‘Who are you?’ is the question that devils every son and daughter. Other people can seem of a piece observed from across the room or across a table or on the next pillow but clarity disappears when you look inward. The chaos within is one of the major themes in the fiction of Richard Ford. What engages him is the churning of the conscious self, as changeable as the weather on an iffy day. What kind of a day is such a day? Soft or threatening? What kind of people were Ford’s mother and father, whose inner lives might offer strong clues to the meaning of the author’s own?
That question has been on Ford’s mind since his mother died in 1981. He wrote something about her at the time, and then in 2015 was prompted to reach even further back to write about his father. The two accounts are woven together in a memoir, Between Them, which is where Ford, an only child, found himself. His father was a little remote and often absent. His mother was pretty much always there. If there was ever any serious trouble between his parents Ford does not appear to know about it. ‘One of the premier challenges,’ Ford writes, ‘is to know our parents fully …’ He doesn’t say he wants to know in order to understand himself but it seems clear that is why.
Richard Ford was a late child, probably a surprise, born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1944. He doesn’t appear ever to have imagined, much less concluded, that he was unwanted. It is clear he was closer to his mother than to his father but that was partly the result of his father’s early death in 1960, four days after Richard turned 16. The rest of the probable explanation lies in his father’s job as a travelling salesman, which kept him on the road five days a week, selling one product for one employer throughout the South. The product was laundry starch, the employer was the Faultless Company out of Kansas City and his customers were wholesale grocers. Parker Ford had started with grocers, not starch. Between Them includes a photo of him standing in a grocery store in Hot Springs, Arkansas in 1929; he worked there as a ‘produce man’ responsible for fruit and vegetables. He is a handsome, collected man in the photo; he’s standing as straight as a West Point cadet, and is wearing an apron. Hot Springs was the hometown of Richard’s mother, Edna, who was 17 when she met Parker. The bond between them seems to have been instantaneous and strong.
Jackson, Mississippi was Parker’s home base during Richard’s early life but small-town, small-farm Arkansas was evidently the shaping force in the lives of both parents. These seem to have been on the whole cheerful but small, too, in the sense of enclosed, inward, absorbed in the immediate and unconscious of the wider world. Their 15 childless years were spent almost entirely in each other’s company in small-town hotels, driving town to town for meetings with wholesale grocers, eating in restaurants where prices were moderate and you could get a drink. During those early years Little Rock was home base. Edna’s stepfather was a one-time club boxer who had bulked up and worked in hotels. He and Edna’s mother liked a good time and the best Arkansas had to offer was in Little Rock. Ford calls it ‘a characterless, rowdy, self-important, minor river town’, which leaves only rowdiness for charm. Ford’s impression is that his parents’ nights out in Little Rock were usually a foursome with Edna’s parents, Bennie (the boxer) and Essie. ‘They had all four,’ Ford believes, ‘been drawn to there from their own private nowheres.’ This mention of nowhere is a nod to the second great theme of Ford’s fiction, the nowhere that Americans come out of.
Richard kind of liked being a late child and an only child because it invited him ‘to speculate alone about all the time that went before – the parents’ long life you had no part in. It fascinates me to think of the route their life could’ve followed that would’ve precluded me: divorce, even earlier death, estrangement. But also greater closeness, intimacy, being together in a way that defies category.’ Such a change in the story might have happened, perhaps even almost happened, in a grocery store in Little Rock when robbers waving pistols barged in demanding money. One of them whacked Parker on the head. But instead of being shot to death Parker was only let go by his boss. Richard doesn’t know why. From that Parker moved on to selling starch.
With that exception the chronicle of Parker’s and Edna’s lives seems nearly eventless. The main thing Ford knows for a fact is that Parker and Edna were in constant motion, visiting customers in ‘Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and a small part of Tennessee, a slice of Florida, a corner of Texas, all of Mississippi’. Parker liked the small customers best but he had some large ones, too, like Piggly Wiggly, which more or less invented the self-service food store, and the Schwegmann’s chain in and around New Orleans.
In 1943, when Edna discovered that she was going to have a baby, Parker’s boss in Kansas City said: ‘Parker, you have to choose a place to live now.’ He chose Jackson, where Richard was born. In 1948 Parker had a heart attack. What Richard remembers about that was the arrival of an ambulance at the house in the middle of the night, and the sight of his father the next day in the hospital, smiling at him through the transparent plastic sheet of an oxygen tent. Richard was four. Parker had 12 years of life remaining. Ford has worked his few facts and dates into an orderly narrative in the slow and careful way of a boy spending a rainy afternoon working on his stamp collection. There are more facts than I have included here, but not many more. From his childhood Ford has retained a definite sense of what his parents were like – ‘My mother,’ he writes, ‘was pretty, black-haired, small, curvy, sharp-witted, talkative … She could do figures, could conceptualise, think of things he [Parker] couldn’t.’ His father is a little harder to pin down. ‘My father,’ he writes, ‘projected a likable, untried quality, a susceptibility to being overlooked … he tended to stand back in groups, and yet to lean forward when he spoke, as though he were expecting to hear something he’d need to know.’ A page later he cites his father’s ‘sweetness, the large forward-leaning sunnyness’.
