Guest essay by Andrew Sottile
I was driving away from Boothbay Harbor along River Road, a windy, crowned cutoff, toward Damariscotta, another small township off Maine’s coastal Route 1. I’d called the bookstore there, which had the text I was after, a history of Maine’s lobster fishing culture, an acclaimed nonfiction narrative. Maine’s answer to The Perfect Storm, I figured. Or better yet, something like Into the Wild. I was going to be an adventure writer. This is what I’d told myself. The next Junger, a younger Krakauer, the reviewers would say. I’d been working on a magazine feature, a profile of Boothbay’s lobster industry. I conducted interviews, poured over library books and microfiches, even arranged myself a lobster boat ride on which I nearly fell asleep on my feet from the dreaded side effects of Dramamine. I had hours of voice recordings—the thick drawls of lobster fishermen and quantitative theories of marine biologists—but no real story of substance.
In the front lobby of the Damariscotta bookshop—Maine Coast Books, it’s called— a whiteboard sign read, Richard Ford, Tonight at Skidompha Library. Taped to the sign was a photograph of this Ford character, a black and white author shot. Gray eyes. Gleaming forehead. And next to the sign were stacks of books. The Sportswriter I’d heard of. Independence Day, too. They were about New Jersey, a place I’d never been and whose residents I resented for staking summer claim on this beloved northern New England coast. I picked up a yellow-spined copy of Rock Springs, its cover showing a lone mailbox and a vast expanse of prairie—I’d never seen this one before—and flipped to the first page and read the title story’s first lines: “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.” Then I thumbed forward: “This is not a happy story. I warn you.” I sat in a vinyl-cushioned chair by the window—arrested by the voice, the frankness, how real these stories seemed. I read on. An hour passed. Then another. By now it was nearly seven o’clock. I purchased the collection with a swamp-ass-soaked twenty, and made my way to the library next door, where Ford spoke and read from a work-in-progress and mentioned his very own Boothbay home, which gave me a thrill. When he was through I shook his hand, said we had a place near Boothbay, too, and asked about how he writes short stories. I wanted to know about his approach. “Oh, just write them,” he said. “That’s all you can do. Just write them.”
I finished Rock Springs a day later. And if you’d asked me why those stories made my face feel numb, what about the first-person voices captured me, or how the narrative structures made them seem truer than any fiction I’d read before, I couldn’t have told you. All that needed time to steep.
Ford’s short story “Optimists” opens with this sentence: “All of this that I’m 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.” Ford gives his plot away and reveals what is presumably all the story’s incidents.
His new novel Canada opens similarly: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.” These openings, as Ford has said, “spill the beans.” He even told an interviewer he found Canada’s opening “an irresistible hook.” But there’s more at work here, something more covert. Ford doesn’t just give away his story arc; he also creates temporal texture. Both voices establish themselves as distanced from the stories’ events, which is to say that the passage of time is obvious in the narrative. Because Ford’s narrator says, “when I was only fifteen,” the reader understands this story happened long before the actual telling takes place. And in Canada, by referring to lives and “the courses they eventually followed,” Ford implies that those paths, courses and lives have changed and passed and are now someplace else, a place different from the story’s setting—in both time and place.
Ford takes a risk, giving away these climactic events so early on, yet his stories remain tension-packed. In Rock Springs’ “Optimists,” for example, he sets the eventual murder scene with this foreboding sentence: “It was on a night that Penny and Boyd Mitchell were in our house that trouble came about.” The line serves as a reminder that the narrator, Frank, has lived through the story’s events. Then the in-scene story begins. When his father gets home from work, the narrator says, “I have never seen a look on a man’s face that was like the look on my father’s face at the moment. He looked wild. His eyes were wild.” Most important here is that the in-scene character does not know why the father is wild-eyed; neither does the reader. It eventually becomes clear that the father “saw a man be killed tonight” And when houseguest Boyd Mitchell hostilely suggests that the father “should’ve put tourniquets on” the dying man, the reader begins to understand this scene will not end well. Boyd Mitchell will, of course, lose his life by the hand of the narrator’s father. And while the narrator ultimately knows this outcome, his in-scene character lacks privilege, obviously doesn’t know the consequences of the events, or even the events themselves as they are about to take place. Ford plays with classical dramatic irony—that is, the discrepancy between what readers know and what characters know. His readers become more informed, more privileged than the characters themselves. As Ford puts it, “I didn't think giving the events away was a risk, but created its own suspense.” We feel the tension mostly because Ford frontloads his opening lines.
