what i'm reading: three books by richard ford

I've been meaning to read Richard Ford for years - actually, for decades. Both the 1986 novel The Sportswriter and 1995's follow-up Independence Day have been languishing on The List since they were published. When Canada came out in 2012, and reviews made me want to read it, it was time to dig up those earlier titles and finally discover Ford. I recently put all three titles on hold in my library, and read them in order of publication. (An aside: there was only one copy of The Sportswriter in our system, so my borrowing it probably saved that book's life for a time. At least for a while, it won't show up on any dead lists and be weeded.)

Ford writes the kinds of novels that are all but impossible to make into a movie and defy description in terms of plot. Readers who need page-turning action would be bored to tears. But readers who love keen perceptions of human desires, thoughts, and motivations, and who value precise and elegant language, with the occasional touch of subtle humour, may want to discover this writer, too. 

Richard Ford's writing is highly reminiscent of Saul Bellow's. Bellow was one of the greatest explorers of "the human condition," as it is often called in literary criticism - the Big Questions, the existential longings, the search for meaning and authenticity, the burden of being conscious of our mortality. Ford mines similar territory, plumbing the depths of thinking people who are contemplating their own existence.

The two early novels, both featuring the character Frank Bascombe, are almost entirely internal monologue. Even the more recent Canada, which features a more recognizable plot, is told rather than shown, so the plot elements take a backseat to the thoughts and feelings of the narrator.

Canada adds to the existential crisis a contemplation of the powerlessness of childhood, and by extension, all of our lives. We meet people who are living the wrong life, so to speak, traveling down a path begun by one wrongheaded decision, but seemingly powerless to choose another path.

Ford's work is full of richly drawn characters, sad lives, and missed opportunities - and also of enduring love and friendship, if sometimes only glimpsed for a moment in a rearview mirror. The writing is always measured, sometimes wry, never melodramatic. These are quiet books, not to everyone's taste, but beautiful in many ways, and worth reading.

No comments: