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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.
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
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