Richard Ford: Heart of the Country

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The author Richard Ford is pictured at his home in Maine, where he has settled after living in many houses in many states. Tristan Spinski for Newsweek

Richard Ford is a true American. Start with his name, perfectly and hopelessly American. His voice retains the faint smoky sweetness of his native Mississippi. His clothes are plain: jeans, windbreakers. His playthings are manly: guns, trucks, hounds. He lives in Maine, has lived in Montana and Louisiana, and also in Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Vermont, Michigan, California, New Jersey and New York, just about everywhere in the continental United States but the Southwest. He watches college football (Michigan State, his alma mater) and professional basketball (or at least did, when the Boston Celtics still had game). Only a predilection for fine whites from the Loire Valley hints at a more cosmopolitan persona.

Ford is the author who created Frank Bascombe, who by dint of his occupation (selling houses) and place of residence (the Jersey Shore) may be even more quintessentially American than Ford himself. Bascombe first appeared in The Sportswriter (1986) and then in Independence Day (1995), a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and Lay of the Land (2006), set in the midst of the Bush-Gore disaster. This fall, the Bascombe trilogy becomes a tetralogy with Let Me Be Frank With You, in which Bascombe ponders a catastrophe of the natural sort. Composed of four connected stories, the short novel takes place in New Jersey right after Superstorm Sandy drove an uppercut into the Atlantic coast’s sabuline chin in the fall of 2012, turning many a serene seaside hamlet into a “Nagasaki-by-the-sea.”

Bascombe entered this world with an opening salvo of inauspicious austerity: “My name is Frank Bascombe. I am a sportswriter.” (The careful reader might hear the faraway echo of Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.”) Like Ford, Frank is a white middle-aged male of Southern origin, “an only child to decent parents of no irregular point of view.” His politics are as unremarkable as his sexual appetites: Humbert Humbert, he ain’t. Nor is he particularly worldly. Though his existence has been the subject of four novels, Frank has mostly stayed in New Jersey, either in the pretend-Princeton that is Haddam or in Sea-Clift, “with the ocean and pearlescent beach stretching out front, the way you’d dream it.” Having left journalism for real estate at the end of The Sportswriter, he devotes a good deal of his time showing houses. He has two children and an ex-wife with whom he is on rather good terms. He is sensible about pretty much everything. The careless reader might even call him boring.

11_14_Ford_03 Superstorm Sandy turned large swaths of the New Jersey shoreline into a "Nagasaki-by-the-sea," and was an inspiration for Ford's new novel. In this picture taken Nov. 6, 2012 a man walks down Shore Front Parkway in the Rockaways, surrounded by debris left by the storm surge. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

A natural enough question, then: Why should you, sophisticated 21st century reader, care about the mundane exploits of a mundane man, set to the honk and hum of 18-wheelers on the Jersey Shore? How could a middle-aged white man who sells suburban real estate have valuable insights about anything? Is reading the Bascombe novels sort of like owning a flip phone (unironically) or thinking (seriously) that Ron Paul would have made a good president?

No, it isn’t. Scout’s honor.

 

 

Several years ago, David Foster Wallace eviscerated a John Updike novel in the New York Observer, in what was less a review than the kind of fiery send-off with which the Norsemen used to speed their dead to the underworld. It was an encomium not only for Updike but for all the Great Male Narcissists, “phallocrats” like Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski and Philip Roth. Wallace argued that their time had passed, their irrelevance hastened by “radical self-absorption” and compounded by an “uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters.”

If literary kinship were a matter of skin tone, Richard Ford would fit right into The Gang That Could Only Write Straight, but he has little in common with the Great Male Narcissists. Ford lacks the smug solipsism of Updike, the crushing sexual neuroses of Roth, the overweening machismo of the other male writers bloodied by Wallace’s strafing. As the British literary critic Julie Myerson once put it in The Guardian, “Ford writes far more with his heart than with his penis, though he doesn’t exactly deny the rogue force of the latter.” Sure, Frank Bascombe may be a less complicated character than some of his postwar counterparts, but his worldview is no less complex, no less beguiling. And isn’t that why we read fiction, to see more of the world than what flits through our Twitter feeds?

