The two primary modes or tendencies in Richard Ford's fiction are juxtaposed most prominently in The Sportswriter and Rock Springs, published in 1986 and 1987, respectively. Rock Springs is a collection of short stories set in the Western United States, in and around Great Falls, Montana in particular. The stories in the book evoke the relative desolation of this landscape where the prairie meets the mountains, reflecting the desolation in the lives of many of the characters. Although few of the stories rely heavily on plot in any melodramatic way, most of them do emphasize incident and event, related in a generally brisk, translucent prose. Early in his career, Ford was often linked to minimalism (he was friends with Carver and Tobias Wolff), and Rock Springs, which gathers together the short stories he wrote before publishing The Sportswriter, comes closer than any of other Ford's other books to showing why such a connection might have been made, even though his subsequent books reveal him to be a very different sort of writer.
That different sort of writer makes his presence felt in The Sportswriter. Here the subject and the manner ultimately most closely associated with Richard Ford's fiction appears for the first time, to be developed further and at great length in the two subsequent novels in what came to be (for now) a trilogy about the protagonist of The Sportswriter (Independence Day and The Lay of the Land). The setting of these novels is the American suburbs (specifically New Jersey, but each of them could easily take place in some other middle-class suburb), which is also evoked in its own contrasting particulars (whether the suburban environment reflects a desolation of its own sort is perhaps open to interpretation, although certainly narrator/protagonist Frank Bascombe would deny it). The greatest contrast between this writer and the writer who wrote the stories collected in Rock Springs is that in the Bascombe trilogy incident and event recede in importance, acting not as these novels' main focus of interest but instead as the occasional links between Frank Bascombe's rhetorical digressions, his choral commentary on events, as well as his frequent flashbacks, requiring our attention more than the plot itself.
Although both of these writers are realists, the first writer, whose work can also be found in the 1990 novel Wildlife, as well as, to a lesser extent, in Ford's first two novels, A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck, did seem to be participating in the revival of realism post-postmodernism that prominently included the minimalists, and if Rock Springs does not now seem appropriately categorized as minimalism, it still does share with the minimalism of such writers as Carver, Wolff, Bobbie Ann Mason, or Mary Robison the seemingly deliberate attempt not merely to return to realism after the anti-realism of postmodernism, but to fashion a particular sort of realism that responded to the perceived excesses of postmodern experimentation by evoking a new simplicity of form and style.
The stories in Rock Springs, like those of Carver or Robison, offer the reader a narrative, but not much dramatic action. Most of them are a kind of retrospective slice-of-life in which a first-person narrator recalls a signal moment from the past, one that represents a life-changing or -defining episode or in some cases perhaps even approaches being an emblematic moment in American life more generally. Often the story features an adult looking back on his youth (all of the narrators and protagonists are male), recounting a series of events in a more or less dispassionate manner, although the events seldom take on the burden of an imposed "plot." A man remembers going hunting with his mother's boyfriend ("Communist"). Another relates the experience of returning home with his father and encountering his mother's lover still in the house ("Great Falls"). In "Children," the narrator recalls going fishing with his Indian friend and a young prostitute.
Some of the stories certainly depict characters in extreme or unusual situations. In "Sweethearts," a man and his girlfriend drive her ex-husband to prison, where he will be serving time for robbery. In what may be the most conventionally "dramatic" story, "Optimists," again a man returns to his youth and tells us of the day his father killed a man, although this occurs halfway through the story, which concludes with a flash-forward to the present day and the narrator's chance encounter with his mother, whom he has not seen in fifteen years. This story also illustrates the way in which many of the stories come to a poetically pointed conclusion, giving them a sense of emotional completeness somewhat similar to the way Carver's stories work:
And she bent down and kissed my cheek through the open window and touched my face with both her hands, held me for a moment that seemed like a long time before she turned away, finally, and left me there alone.
The best-known story in the book, the title story, is justly esteemed as a representative example of the sort of neorealism that increasingly began to shift the paradigm away from literary postmodernism during the 1980s. It is a particularly skillful performance, and as the first story in the book it establishes the dominant tone sustained by the rest of the stories and as well introduces us to the prevailing strategies they employ. This story especially might have reminded readers of Carver, as its narrator is the sort of socially marginal male character featured in so many of his stories. The unnamed narrator begins as he and his daughter and his girlfriend are driving through Wyoming: "Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had friends from the old days who wouldn't turn me in to the police." The narrator is more a hapless figure than a dangerous fugitive, and the story really only reinforces his haplessness as Edna decides while they are stopping over in Rock Springs that she is going to leave him. The story concludes with the narrator wondering
what would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the window 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?
