joke," my father said. "You go lock the shutters on the pigeons. I'll forget about them tonight, and snow'll get in. I won't be but a minute." My aunt's window came down as my father started to the door. I could see her looking at our little farmhouse as if she thought it was abandoned.
My aunt Doris was a pretty woman and had a reputation for being wild, which my mother didn't have, or so my father had told me. She was my mother's younger sister, and was thirty-six and blond and thin, with soft, pale arms you could see her veins in. She wore glasses, and the one time I had seen her without them, a morning when I woke up and she was in the house, she looked like a girl to me, somebody younger than I was. I knew that my father liked her, and that they'd had something between them in Great Falls after my mother left, even though Doris was married to a Gros Ventre Indian man, who wasn't in the picture anymore. Twice she'd driven up and cooked dinner for us, and twice my father had gone down to the Falls to visit her, and there were a few times when they talked on the phone until late at night. But I thought it was finished between them, whatever it was. My father talked about Doris in a way that made it seem like some tragedy might've happened to her -- he didn't know what - -and I really thought he only liked her because she looked like my mother.
"There's something winning about Doris, you know," he said once, "something your mother could use." The day he said that, we were working dogs east of the house and had stopped to watch them cast into the wheat stubble. It was gold all the way down to the river, which was shining, and the sky above the mountains was as blue as I had ever seen blue.
"What's winning about her?" I said.
"Oh, she's sympathetic," he said. "One of these days that might seem important to you." And then we quit talking about it, though it was already important to me to be sympathetic, and I thought my mother was, and knew he thought so too.
My father walked out onto the gravel, still in his shirtsleeves. I saw Doris stick her arm out the window and wag her hand back and forth to the pace of my fathers walking. I saw her smile and begin to say something, but I couldn't hear what it was.
I put on my wool jacket and took my bag and went out the back door into the yard toward the pigeon coop. It was four o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun -- just a white light behind white clouds -- was above the mountain peaks beyond Choteau, and it was already colder than it had been when I came out on the school bus at noon. The yard around the house had old farm implements sitting useless, except for the tank truck we hauled our water in, and snow was beginning to collect on their rusted surfaces and in the grass. I could see my father bent over, leaning on his elbows against the windowsill of Doris's Cadillac. She had her hand on his arm and was laughing at something. And I must've stopped, because Doris quit laughing and looked at me, halfway out to the pigeon house. She blinked the lights on the Cadillac, and I went on. It occurred to me that they might go inside.
The pigeon pen was an old chicken coop my father had boarded up the sides of to keep foxes and coyotes out. He kept pigeons to train his setters, and he had an idea he could make money training bird dogs if word got out he was good at it, which he was. There were plenty of birds in that part of Montana -- pheasants and partridge and grouse - -and he thought he'd have time for all that when the harvest was over. He and I would drive out into the cut fields in the evening with two dogs, and four pigeons stuck head-down in our coat pockets. My father would lead a dog out two hundred yards on a check cord, and I would tuck a pigeon's head under its wing and shake it and blow on it, then stash it in a wheat-straw tuft, where it would stay, confused, until the dog found it by its scent and pointed. Then my father or I would walk up and kick the bird flying, a red ribbon and a stick tied to its leg so it wouldn't fly far.
There was never any shooting involved. My father didn't like to shoot birds. There were not enough of them left, he said -- what other people did was their business. But he liked to work dogs and see them point and for the birds to fly. He had grown up in western Minnesota -- he and Mother both -- and he liked to be out on the plains.
I heard the birds thumping inside their coop, cooing and fluttering. I peeped through the chicken wire and could see them, thirty or forty, gray and stubby and thick-chested, their smell thinner because of the cold. My father caught them in barns, using his landing net, standing in the middle of the barn floor with the door shut in the half-dark, swinging his net on a cord as the birds, excited by the motion, flew from rafter to rafter. He snared them one or two or three at a time and handed them out to me to put in a potato sack. I never knew about things like this before I lived alone with him. We had never done that. But he liked it, and I would stand outside in the daylight, peeking through the cracks in the boards, watching the pigeons, their wings flashing in the light that entered through the other walls, and my father making a humming noise in his throat -- hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, a sound I've heard prizefighters make -- as his net went around and the pigeons fluttered into the webbing.