Many years later, in Canada, Ford uses charged details to achieve similar narrative tension. After his parents commit a bank robbery, for example, the narrator, Dell Parsons, and his sister, Berner, take a ride around town with their father. Dell finds a packet of money in between the cushions in the backseat. This detail obviously carries its own feeling of mystery, but because Ford has already mentioned the robbery, we understand that it did, in fact, take place at the “Agricultural National Bank, Creekmore, North Dakota,” as the money packet indicates. Now the robbery, and all its baggage, has come back to Great Falls. Dell’s discovery opens up a whole world of tension in the short car ride. The reader knows more than Dell does. “I was astounded,” Dell narrates. “I said ‘Oh,’ loud enough to make my father instantly look at me in the driver’s mirror… ‘Did you see the goddamn cops?’ my father said.” The anxious mood in the car and the emotions of its characters become obvious—Dell’s fear and confusion, the father’s paranoia.
Later (and more simply crafted) on their drive, they pass “the back of the Cascade County jail.” When reading that line, knowing with certainty the car’s driver, the narrator’s father, will soon be a resident there, I can’t help but imagine the inside, the gray cells, the stale light, the cold bars. But here, in this scene, those details are implied as part of the subtext; the actual jail doesn’t appear until much later—when, of course, Dell’s parents end up there.
When Gustav Freytag published Technik des Dramas in 1863, he gave language to an ancient plot structure, which stems back to the Greeks, on through Shakespeare and into modern tragedy. In Freytag’s pyramid-based dramatic model, the climax does not, as one might expect, occur near the end of a story. Instead this “crisis” typically occurs during the third act of a five-act play—about midway through a story. Dr. Kip Wheeler of Carson Newman College calls the moments after the climax the “reversal…[a time] in which the protagonist's fortunes change irrecoverably for the worse.” And while such a structure appears less frequently in contemporary fiction, Richard Ford uses the early reversal and climax as many classicists did; he emphasizes the consequences of the events he gives away in his first lines. But Ford takes this mode a bit further and constructs recurring scenes, what I will refer to as mirrored scenes, in which he shows a scene before the drama, before Freytag’s pinnacle, and then the same scene again during the reversal, after the bomb has gone off and the dust has settled at the onset of the falling action. Ford shows us how quickly (or in some cases how profoundly, after time) things can change.
The first time I read “Optimists”—that night when I returned to Boothbay—I flipped ahead upon reaching the page break after the murder. I remember wondering where Ford was headed now. These mirrored scenes are an essential element to the structural success of that story. Before his father comes home, Frank tells us of a nearly jovial scene. “I was in the kitchen, eating a sandwich…and my mother was in the living room playing cards with Penny and Boyd Mitchell. They were drinking vodka and eating the other sandwiches my mother had made.” But notice how the initial scene is told; it lacks finite images. Ford leaves the shown details for a later scene, after the narrator and his mother have bailed the father out of prison:
Inside our house, all the lights were burning when we got back. It was one o’clock. There were still lights in some neighbors’ houses. I could see a man at the window across the street, both his hands to the glass, watching out, watching us…My father stood in the middle of the living room and looked around, looking at the chairs, at the card table with cards still on it, at the open doorways to the other rooms. It was as if he’d forgotten his own house and now saw it again and didn’t like it.There’s so much implied, so much subtext when Ford slows down and shows us the scene. The lights and neighbors, how the family has become exposed, the cards and card table, how earlier people had been enjoying this house now laced with violence, the open doors, the father looking around, how he might’ve taken a different path. Ford patiently skates over the details early, allowing their meanings and consequences to surface now.
Ford also uses mirrored scenes in Canada. The night before Dell’s parents get carted off to jail, Dell and his father work together on a puzzle. “I found my father alone at the card table with his Niagara Falls puzzle…All the lights in the front of the house were on. Niagara Falls was almost complete. Only a few pale pieces of jagged sky needed setting in.” Ford, unlike his approach in “Optimists,” gives this scene intense detail. He uses Niagara Falls, of course, to foreshadow the narrator’s looming fate in Canada (another example of dramatic irony). The lights suggest exposure and an inability to hide. And Ford presents detail here because, we eventually learn, this is the last ordinary conversation Dell will have with his soon-to-be-incarcerated father. Then Dell’s father “suddenly popped the puzzle piece in his mouth, chewed it and swallowed in a big gulp.” Dell believes his father has performed a magic trick. But when Dell insists on knowing the piece’s whereabouts, his father claims to have eaten it, saying, “It’s not a trick every time.” Ford suggests that familiar things can and suddenly will change.
The next morning, Dell’s mother frantically packs after announcing an unexpected trip to Seattle (an escape plan, of course). “We have to go now,” she tells Dell. “Put what you’re taking in this.” She hands him a “pink pillowcase with white scalloped edges.” Dell gathers his essentials and joins his doomed family in the living room. When the police finally knock, Dell’s mother drops a dish on the kitchen floor. “It broke into bits just as my father was pulling the door back to whatever news was waiting for us.” Ford slowly paints a portrait of this family before its Freytagian crisis. Ford gives us details we’ll remember.
Ford revisits those details after the parents get cuffed and stuffed into a police cruiser:
The Niagara Falls puzzle, all put together, still lay on the card table, lacking only the piece my father had eaten. It could never be finished and was useless…I stood alone in the middle of the living room and looked around, my heart beating fast…There was my pillowcase with my belongings; my mother’s suitcase…I picked up the pieces of the broken dish my mother had dropped earlier and put them in the trash.This scene works similarly to the one from “Optimists.” Dell examines the room, as if searching for a different path his life could have taken, and he surveys the immediate wreckage left by his parents’ actions. Ford seems to have mapped his story out and selected a climax right in the middle of a single scene. The arrest is sandwiched between these mirrored images because Ford aims to show how quickly things can turn for the worst. “Those little calibrations are really little,” Ford recently told an interviewer. “And their consequences are really big. The difference between the normal and the aberrance—I've always had an interest in that…you make one little mistake, you take one star out of the constellation, and it suddenly no longer is Orion.” Ford shows such a hiccup in the “calibrations” of this family. A normal morning turns to one littered only with shards of a life now gone by.
Charles Baxter, in his essay “Against Epiphanies,” shows hostility toward moments of realization. He’s sick of epiphanies: “In most anthologies of short stories published since the 1940s, insight endings or epiphanic endings account for approximately 50 to 85 percent of all the climactic moments.” Baxter goes on to say, “The logic of unveiling has become a dominant mode in Anglo-American writing, certainly in fiction…We watch as a hidden presence, some secret logic, rises to visibility and serves as the climactic revelation.” He believes the epiphanies he reads are unearned.
But Ford’s protagonists do not come to understand their lives until long after changes take place. Ford doesn’t give his characters a “hidden presence” or an in-scene insight. Instead he uses the aforementioned reflective narrative voice, the temporal space it allows, and the Freytagian story structure to flash forward and show the consequences of the stories in the present day, which for “Optimists” is over twenty years to 1982, and for Canada is nearly fifty years to 2010. Ford allows for realizations, but not until his stories’ falling actions and eventual denouements, long after traumatic actions take place. He wants “to see that arc of consequence,” wants to see how hardships can be ultimately overcome, or at least dealt with reasonably in the future.
The final scene from 1959 in “Optimists” isn’t the last scene of the story, and doesn’t, as one might expect, possess any epiphanic qualities. Conversely, the narrator, Frank, and his mother examine their inability to make sense of his father’s actions. His mother tells about a duck she once saw frozen into the ice, left helpless as its mates flew away into the wintertime sky. “It’s wildlife,” the mother laments. “Some always get left back…Maybe that’s just what this is. Just a coincidence.” With these lines, Ford acknowledges life’s unknowable things, how we can’t rationally explain much until later. And, as Charles Baxter says, characters needn’t be “validated by a conclusive insight or a brilliant, visionary stop-time moment. Stories can arrive somewhere interesting without claiming any wisdom or clarification…can be a series of clues but not a solution, an unfolding of a mystery instead of a revelation.” Ford and Baxter both suggest that it’s okay to lack a lexicon, to be rendered speechless.
At the onset of the story’s denouement, Ford finally allows Frank, now a man of forty-three, to make a bit of sense from the events of years before:
The most important things in your life can change so suddenly, so irrevocably, that you can forget even the most important of them and their connectedness, you are so taken up by the chanciness of all that’s happened and by all that could and will happen next. I now no longer remember the exact year of my father’s birth, or how old he was when I last saw him…The narrator has nearly come to believe what his mother told him twenty years before. Even now the “epiphany” is vague and doesn’t give finite meaning to the murder his father committed and its effect on the family. Ford then moves the story forward, starts disclosing information about the time that’s passed since 1959; he describes the tangible consequences. Frank has, in a sense, erased his father from memory, and he presents this material as if he’s not surprised by the outcome, saying, “When you’re young, these things seem unforgettable and at the heart of everything. But they slide away and are gone when you are not so young.” All this seems natural to think about years after. The narrator has had plenty of time to wonder about the year when “life changed for all of us and forever.”
Then Ford brings the story present. “A month ago I saw my mother,” Frank says. After he mentions he’s been through a divorce, she replies, “You’ll never get anything fixed just right. That’s your mother’s word. Your father and I had a marriage…A lot of it was just wrong.” Even years later, Ford alludes to the mysteries of our actions and decisions. Nothing will ever get “fixed,” or entirely figured out. But the scene ends with an oddly hopeful moment. The mother says her son reminds her of his father, calls their family’s time together before the murder “happy enough times.” The story closes like this: “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.” Hope can be found in a small moment years after terrible events. If this story has an epiphany, that’s it. Horrible things are survivable. Frank’s encounter with his mother presents the realities of their lives—that they’ve lost touch and will probably never regain closeness, that a mother can still give her son a wise word and have a tender moment with him years after their family’s collapse.
Canada ends in similar fashion. After their parents’ incarceration, Dell’s twin sister Berner flees to California and Dell is taken across the Canadian border and put in the care of an American, Arthur Remlinger. Dell digs goose-hunting pits and sets decoys for tourist hunters. But Remlinger is in exile, running from a crime committed in the US years before. And by the end of his stay in Saskatchewan, Dell becomes an accomplice in a double-murder, eventually burying the bodies in the goose pits he earlier helped dig (another example of a mirrored scene). After the murders, Ford eases Dell into that temporally reflective voice, which Ford has dipped into throughout the novel. But even then Dell does not claim to understand the events of his youth—a time now fifty years behind him. He says, “Can I even speak of the effect of witnessing the Americans’ killing—the effect on me? I’ll have to make the words up, since the true effect is silence.” “Events must sink into the ground,” he continues, “and percolate up naturally again for me to pay them proper heed” Ford, it would seem, agrees with Baxter, who says, “We can have stories of real consequence in which no discursive insight appears.” Both writers suggest that a truth-bearing consequence to a reader is more important than an epiphany is to a fictional character.