It is precisely because Bascombe is neither a tortured intellectual nor a frustrated libidinist that he is able to see the world as more than just the aggregate of his secret entitlements, his private deficits and desires, more than a running tally of the women he could have slept with, should have slept with and slept with but wished he hadn’t. “I have a voice that is really mine,” Frank says near the opening of The Sportswriter, “a frank, vaguely rural voice more or less like a used car salesman: a no-frills voice that hopes to uncover simple truth by a straight-on application of the facts.” That is accurate enough, though totally inaccurate. The voice is gorgeous and alluring. Were a car salesman to have the voice of Frank Bascombe, he could probably persuade me to buy a rusty Ford Pinto with a bent steering column.

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For an immigrant like me (Soviet Union, ’89) the fiction of Richard Ford is the fiction of American possibility, not of material comforts but of truths gleaned from a vast nation of inscrutable convictions and competing complexities, a nation in which one thing is the matter with Kansas and another thing is the matter with Vermont, a nation where the party of Abraham Lincoln becomes the party of Jesse Helms, a nation that has no kings and too many paupers. It is the fiction of a nation yet unsettled, yet wild, drunk on freedoms real and illusory, not haunted or daunted by history like its European progenitors. A nation whose “genius,” Walt Whitman wrote, resides in its citizens’ “curiosity and welcome of novelty.”

Any discussion of American literature has to begin with Whitman. Though Ford’s influences are in good part Southern, his vision recalls Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a poem that gazes out across the American landscape and declares: “I and this mystery here we stand.” And it is Whitman who resonates loudest through his work, the Whitman who had the insane notion he could see all of America in a single paysage, who celebrated America for her industriousness but also condemned her for the cruelties of slavery, who was at once in Texas and Brooklyn, at once humble and immodest, the Whitman who declared:

This is the city and I am one of the citizens,
Whatever intersects the rest intersects me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools,
The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate.

Real estate! Councils! Tariffs! Can anything be more pedestrian? Can anything be more glorious? Ford continues Whitman’s project by taking things at face value while refusing to take them for granted.

Reading the Bascombe novels, I am routinely reminded of how little we actually pay attention, and how much we miss as a result. Arriving at a train station near the end of The Sportswriter, Frank reflects: “I will say it again, perhaps for the last time: there is mystery everywhere, even in a vulgar, urine-scented suburban depot such as this. You have only to let yourself in for it.” This has been Ford’s mission, to remain in a state of wonder, to nurture a curiosity that knows there is magic everywhere, even in New Jersey.

Last month, Bruce Springsteen told The New York Times Book Review that the Bascombe novels, “besides being poignant and hilarious, nail the Jersey Shore perfectly,” citing Ford, Roth and Whitman as his favorite writers about the state. The admiration runs both ways. Ford told me that he has been listening to The Boss since 1978 and that he’s attended “those mass concerts at the Meadowlands.” I can easily imagine Frank Bascombe cruising along US 9, humming to “Hungry Heart” on a classic rock FM station out of Manahawkin: “Everybody needs a place to rest / Everybody wants to have a home.”

Frank encounters America not like an immigrant from another country but as a traveler from another planet. Great verities await everywhere: at the Vince Lombardi Service Area (Independence Day), at a seedy little bar called Uncle Ben’s Excursions, helmed by a female barkeep possibly named Termite (Lay of the Land). While Frank can be sardonic, he never resorts to the fundamental dishonesty of ironic distance, thrumming along at what he calls in Lay of the Land “low-wattage wonder.” His big-hearted humility again recalls Whitman, who wrote in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass, “The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, only then can you understand us, We are no better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you may enjoy.”

And you may enjoy nothing as much as this vinyl-sided saltbox colonial in Asbury Park. With interest rates down in the cellar, you best hurry, American.

