Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Great Beginnings: Rock Springs by Richard Ford

I had not been back in town long.  Maybe a month was all.  the work had finally given out for me down at Silver Bow, and I had quit staying down there when the weather turned cold, and come back to my mother's, on the Bitterroot, to lay up and set my benefits aside for when things got worse.

Some books leave such a lasting impression that you can remember where you were and what you were doing when you read them.

I was sitting in my bathtub when I read the opening chapter of Jaws.  (God's honest truth.)

I was sitting in the back row of my high school English honors class, teetering between adolescence and adulthood, when I turned the first pages of my first John Updike novel, Rabbit, Run.  (A novel, by the way, that would scare me away from the grim world of adults for at least a few more months.)

And when I first read Richard Ford's Rock Springs 23 years ago, I was standing in the Public Library of Livingston, Montana.  
My mother once had a boyfriend named Glen Baxter.  This was in 1961.  We--my mother and I--were living in the little house my father had left her up the Sun River, near Victory, Montana, west of Great Falls.  My mother was thirty-two at the time.  I was sixteen.  Glen Baxter was somewhere in the middle, between us, though I cannot be exact about it.

I’d come to the Livingston library that night not knowing what I’d walk out with, but I knew I wanted to read a great piece of literature--one that would make my heart pound, my palms sweat and the little hairs on the backs of my hands stand up.  I wanted fiction that would take me away from my life.

At the time, I was married, the father of two, a reporter for the town newspaper and living paycheck-to-paycheck.  Our budget was so lean, Jack Sprat looked like a glutton.  To conserve gas, I walked to work, head down and collar up as the hard winds of south-central Montana scoured the streets.  We were so broke, my wife and I thought of co-authoring a cookbook: 101 Things To Do With Macaroni-and-Cheese.  Of course, buying books was out of the question.  That’s why I was at the public library that night, looking for a piece of writing that would rescue me from my struggling, lower-middle-class life.

Little did I know I was a character straight out of Ford’s stories. 
       I was standing in the kitchen while Arlene was in the living room saying good-bye to her ex-husband, Bobby.  I had already been out to the stores for groceries and come back and made coffee, and was drinking it and staring out the window while the two of them said whatever they had to say.  It was a quarter to six in the morning.
       This was not going to be a good day in Bobby's life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail.

I can remember standing there in that library in Livingston, the dusty ten-foot stacks leaning overhead like trees, opening this collection of 10 short stories at random and reading the following words: "This is not a happy story.  I warn you."  They were the first two lines from the story "Great Falls."  The words were like an opera aria and this is what the diva was singing in my ear: "This writer knows you."  I had never heard of Richard Ford before that night, but somehow he had wormed his way into my life.  The hairs on the backs of my hands rustled.
Edna and I had started down from Kalispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn't turn me in to the police.
               --"Rock Springs"

Taken at face value, there is a peculiar rhythm to these openings in Rock Springs which closely resembles those of Ford's best friend Raymond Carver: da-da, da-da, da-da.  It's as if a metronome is ticking as you read.  Narratively-speaking, they're rather flat, loaded with exposition, and documentary in nature.  It's as if each narrator (all but two of the stories are told in the first-person) was sitting across from you in a diner, elbows resting on the Formica-topped table, and unspooling the story of his life--stark, naked facts at first, but then gradually becoming more complex and colorful as the teller becomes engaged in the telling.
All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back.  The year, in other words, when life changed for all of us and forever--ended, really, in a way none of us could ever have imagined in our most brilliant dreams of life.

Yes, these stories are front-loaded (overloaded, really) with information, but their hooks are undeniable.  Why did your father kill a man?  Why is Bobby headed back to jail?  Why are you so sure things will get worse?  Tell me more.

And that's the key to Ford's first lines in each of the Rock Springs stories: they lay out just enough intriguing details and turns of phrase that you read the second paragraph, and the third, the fourth, until you finally reach the end and then circle back around to that first paragraph to take a second look at how marvelously Ford set up an entire story's worth of character and conflict in a remarkable economy of space.  There are entire worlds in these few words.

They are enough to keep you standing deep in the stacks of a library for nearly an hour--until the muscles in your lower back start to throb, until the librarian announces the building will be closing in fifteen minutes and patrons should bring all materials to the check-out desk immediately, until the winter night wind rises in pitch and intensity, warning you of the threadbare walk home.  These few words are enough to hold you in their worlds until you never want to leave.


  1. Enjoyed this collection, too, when I read it, though I don't remember where I was at the time. Just the date: December 2004, when I left a review at amazon. Thanks for the reprise.

  2. I read it not too long ago. Took it out of the library too although not in Livingston. I can relate though. I covered a growth policy debate there. It ran late and they locked all of the doors but one. Being unfamiliar with the building, I had a hard time making a speedy exit. I published the story at noon the next day. Yeah. It's the only job I've ever had that required a college degree to get and was at the stark poverty level even at Livingston standards.That and the stress drove me out of town. Of course fishing season was over too.