I let the shutters down over the wire coops and latched them. Then I stood with my suitcase and watched my father. He was still leaning on Doris's car in the snow. She still had her hand on his wrist. As I watched, she put her cheek against his hand, and my father stood up straight and looked toward the road in front of the house beyond the caraganas. I thought he looked over Doris's car in the direction of Joyce Jensen's trailer. He said something into the window and pulled his hands back and stuck them in his pockets. Then he looked at me and waved his arm in a wide way for me to come on.
From the Hardcover edition.
Richard Ford: Thanks for letting me be here, in so far as I am here. Wherever I am...where I am is Montana.
Richard Ford: I always intended to write three long stories. I just wanted to see what it felt like to write a longer than conventional length story. So in that way, it was intuitive. These were the only three that I wrote. It seems to me that since two of the stories are set in Paris and one in Montana, putting the Montana story in the middle made a nice sandwich.
Richard Ford: Thank you for the kind word! I can only say, in regard to influence, probably, yes I was. But not just those writers of the '20s, earlier writers too. It's kind of an irresistible setup for a story to take a character whose basic instincts you feel familiar with and subject those instincts to foreign influences. It's irresistible because in the novelist is a hunger for dramatic situations -- this is an inherently dramatic situation. I always liked the Fitzgerald stories of the Americans in Paris -- particularly "Babylon Revisited."
Richard Ford: I guess for me writing always follows both in time and in order of importance, just regular living one's life. So, I'm cleaning out the basement, getting my tires rotated, getting my lawnmowers sharpened, talking to my wife -- I probably talk to my wife more than anything. I'm just doing whatever everyone else is doing. Yesterday I rode the bus to Great Falls to pick up my motorcycle. When I got there it wasn't ready, so I rode the bus back -- it consumed a large part of the day. In THE SPORTSWRITER, Frank Bascomb described normal existence as the normal applauseless life of us all -- that's my life.
Richard Ford: I read the Great Falls Tribune, and I just ordered Denis Johnson's new novel. Denis Johnson being one of my favorite novelists -- this one's called ALREADY DEAD.
Richard Ford: The failure of everything else I had tried to do, which is to say, be a lawyer, be a journalist, be a marine. I was only 23 when I started. It actually seemed that nothing I was trying was working, for any number of reasons. When all of the things I thought I wanted to do didn't work out, I think I decided to be a writer just because it felt right. If I had actually thought about it very hard or looked into the future, I would probably never have done it. It bewildered my mother, but my wife thought it was a terrific idea.
Richard Ford: Always be wary of questions that start with "surely." When I thought of my title, I was not aware of the Hemingway book. If I was, it was subliminal, which happens, I guess. But somebody made me aware of it, my editor maybe, so I had to face the relation between the two titles, and I just decided that since I felt I chose my title innocently, I was not going to let a book that was 70 years old, by a writer I had only moderate regard for, turn me away from my own good title. I certainly never meant to invite comparisons or to bounce some echo off Hemingway's wall, but I guess I'll just have to live with people thinking what they think. If someone reads my book -- I'll be satisfied.
Richard Ford: He certainly has been an influence. I would have actually said that his books were most influential on the first book I ever wrote -- A PIECE OF MY HEART. But there's no doubting that Walker's books affected me strongly, but I would add that so did some other books affect those Bascombe books. Particularly Frederck Exley's novel A FAN'S NOTES. Joe Heller's SOMETHING HAPPENED, John Barth's END OF THE ROAD. I hope in writing my books I added something to these books of first-person narrations.
Richard Ford: All that is interesting to me. In my view, and mine is only one, Helen killed herself because she was suffering from having cancer. So with that answer you can see how committed I felt to the kind of character Helen is and to the life I made up for her. I admit that Helen's death is a fictive contrivance, but so would have been anything else I had her do. I realize that Helen's death is a kind of amplified catastrophe within the story, but I didn't want it to be understood simply as a consequence of solipsism. The story doesn't have that cold irrationality as its structure. Also, I didn't see Helen as a solipsist on the same order as Charley. I think of Helen, and this is why she's older than Charley, I think of her as a veteran of life, and much more generous and good natured and experienced than Charley. It's true though, that Charley doesn't provide Helen with the kind of consultation that perhaps could have caused her not to take her life, so in one way, but only in one way, her death is consequent to Charley's rather limited sympathy, which is to say his solipsism. But I respect that question, and I appreciate the attention it suggests.