 

Richard Carrel Ford was born in 1944 in Jackson, Mississippi, to parents who had married 16 years earlier in a central Arkansas speck called Morrilton. Their house in Jackson, as he would write later in Harper’s, was “down a hill from the state capitol and across from the house where Eudora Welty”—whom he much later befriended—“had been a young girl thirty five years before. Next door to Jefferson Davis School.” His father was a traveling salesman who sold laundry starch throughout seven states. He died in 1960, when Ford was 16. His mother stayed home. Richard was her only child, and they were close. He has written about her at length. Ford might soon write something considerable about his father, too, as he told me when I visited him last month in East Boothbay, Maine, where he has lived since 2000 with his wife, Kristina, and two hounds, Chloë and Lewis (a.k.a. Sir Lewis of Radish or, when farting around the house, just plain Lewy).

11_14_Ford_02 Ford grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where racism was, and is, an abiding concern. AP

The Freedom Riders arrived in Jackson in the spring of 1961, when Ford was 17. Several years ago, he wrote in The New York Times Magazine that he was never an “ideological racist” but that he “talked the talk” and “used ‘nigger’ freely” as a teenager. His was a racism of convenience, not conviction. That wasn’t good enough for some of his more hateful peers. In 1962, in the midst of a senior civics class, he was denounced by a classmate as a “nigger lover.”

The first chance I had to get the hell out of there,” Ford says, “I got the hell out of there.” He fled to Michigan State, hoping to become a hotel manager like his grandfather. More than 50 years after that northern migration, Ford still sees his leaving Mississippi as a coward’s flight. “I was the opposite of brave,” he laments in a voice that is Southern up until the very highest registers, where it mellows into something mournful. “The brave people stayed.”

Two thunderbolts struck Ford in East Lansing: He switched from hospitality to literature, and he met the daughter of an Air Force test pilot from McLean, Virginia, named Kristina Hensley. Both loves have endured.

Before deciding to make stuff up for a living, Ford tried his hand at soldiering, teaching and lawyering. He even applied for a job at Newsweek, by walking into the magazine’s building (yes, we once had our own building; a couple of them, in fact) on Madison Avenue in Manhattan and demanding to see the editor-in-chief. Apparently unimpressed, that editor suggested Ford start out more modestly, perhaps at The Sacramento Bee. The advice was summarily disregarded, and Ford eventually enrolled in a graduate program in creative writing at the University of California at Irvine.

He published his first novel, A Piece of My Heart, in 1976. It was humid Arkansas-Mississippi noir. “Richard Ford’s one of the new southern regional writers who’s as unavoidable as the heat or the chiggers,” opined Kirkus Reviews. “Ford’s book is not everyone’s but it’s potentiated by a very real talent—broody, moody stuff with some strong writing.”

That same year, Ford was offered a tenure-track teaching position at the University of Michigan, but Kristina persuaded him to reject it. “Don’t take that job,” he recalls her saying. “You’ll look around and you’ll be 45 years old, and you’ll still be here.” She offered to work for the both of them, so that he could devote himself to writing with monkish intensity. This was a sacrifice Ford has not forgotten. “I get a lot of credit for not doing very much; she doesn’t get enough credit for doing a lot,” he says, with almost a newlywed’s awe. (From what I saw of the Fords’ marriage, it is offensively harmonious. An accomplished urbanist who served as the chief planner for New Orleans, Kristina is currently working on a book about the implementation of public policy.)

Ford published his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, in 1981 to checkered reviews: Kirkus called the drug-drenched Mexican sojourn “dreadful,” though others praised the hard-boiled style. Ford could have persisted along this riverbed, a regionalist like Harry Crews or Charles Bowden, known by few and loved by fewer. His books had sold a paltry 12,000 copies; dismayed by the lack of success, he started working as a journalist at Inside Sports in 1981. He ceased working there the following year. During the Easter holiday, he began writing what would become The Sportswriter. The book is also set over Easter, its protagonist an unenthusiastic journalist who had published an acclaimed short story collection but could not follow it up with a novel.

“I am not Frank,” Ford told me as we sat in his house in East Boothbay, which looks out over the expanse of Linekin Bay, auburn land falling steeply toward slate water. The likes of Raymond Carver (an old friend) and Toni Morrison (in a group shot taken at the home of Knopf chief Sonny Mehta) look out from the myriad photographs that cover the walls, lending the house a museum quality. Many of the photographs are Southern: boys sitting on a rail car at a state fair (shot by Welty); two black men digging the grave of William Faulkner; a hunting party of several black men, one of them holding a felled rabbit by its legs.

The South is the wellspring of Ford’s literary imagination. Growing up dyslexic, he read little, did poorly in school and got in trouble with the cops for stealing. He felt himself “discouraged by life” until the age of 19, when books pulled him out what might have been a desultory existence. His first literary love was Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, a lush familial tragedy that taught Ford there was “something corrupt at the heart of the South.”

Many years later, when Ford was creating Frank Bascombe, struggling to move beyond the sinewy machismo of the first two novels, he was helped along by yet another Southerner. Ford points to The Moviegoer by Walker Percy as the novel that washed the grit from his prose. In his first two fictions, he had thought “serious meant dark.” Percy’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, suggested that seriousness can come in shades. “I saw how it was possible to write a character who was both visceral and brainy,” Ford tells me, citing these as the traits he shares with Frank.

Not that The Sportswriter made Ford instantly rich or famous. Nor was it universally praised. In a famous episode, Ford was so infuriated by Alice Hoffman’s tepid review in The New York Times, he and Kristina shot Hoffman’s latest novel (with guns) and mailed it to her.

11_14_Ford_10 The Fords, Richard and Kristina, met when he was an undergrad at Michigan State and are pictured when Ford was awarded the Femina literary prize in Paris on Nov. 6, 2013. Splash/Corbis

It wasn’t really until Independence Day that Ford’s talent was fully recognized by critics and readers alike. The Pulitzer Prize committee praised the novel, in awarding it the fiction prize in 1996, for its “visionary account of American life...Richard Ford captures the mystery of life—in all its conflicted glory—with grand humor, intense compassion and transfixing power.” This was that rare bit of effusive praise that happens to be true. And it obviated the need for yet another act of libricide.

 

All four of the Bascombe books are written in the present tense. Frank is always here, with us, and we are with him, reading the morning paper, chatting up a bartender, pondering car repairs. That’s not to say that he lacks retrospection; it’s just that the present holds infinitely more possibility than the past. “I do not credit the epiphanic, the seeing-through that reveals all, triggered by a mastering detail,” Frank muses in Lay of the Land. “These are lies of the liberal arts to distract us from the more precious here and now.” Among his frequent references is the poet Theodore Roethke, identified by name in The Sportswriter and referred to in Lay of the Land as “the poet.” Bascombe is obviously fond of Roethke’s “The Waking,” an eerie psalm of modern American spiritualism in which Roethke writes, “I feel my fate in what I cannot fear. / I learn by going where I have to go.” If Frank were the sort to get tattoos, this one would be prominently visible on his right forearm.

“I don’t really know anything. My practice is to discover,” Ford told me, recalling the counsel of Roethke’s verse. Like a Buddhist sage, he extolls “the humility of not knowing,” though there is ultimately nothing humble about the wisdom Ford seeks so obviously to impart through Frank. As John Homans noted in New York magazine, “Reading Ford, you can feel uplifted and empowered in a way that might make you wonder if his books are really novels at all, and not some sublime species of self-help.”

That’s pretty much the heart of the genius—the American genius—of Frank Bascombe. Ford could have suffocated him with the strictures of a quotidian existence, turning him into a progenitor of the suburban misers who dominate so many midcentury novels like Revolutionary Road. Instead the ordinary is an aperture into the extraordinary. With his inner voice of wry humor, Frank is constantly teasing out truths that have no business in suburban New Jersey. The house-selling business is to Ford what the whale-hunting business was to Melville: a path to the numinous, right through the thick blubber of the everyday. Or, as Frank notes while dealing with a particularly difficult couple in Independence Day, “a profounder text runs beneath all realty decisions.”