At this stage in Ford's career he seems most interested in characters waiting for trouble to come down, a condition that gains most resonance in these stories set in the American West. Although he will return to this setting in two subsequent novels, the disreputable outsider who may not be so different from us is replaced in The Sportswriter by Frank Bascombe, a putative Everyman character who may be representative of the American middle class in his obsession with the circumstances of his situation, but is surely unusual in his ability to dilate on them over the course of three long books. Many would no doubt consider the three books in the Bascombe trilogy to be "voice"-centered books, an impression created not just by Bascombe's role as first-person narrator but also by his remarkable passivity as a character. But what really most distinguishes Frank Bascombe is the sheer verbosity of his discourse, his inclination to explain and qualify, resulting in a prose that is indeed very far from the minimalism of Carver or Wolff.
All three of these books can give the impression they are about nothing in particular, but they are more like a collection of serial narratives interrupted for great periods of time by the narrator's need to enlarge upon context and motive and to offer his wisdom about living in the American suburbs. One can turn to almost any random page in any of the books and find such disquisitions, but early on in The Sportswriter this rhetorical tendency starts to assert itself. Bascombe tells us about a group he has joined called "the Divorced Men's Club," and before he can go on to relate the events of a recent meeting, he must provide us with some reflections on his membership in the group:
Though there's another reason I don't leave the club. And that is that none of the five of us is the type to be in a club for divorced men—none of us in act even seems to belong in a place like Haddam—given our particular circumstances. And yet we are there each time, as full of dread an timidness as conscripts to a firing squad, doing what we can to be as chatt6 and polite as Rotarians—ending nights, wherever we are, talking about life and sports and business, hunched over our solemn knees, some holding red-ended cigarettes as the boat heads into the lighted dock, or before last call at the Press Box Bar on Walnut Street, all doing our best for each other and for non-confessional personal experience. Actually we hardly know each other and sometimes can barely keep the ball moving before a drink arrives. Likewise there have been times when I couldn't wait to get away and promised myself never to come back. . . .
Bascombe is never content simply to narrate his experiences but seems compelled to explain himself. It's never made clear how exactly Bascombe has come to write the accounts we are reading, but he clearly enough takes the opportunity to chronicle his life more to ponder his actions and muse over their implications than to focus directly on these actions as story. That Bascombe is a sportswriter—at least in the first novel—perhaps explains his facility with language (as does his earlier, aborted career as a writer of fiction), but it is also otherwise at odds with the expository, highly discursive kind of narrative that dominates each of these novels. Here, the Richard Ford who created the relatively spare stories of Rock Springs has been replaced by one who at most embeds "story" in his character's extended monologue, which is so leisurely paced as to make the novels seem formless aside from the continuation of that monologue.
What makes Frank Bascombe's endless soliloquy even harder to take is that Frank is himself such a passive, indistinct character that ultimately he doesn't have much of a presence in these novels except through his inescapable narrative voice. He interacts with various other characters over the course of each novel—the members of the Divorced Men's Club, clients to whom he is trying to sell a home (after giving up sportswriting and becoming a real estate agent), his troubled son—but his own role is so severely circumscribed that he almost disappears as a participant in the events he relates. Perhaps this is the continued influence of the vocation of sportswriting, as Frank deliberately restricts himself to describing the actions of his "subjects" and in a sense interviewing them, recording their conversations with him. (At times Frank does indeed deflect questions about himself or his own views in order to elicit further talk from the subjects, as if he is taking on the role of psychoanalyst as well, prompting his patients to "dig deeper.") In many ways Frank Bascombe seems missing from his own life. One might argue that this is a condition to which the author wants explicitly to call our attention, but three novels' worth of absent protagonist would seem to be a little far to go in making such a point.
The combined effect of Frank Bascombe's blankness as a character and his prolixity as a narrator is that these three novels in which he is featured cumulatively leave the impression we are proceeding through a series of Scenes from Suburban Life, with Frank Bascombe as our guide, but it's never quite clear what is supposed to be holding these scenes together aside from the fact they ostensibly involve Frank Bascombe and he presumably finds them important. Individual episodes sometimes have dramatic interest and emotional resonance (Bascombe's trip with his son to the Baseball Hall of Fame, for example), but they are constantly muted by the return to Bascombe's discursive mode and the lack of any noticeable change in his impassive narrative manner as a consequence of the experiences these episodes represent. Bascombe frequently declares his allegiance to the suburbs, yet his account does little either to defend or critique suburban life, which is presented as a collection of mostly impersonal, undifferentiated activities.