These carefully worked but spare judgments have been hard won. Just how hard is made clear by a long passage built around rhetorical questions prompted by Richard’s birth at the Baptist Hospital in Jackson in February 1944: ‘How would they work it all out?’ he wanted to know. In two pages Ford frames a thicket of questions. His father would have to travel alone now; would he be lonely? Would his mother worry that he would find other women on the road? Was this going to be the way things were per-manently? Were they planning to have another baby? Did they worry what would happen to Richard growing up with a father mostly gone? How could his father teach him things? Could his mother make up for what his father was not around to do? Would it be all right?
The entire book is salted with similar questions. All are based on reasonable surmise, not definite knowledge. The parameters of the life Ford is describing – one job, one product, one employer, one wife, one child – contain the knowable world of Richard’s first 16 years. ‘I have always said and still believe my childhood was a blissful one,’ he writes. But it was not all cake and ice cream. He is frank to say his mother ‘was volatile … A shouter, a smacker, a frowner, and a glowerer.’ His father, a big man (six feet two), had a ‘warm, hesitant smile’ which gave way unpredictably to ‘the terrible temper, not so much anger as eruptive and impulsive’.
An instance follows. A quarrel erupted over a Christmas tree, cut illegally in the Natchez Trace. Richard wanted a big one and Parker gave in, but not happily. At home the tree proved too tall so Richard dragged it outside and started to shorten the trunk with a handsaw. Parker in fury snatched the saw away and cut the tree off at the top, thereby, in Richard’s view, ruining it. He grabbed the tree and, ‘as well as I could, threw it at him’. How old he was Richard doesn’t say – maybe eight or nine. It could not have been much of a throw. ‘Whereupon,’ Richard writes, ‘he gave me a whipping I do not now want to think too much about because of its suddenness and ferocity.’
Ford tells this story in the manner of a man who has thought about it often enough to know just how much it demands, if it’s to be fair, of his own wilful childhood anger. The story’s calm sufficiency and exactitude is the quality that characterises Ford as a writer more than any other. Parker’s explosion was a ghastly but isolated episode, much like the frowning, smacking and glowering – basically nothing beyond the ordinary stuff of a boy’s life. He calls it blissful because that is what it mostly was. Between Them relates five or six stories – the best of the few he has got, it appears – with approximately this level of detail; the rest is a careful summary, balancing and weighing of the world and the life shared by Edna and Parker. ‘Imagine it,’ he instructs the reader. ‘You have to, because there’s no other way.’
Imagining it is what Ford has been doing for most of his writing life. In many of the short stories in Rock Springs (1987) and in Ford’s most recent novel, Canada (2012), families are observed that are unmistakably similar to Ford’s own. In some cases, as in the story ‘Communist’, even the dates match. Sixteen-year-old Les is called outside one night by his mother shortly after her boyfriend, Glen Baxter, had decided that she wasn’t ‘the only beautiful woman in Montana’. The year is 1961, when Richard Ford turned 17. Ford’s father had died of a second heart attack the year before. In the story Les’s father is dead, too. A strange conversation follows between Les and his mother, Aileen, who is pulled about by unruly feelings like a woman trying to walk too many dogs.
‘I don’t feel part of things tonight, I guess,’ she says.
‘It’s all right.’
‘Do you know where I’d like to go?’
‘No,’ says Les.
‘To the Straits of Juan de Fuca.’
The choice is enigmatic; the strait is a 100-mile-long water passage separating the US and Canada in the north-west.
‘Wouldn’t that be something?’
‘I’d like it.’
Aileen is feeling well rid of her communist boyfriend one minute, wistful the next, then wondering if there will ever be love in her life again. ‘Do you think I’m still very feminine?’ she asks her son.
He is listening to a flock of geese passing overhead, trying to grasp the connecting thread of his mother’s feelings. ‘I felt the way you feel,’ Les recalls, ‘when you are on a trestle all alone and the train is coming, and you know you have to decide …’
And how old was I then? Sixteen … I am 41 years old now, and I think about that time without regret, though my mother and I never talked in that way again, and I have not heard her voice in a long, long time.
‘Communist’ was published in the fall issue of Antaeus in 1985, the year Ford turned 41. Between Them is suffused with a longing to understand the twists and turns of his mother’s emotional life and of the reality of her one relationship with a man following the death of Parker. One night when Parker had been dead about a year Richard tracked his mother down in a panic when she didn’t come home at the usual time. Whatever his banging on an apartment door interrupted had not moved beyond a conversation over a drink. ‘Nothing was out of order,’ he writes. But that (‘to my knowledge’) was the end of his mother’s connections with men.
Why is a question Richard never directly asked his mother. ‘Communist’ is the answer he has imagined. Nor does Ford appear to have pressed his father with questions while he lived. Timing certainly had something to do with it; 16 is often the age for bristling distance between a father and a son. But some deeper reluctance seems to have been at work during Ford’s childhood and the twenty years his mother survived his father. In writing Between Them he has no ready fund of family stories on which to draw. Still, the result is not thin; Ford is a great absorber of impressions and his care in relating them offers the credible feel of life. What he knows he tells as if it were precious, and the contrast between the short, blurred narrative of his parents’ history and the crystal specificity of his fiction are the fruit of his desire to imagine what he had not learned.
During his teens until the death of his father, Ford often lived with his grandmother Essie and Bennie the boxer in Little Rock. After Parker’s death Ford finished high school in Jackson. Arkansas and Mississippi are part of the interior landscape of America where everything looks decided and fixed to a boy from the place where he stands out to the furthest horizon. Parker certainly saw no further. His son’s first job after high school was with the Missouri Pacific Railroad, commonly called the Mop, where Richard was taken on as an engineer’s assistant on diesel locomotives, but he soon left that to pursue a college degree at Michigan State University. There he switched from hotel management to English literature. After a few other twists and turns – the Marines for ten minutes, ending with a medical discharge; law school for twenty – Ford was admitted to a University of California, Irvine graduate writing programme, which, as all young American writers know, offers a chance to hang out with writers, while earning the master of fine arts degree needed to teach writing. Among his teachers were Oakley Hall, a successful writer of adventure and western novels, and E.L. Doctorow, who was writing his best novel during Ford’s years in Irvine, The Book of Daniel (1971), which should have won all the major awards his later novels did win.
With his MFA, awarded in 1970, Ford entered fully a new world far removed from the declining farming communities of his youth. This wider world included liberal politics, new acquaintance from all over the place, a shot at well-paying jobs, and a shared sense of expectation. It was at Irvine and after that Ford met the sort of people who inspired the character of Charley Matthews in his long story ‘Occidentals’, one of the three in Women with Men, published in 1997. Matthews is a young novelist visiting Paris where his first novel, The Predicament, is to be published in translation. He is travelling with Helen Carmichael, a big clever cheerful attractive woman of 45 with no desire for another husband, which is fine with Matthews. His first wife has departed for good with their daughter.
In some ways ‘Occidentals’ is a classic Ford story: men and women in the middle or late-middle of their lives, with two or three things to regret alongside a weakening confidence that something good might still lie ahead. But in one important way ‘Occidentals’ is different from classic Ford. Matthews is pinched in spirit, quick to feel cheated, way too easy on himself. He is, in fact, dismal company, unlike all of the characters in Rock Springs. It’s not just Ford’s eye that is unsparing when he writes about Matthews and friends, noting all the ways in which they measure the unfairness of their own miseries against the good fortune of others. Ford’s mood is unsparing, as well, like that of a tough judge ready to slap down a fine or jail time and move on to the next case.
Between Them lacks the assured account of inner life that marks classic Ford. It is short, maybe 35,000 words, the writer’s equivalent of a painter’s rough sketch. It encompasses the Arkansas-Mississippi world Parker and Edna knew as children, when half of all Americans lived on farms or in the small towns where farmers did their trading, borrowed money and went to church. The thing hardest to describe about that America is its sameness in all directions. It offers thin soil for the cultivation of inner life. From childhood everyone knew what it was safe to think, believe, wear, eat, do for a living or say in public – the parameters, in short, of what was possible. Parker and Edna seem never to have expected anything to be different. In Ford’s portrait they appear to be sufficient to each other and little inclined to express a strong feeling to anybody else. But we know there was more going on than that, because Ford has preserved one or two indelible moments that suggest the broader range of their actual lives.
There are two such moments in particular. The first is the actual moment of Parker’s death which occurred at about six o’clock on the morning of 20 February 1960. Richard woke up at the sound of his mother shouting at Parker to wake up, wake up! He rushed into the room where his father lay, climbed on top of him, grabbed and shook his shoulders, tried to give him artificial respiration. His mother was backing away in shock and denial. It is by far the most passionate exchange Ford seems ever to have had with his father.
The second moment is quiet, an interior moment of recognition. In the fall of 1981 his mother was failing with a vaguely diagnosed recurrence of breast cancer; she was weakening, in pain but hiding it, increasingly dependent. She was hoping to enter a retirement home in about a year, but what was she going to do till then? This story is just as strong as the one about the death of Ford’s father, and much longer and richer than I am telling it here. Ford said that was no problem – she could live with him and his wife, Kristina. His mother was instantly relieved, grateful and ready to make plans.
‘Well, wait though,’ Ford added, quicker than thought.
‘And this,’ he tells us, ‘is a sentence I wish, above all sentences in my life, I had never said.’ No hurry about plans, he went on to say. Things might change, she might start feeling better, they could wait and see. The import of this remark was not hidden – he was hoping to get out of the promise he’d just made. His mother certainly took it that way. Her moment of trust and relief was gone. Six weeks later she died.
Between Them never gets any closer than that to the actual stuff of his mother’s and his father’s lives. What he had seen personally was what he knew, and he never found occasion to ask about the rest. This slender book, published in Ford’s 74th year, explains why his writing life tracked so closely the inner lives of people like the people who mattered to him most. He wanted to know who they were, and he imagined it because there was no other way.