Dell goes on to say that since 1960, he has tried “to mediate among the good counsels… generosity, longevity, acceptance, relinquishment, letting the world come to me—and, with these things, to make a life.” In that life Dell comes to reside in Canada, and, after several years, when he revisits the site where he buried the murdered men, Dell still can’t mine meaning from all that’s happened. “I stood [where I helped bury the men], hands in my trouser pockets, toes in the dust, and tried to make it all signify, be revelatory, as if I needed that. But I couldn’t.” Ford turns the expectation of an epiphany on its head and presents a man who wants the epiphany, wants to feel overcome with clarifying emotions; yet Dell is at a loss.
The true consequences of Dell’s experiences finally surface in Canada’s final twenty pages. Berner, whom Dell has seen just a few times since their separation in 1960, is dying of lymphoma. After hearing the news, Dell muses on his conduct since his family’s ruinous end. “It made me realize how much I’d wanted to erase them,” Dell says of his family, “how much my happiness was pinioned to their being gone.” Now Ford allows Dell a bit of a realization; it takes place fifty years after the novel’s events. Ford’s novel does not lean on, as Baxter says, a “hidden presence” or “secret logic.” Instead, it uses the mitigating effects of the passage of time.
In his final meeting with Berner, Dell begins to understand that he’ll never really know his sister. As he waits outside her home, he has a moment with her partner, who “turned and walked in a stiff, dignified way to the corner of the trailer and was gone…He didn’t want to meet me. I understood perfectly well. I was late on the scene.” Dell begins to wrestle with the long-term consequences of his choices—not just on him but on his sister and the way she views him, at a distance from her failed life, from a life that took her through “at least three husbands” and several jobs, including “a waitress in a casino…a waitress in a restaurant…a nurse’s assistant in a hospice.” Dell wonders if he’s partially to blame—for not sticking around or tracking her down, for not guiding her toward a successful, ultimately prosperous life like the one he’s attained as a grown man. Berner is “bitter about the ‘substitute life’ she’d led instead of the better one she should’ve led if it had all worked out properly.” And therefore the only epiphany here, the one that speaks a universal truth, is a simple one: “If you tolerate loss well,” as Dell says in the final passage of the novel, “manage not to be a cynic through it all; to subordinate, as Ruskin implied, to keep proportion, to connect the unequal things into a whole that preserves good”—you can ultimately aspire to an all right life after your world gets rocked by the poor decisions of others. But if you fail to do those things, as Berner has, you’ll over-think what could have been. This is the real consequence of the robberies and murders, and Ford’s reflective voice and Freytagian story arc allow us to go as far into the future as needed to better understand the meaning of Dell’s story and, most importantly, his earned revelation, which he’s only come to understand over the course of fifty years.
That day I drove back to Boothbay and continued reading Rock Springs. That night I read until I slept. That next morning I drank coffee and read “Communist” and the collection’s haunting final lines: “My mother and I never talked in that way again, and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time.” I was spellbound but didn’t know why. Now, years later I see, at least initially, the stories reminded me of the books that turned me into a teenaged reader, a wannabe writer, stories like Into the Wild and The Perfect Storm, stories that deal with real-life truths, books that spill the beans up front and deal with tragic consequences.
I never finished writing the piece on Boothbay’s lobstermen. But that day in Damariscotta ultimately turned me toward contemporary fiction. Ford’s work led me to the rest of the “dirty realists,” Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beattie and others: writers in a tradition that every day I work to be a part of. Back then I couldn’t have told you I’d care more about fiction than most anything else, or that I’d enroll in a graduate creative writing program and send stories to journals and works-in-progress to writers I deeply admire. It takes time to find a vocabulary for the events that mean the most, on and off the page. I’m certainly glad I drove River Road and found a display of Richard Ford’s fiction laid out like a meal before me.
Andrew Sottile lives, writes and teaches in Oregon. An MFA candidate at Pacific University, he is at work on a collection of stories set on the coast of Maine and a novel.