The Bascombe trilogy is, of course, frequently compared to John Updike's Rabbit novels as a portrait of American life over the course of succeeding decades and of its male protagonist's advance into middle age. The comparison is not ultimately in Ford's favor, however, and not only because no one of the Bascombe books can match Rabbit, Run, or even Rabbit is Rich, in either its narrative power or the quality of its prose. Rabbit, Run was not conceived as the first installment of a series that would chronicle postwar American life and the changes in its culture but as the story of its protagonist's existential crisis, a crisis that is occurring, at least retrospectively, at a time when American middle-class values are about to be profoundly challenged and, ultimately, transformed. No doubt it seemed a potentially fruitful idea subsequently for Updike to take Rabbit Angstrom through those changes as they eventually announced themselves, and if not all of the books succeed equally well in balancing the continued focus on Rabbit as an emblematic figure and social observation, as a whole the series does offer both a compelling character and a convincing evocation of the American cultural milieu in the second half of the 20th century.
Taken together, The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land really do neither. The portrayal of their main character is static and colorless, the setting perfunctory. Future readers of this trilogy will surely find neither a memorable character in conflict with himself or his surroundings nor an enlightening perspective on suburban culture in the late 20th/early 21st centuries. It's hard to imagine many would want to follow a narrator-protagonist such as Frank Bascombe, who has so little interest in examining his own inner life but also can't muster anything more than the most superficial examination of others and of their social context, through three novels, even if The Sportswriter presents some mild interest as a period piece. While one finds Bascombe "saying" a lot (indeed, going on and on and on in saying it), he can't be accused finally of "saying something" about suburbia as a significant feature of American civilization. Bascombe frequently avers that he is defending suburban life, but his account of it in these three novels neither champions nor attacks it. The suburb is just a place where some things happen in relation to Frank Bascombe.
Immediately after The Sportswriter, Ford seemed to return to the Western milieu and to the sort of characters found in Rock Springs in his 1990 novel, Wildlife. Indeed, this novel seems like an extended version of the stories from Rock Springs focusing on a troubled family, such as "Great Falls" or "Optimists." Wildlife, set in Great Falls in 1960, tells the story of the breakup of the Brinson family through the first-person account offered by the son and only child, Joe. During the few weeks in which the story takes place, Joe's mother takes up with another man, and his father, a golf pro, loses his job and then volunteers to help fight an out-of-control forest fire. Upon his return, he discovers his wife's liaison and half-heartedly attempts to burn down the other man's house. Despite these events, the narrator concludes his chronicle of them by informing us that his parents shortly afterward began living together again, something about which Joe concedes "there is still much to it that I myself, their only son, cannot fully claim to understand."
Perhaps Joe's failure to "understand" his parent's actions explains why, unlike Frank Bascombe, he spends little time in purely expository rumination and instead focuses on simply relating what happened and reproducing conversations through dialogue. The story is in fact rather crisply told, and the narrator's broader uncertainty about the behavior of his parents, and the motives behind it, gives the novel a kind of elegiac tone, preserving a sense of mystery about that behavior that makes the family dysfunction portrayed in Wildlife seem a more perplexing, and thus even more disturbing, affliction. If all of Ford's fiction can broadly be categorized as "realism," only Rock Springs and Wildlife seem really to trust it as a self-sufficient mode of narrative construction, the realism of character and setting achieved through the unencumbered narration of events presented as of intrinsic interest, needing no rhetorical embellishment of the kind Frank Bascombe insists on providing. The realism of the Bascombe trilogy seems taken for granted, as if the setting and events are a mere convenience enabling Frank's digression-laden recitation of them.
Canada at first seems a return to the narrative-centered realism of Wildlife and Rock Springs. Set again on the Western plains in the early 1960s, and again narrated retrospectively by a man looking back at the dysfunction that tore apart his family, Part One tells the inherently dramatic story of how narrator Dell Parsons's parents became bank robbers, of their eventual capture after botching the one robbery they attempt (in North Dakota), and of Dell and his sister's meetings with their parents in prison after they have been arrested. This section of the book moves along reasonably well, but even it is interspersed with the narrator's reflections in a way that is uncomfortably reminiscent of Frank Bascombe:
I’ve always believed that how our mother looked must've played a part in the way she changed and became tranquil while we waited for my father to come home and take life where it would go. How she looked--her size (the same height as Shirley Temple when she was fifteen), her appearance (rarely smiling, bespectacled, her studious Jewish foreignness) her visible disposition (skeptical, sharp-witted, self-defending, frequently distant)--had always seemed to be involved in everything she thought or said, as if her appearance created her whole self. This may be true of anyone. But everything about her distinguished her in any of the places our family ever lived--which wouldn't have been true in Poland or Israel or even New York or Chicago, where plenty of people looked and acted like her. . . .