 

On the October day when I went to see Ford, he and Kristina were preparing to go hunting in the North Woods of Maine, an excursion that was to last about a week. It would be followed by a similar sojourn in Montana. The Fords only hunt birds, and they eat what they kill. I know because I watched Kristina skillfully de-feather and dismember a grouse over the kitchen sink, with one of their two Brittanys hoping (hopelessly) that some of the avian entrails would find their way onto the floor. Later, the bird served as dinner, completing a delectable shotgun-to-fork trajectory. Ford, though, urged measured mastication: “That bird didn’t die of fright.”

Ford learned to hunt at the age of 10, from his grandfather. He has hunted ever since, with the photography in the Ford household evenly divided been literary and hunting scenes. Despite his love of guns, he is no friend of the National Rifle Association, which he calls a “vicious” organization. “Arms dealers is what they are,” Ford tells me, lamenting that he hasn’t yet made it on the NRA’s shit list.

11_14_Ford_01 Richard Ford, author, at his home in Maine Tristan Spinski for Newsweek

The issue of race is more complex, as it must necessarily must be for a writer who came of age in Mississippi burning. In that 1999 essay for the Times Magazine, Ford admits to using “nigger” in letters written long after he’d crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. The break with his youth had not been entirely clean. He was 38 when he wrote that hideous word, “not 15 and on a school bus with a bunch of teen-age, Mississippi morons prodding me on.” He told me that most everyone discouraged him from making the revelation in such a public medium. He did it anyway.

“I am not a racist,” Ford says to me. “I don’t have any uncertainty about that.” But he clearly thinks of race as the primary American occupation. It has followed him here, all the way to the edge of America; as we drive along Linekin Bay, Ford points to a forested dot of land he says is called Negro Island, where a slave ship in need of provisions supposedly left its human cargo to wait as it traveled down the shore to Portland. Ford knows that this may be nothing more than “lore,” but likes to think about those tortured Africans, looking out at the American shore, wondering if the short swim to the mainland was worth the risk. Ford thinks they would have been slaughtered by the Abenaki natives. And they are gone now, too.

The wrongs of history have to remain; the wrongs of the future, we have some capacity to prevent. Ford and Kristina have no children and plan to leave their entire estate to the United Negro College Fund, with two scholarships, one each for a student from Mississippi and Louisiana. “Where we got, we got on the necks of black kids,” Ford says. “We got to go away to college. They didn’t.”

Ford says he is intrigued by the possibility of Frank returning as a black character. Were he to act on this impulse, Frank Bascombe would become the first major American literary character to switch races. The project would be a prance through a minefield of charged sensibilities. Some would call it audacious, others would call it insensitive. Inevitably, someone would call Ford a racist. Then, a hero. The New Yorker would defend the book, as would Fox News. The whole dustup would be pointless, ugly, beautiful—American.

 

Richard Ford was driving to Detroit when Superstorm Sandy plowed into New Jersey. His flight had been canceled, but he was determined to see Kristina lecture. The winds were so strong in western New York, Ford says, that his car was blown from one lane to another. He made the lecture, he proudly recalls.

In Let Me Be Frank With You, the Jersey Shore is ruined, houses tossed and flattened as if by the hand of irate Poseidon. Frank regards the devastation without bathos or hysteria, his hopes as measured as his sorrows. The four stories that make up the novel have Frank counseling Arnie Urquhart, who bought Frank’s house by “what seemed to be a benign and glimmering sea” (oops); receiving at his house in Haddam a black woman named Charlotte Pines, who tells him of a terrible crime once committed there; visiting his first wife, Ann Dykstra, at a nursing home, where they pleasantly discuss funerary arrangements; and paying final respects to Eddie Medley, “one of the Bell Labs wonder boys,” now dying from cancer.

“These stories are about the consequences of calamity,” Ford says, “and how the human spirit can actually survive.” Nothing is spoiled by the revelation of the book’s final lines, lines that may be the last Frank ever speaks: “The day we have briefly shared is saved.” Few novelists as serious as Ford would make a statement of such unvarnished optimism, but he has always shown a preference for simple assertions over gnomic speculations. His greatest creation, after all, is Frank Bascombe, an ordinary American, an American full of the “curious abrupt questionings” of Whitman, an American like me, like you.