Richard Ford: I have never had a bad trip to Europe, but I've had experiences in Europe, particularly in Paris, that made me believe one could have a bad trip to Paris given the right amount of ignorance, presumptiveness, weather. I've had bad trips other places, and I guess I don't think travel is necessarily a measure of one's character. Sometimes if you rise to the occasion, you can take some satisfaction in your resilience, but the reverse is not true -- that if you are defeated by some circumstance that your character is found wanting. Fundamentally, I'm uncertain of the notion of character both on the street and in the novel. It's like religion -- a lot of harm is done in its name. I'm more of an optimist about humans, so that if you do something that brings discredit to your name, you still have a chance to do something creditable. I'm not certain conventional notions of character would be so lenient.
Richard Ford: Generally, I don't know how Americans travel. Helen and Charley's trip is for the most part one that I entirely made up, although personally, I have wandered around a lot in Paris and Fez and Berlin and gotten lost and not known where I was. I don't think of the physical action in a story as a vehicle for the exemplification of a relationship. I tend to think of all formal parts of a story as being rather inextricably interwoven, so that if Charley and Helen didn't go to Paris there would be no Charley and Helen. One thing I do notice about Americans in western Europe, and that is that Americans, particularly post-Vietnam, seem more respectful of other cultures than was true when I was much younger. Americans now to me, and I'm sympathetic, seem much more full of wonder, and that may be because less affluent people come to Europe now. But God knows I'm no authority on Europe. I'm as full of wonder as the next guy -- which is probably why I am as sympathetic as I am.
Richard Ford: No, getting to be a writer at all. Winning the Pulitzer was just luck. And I guess, I should add, getting to be a writer with any readership at all, however fleeting the readership might be.
Richard Ford: Well, it doesn't seem to me any more difficult than writing about men because you're not working from models, you're basically making characters up out of language. The principal difference between writing about men and writing about women is at the end of a dialogue putting "she said" instead of "he said."
Richard Ford: Well, I don't know that I can really specify one place. I guess I would be naive if I didn't say that where I was born and grew up -- Mississippi -- had the most varied and important impression on me. But that also has as much to do with the time I grew up in and the parents I grew up with and the circumstances of our life as it does with the physical place we call Mississippi. But generally I try not to let physical location overpower my, or by extension my characters', own volition. Most of the powers that we ascribe to place are just powers that we have ourselves, which we are trying somehow to externalize, so that sometimes people ask me could the stories in Rock Springs have been set someplace other than the West? And my assumption is that the West is just a convenient background for those stories, and if I had wanted to say Fort Dodge instead of Great Falls (and of course this kind of reductivist thinking can get silly) the stories would have worked just as well in Kansas. But you may not believe that, and if you don't then I respect that.
Richard Ford: Because I thought I could do a better job, and thank you for your kind word. I had heard another book of mine being read by a perfectly well-trained actor, and for me it seemed to have the wrong sound. Now I don't suppose that somebody who didn't know my voice or my story would be likely to care, but I cared. I know that William Hurt read a story of mine once, and I was in the audience, and many people have told me that they loved his reading, but to me it sounded very strange. But I understand that how it sounds to me probably shouldn't make any difference, so ultimately I guess it's just me trying to extend my writerly authority where I have no business extending it.
Richard Ford: My little brain is buzzing, but I probably won't even try to start a lengthy project until next spring. I've written about three short stories, and if I could write three more before next spring then that would be a good start on a collection. But I have to see if the stories are good enough and if they are cohesive. Just because I wrote them doesn't mean they belong in a collection together -- but thanks for asking.
Richard Ford: I wish my whole life could operate at this pace, and thank you!
Posted June 22, 2011
No text was provided for this review.