This tendency becomes even more pronounced in Part Two, in which, at his mother's request, Dell is driven by a friend of the family across the border into Saskatchewan, where he is to live for a while with the friend's brother. The brother turns out to be a rather sinister figure, apparently a murderer, although by the time this is established conclusively readers expecting Canada to sustain the dramatic momentum established, however inconsistently, in Part One have surely concluded at the least that the novel's second half will not follow up on the first half's emphasis on narrative. The revelations of Arthur Remlinger's true nature and nefarious deeds occur at such a glacial pace and amid such expository ramblings that it's hard to either be surprised or ultimately care very much when indeed it turns out he is a murderer. If this section is meant to build up suspense or a sense of foreboding on behalf of the already victimized Dell Parsons, it fails miserably. The two sections go together so badly, in fact, it's as if they cancel each other out: Part One makes Part Two seem aesthetically inert if not just redundant, while Part Two makes Part One seem an incomplete if extended fragment, or an already sufficiently realized work that has been yoked to another for reasons that remain unclear.
At best, the sojourn in Saskatchewan seems merely to reinforce the most obvious theme of the story of Dell's parents as bank robbers, as Dell grapples with the unpredictable, destructive behavior of those adults who are supposed to be looking out for him and becomes more aware of human weakness. At worst (at least for the reader), it allows Dell to indulge in such prolonged stretches of tedium as when he reproduces what Charley Quarters, who works for Remlinger, tells him is "the whole story of Arthur Remlinger." It turns out that Remlinger is indeed a bad man, but since we could know that without the benefit of this pace-killing flashback, and since Remlinger is neither "bad" in a particularly interesting way, nor is finally a very interesting character, this added-on piece of extended exposition only further diverts interest from a narrative that has already lost its way on the spacious prairies of Saskatchewan. It also further diverts interest from Dell himself as a character, here without the compensatory interest of the story of bankrobbing parents he tells in the novel's first half.
To be fair, none of the narrators in these Montana-based works really have interest as protagonists aside from their role as observer and passive participant in the story related. In this way they are indeed similar to Frank Bascombe, but in this case the narrator's penchant for the same kind of rhetorical excess as Bascombe makes him that much less dynamic once the family drama has concluded and his personal drama must serve as the focus of concern. It as if Bascombe himself has been transplanted into the persona of Dell Parsons. Although Dell's circumstances are more elemental, his story more metaphysically charged, he bears the same sort of dispassionate relationship to the world he observes, conveyed through the same sort of bloated discourse. His weakness as both character and narrative presence is exacerbated by the disappearance in the novel's second half of his sister, Berner, a fellow sufferer through the family trauma who has already taken off on her own when Dell is removed to Canada. She does return in the novel's final, very brief, section, where we learn that Dell subsequently had little contact with her and that she has suffered the consequences of her parents' acts more acutely than Dell. Somehow it seems likely that the story of how Berner's life was changed by the events chronicled in Canada would be more interesting than what Dell tells us of his encounter with Arthur Remlinger, but that story unfortunately remains out of frame, unnarrated.
In his review of the novel, Sean O'Hagan claimed that it "marks a distinct shift in style. . .from the dense, discursive sentences that characterize the Frank Bascombe trilogy," such that "the writing is leaner, tighter and less concerned with the inner significance of everyday things." This is a view that can be maintained only if one forgets Rock Springs (in which the writing really is "leaner") or ignores the "shift" in Canada itself from the ostensibly similar style of its first half to the more "discursive" second half. Andre Dubus III was certainly correct to note that in Canada, as well as the Bascombe books, "what actually happens in the story feels secondary," although when he further declares that plot is "at best equal. . .to the language itself," he is certainly implying that the language represents an aesthetic achievement making plot to a degree superfluous, a satisfactory substitute for plot. This is exactly where Ford goes wrong, in my opinion, both in the Bascombe trilogy and in Canada. Contrary to Dubus III, I find the loose, meandering language of these books only calls attention to the lack of plot (as well as character), which proves to be a deadly combination. Realism doesn't need plot to realize its ambition to plausibly represent reality, but it does need something beyond endless talk about reality.