Steven's Reviews > Rock Springs

Rock Springs by Richard Ford
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Apr 04, 08

bookshelves: short-stories
Read in January, 1988

Every time I read this collection I enjoy it more than the last and become even more impressed with Ford’s ability to get so deep without seeming to. His beginnings are subtle, and his endings crackle with meaning. The middle of his stories oscillate between quiet moments that explode like depth charges with their silence, and tense action threatening to undo the characters.

“Rock Springs” is remarkable for its tone, the way that Ford captured the language of the first-person narrator’s sense of himself, but still let the reader see that the narrator was worse than he thought he was. The ending is brilliant, the way it winds up—rather than down—to a series of questions that are left hanging there for the reader.
“Great Falls” begins with this first paragraph: “This is not a happy story. I warn you.” Are you hooked or what? There’s so much in this story that is good: tone, details, precisely focused scenes, that climactic scene where the father has the gun under Woody’s chin, the hopelessness of the scene with the mother, and the questions at the end, again without answers. This time a shadow of meaning follows the questions, but it is not an epiphany and it seems clear that this meaning is really in no way a result of the events the story recounts—it is something the narrator accumulated along the way, it’s the something that allowed him to tell us this story.
“Sweethearts” is a story I admire for what it tries to do: put into words a situation that might defy expression. It’s a story that might have been better if it had tried to do less, maybe give it the Carver treatment. It’s like Ford was struggling hard to make the reader understand why this event is so significant, and thus he brings in all these details and dialogue to try to make us see the full import. Ultimately, though, I think those efforts work against him. There’s too much going on. Better perhaps to have picked less to show and left more for the reader to fill in.
“Children” is a complex story full of anger and tension and threats, yet it is the quiet moments that crush. When Lucy takes the beer and the hotdog and the transistor radio out of the paper bag and says: “I’ve accumulated this much so far.” Wow. And the best thing is that Ford doesn’t stop the flow of narrative, doesn’t let the narrator reflect, or even notice the importance of that image; he leaves it for the reader to discover. A little bit later Lucy says: “Batteries are my next assignment.” Yikes, it’s like being in a grain silo that’s slowly filling up. The way he plays the characters off each other in this story is fantastic. I like that George is observing and understanding so much, understanding things he isn’t aware of, while at the same time feeling that everything is a mystery, that he understands nothing. The ending is a nice touch. Claude has become quiet, so full of himself, yet clearly diminished. In this story, as with all of the stories in this collection, Ford has thought deeply about his characters, journeyed inside to imagine what life must mean, and feel like, for them. The things the characters worry about and question—or don’t—seem their own, they don’t appear to be disguised author’s questions (which of course they are).
“Going to the Dogs” seems the weakest, by far, in this collection. Nothing deep here, just an ironic twist as the guy going to stiff his landlord gets robbed, after being setup by the two women hunters. There is some humor in the situation, which is atypical for the stories in this collection.
“Empire” is a novella, or at least a very long story. It doesn’t culminate in any change for Vic, which is odd because I think the story gets it’s energy from the expectation that something is going to happen, something that will change Vic. But, even when he sees himself in the mirror, “An Adulterer’s face, a face to turn away from,” he doesn’t seem affected beyond the moment, and there is no sense that he will be affected. It’s a hard to story to figure, with its juxtaposition of transitory feeling and loss. There’s a mood that permeates when we are just with Vic, and that mood is clashing with the mood of the framing scenes with Marge. I’m not exactly sure how Ford wants us to feel about these characters. The ending paragraph is stunningly nihilistic.
“Winterkill” is a sleeper of a story. It starts out not moving anywhere fast and then ends in a crescendo. Like “Empire,” it has the juxtaposition of transitory feeling and loss as a driver for it’s meaning. And like many of Ford’s stories, a day in the life of the characters takes on much deeper meaning because of how the narrator thinks and feels about what happens. Without that perspective nothing in the story is dramatic, the drama comes from how the narrator reveals what’s at stake. The ending is one of Ford’s best: the narrator slipping away so as not to see, or be seen—he knows what’s at stake.
“Optimists” has the same structure as “Great Falls,” “Children,” “Communist,” and even “Jealousy” from Women With Men and the novel Wildlife: an early 40’s male narrator reflecting back on a teenage experience that he now realizes changed the course of his life. In all of these stories the narrator has so much authority. That authority comes partly from the accuracy of the details, and the mastery of tone, but it owes a lot to the matter-of-factness of the narration. Momentous events acknowledged. A history of hard times traceable, now, to those events. Yet, not a trace of self-pity. As the narrator of “Empire”—commenting on the army women, and imagining the lives they must have fled to choose a career of military life—says: “…something to run away from. Bad luck, really.” Or as the mother in “Optimists” says: “Maybe that’s what this is. Just a coincidence.” As for the story itself, the only scene that I had hard time with was the ending scene. The disconnection—the length of time since they’d last seen each other—between mother and son seemed too great based on the information Ford has provided in the story. There is a subtle hint that Frank may have blamed his mother for what happened to his father and their life; and she is at least concerned that Frank did not think that she was in love with the man his father killed. It’s a powerful ending scene, but strikes a slightly sour note on the believability scale. Although I’m not willing to say it would be a better story if we had more explanation for why they hadn’t seen each other.
“Fireworks” is a story I didn’t really appreciate until this reading. More life has passed me by so perhaps I can appreciate it now. Or maybe it was because I was having a similar day as the narrator when I read it! One of those days when your whole life and all its consequences seems to be in your head. One of those days when something otherwise inconsequential makes you aware of the choices you’ve made. One of those days where you look at where you’re at and realize it’s a place you never imagined yourself. Ford captures that state of mind perfectly in this story. Again, without self-pity—I think that is the key to what makes these narrators work (and perhaps what seems to fail in “The Womanizer” and “Occidentals” from Women With Men; those narrators wallow in self-pity.) The ending is pitch-perfect. Not a life changing moment, but a rescuing moment just the same, the kind of moment we need more of in literature. Not to be saved forever—but saved for today, saved for right now, saved for just this instant.
If you forced me to choose—and this would be a tough choice—“Communist,” the collection’s concluding story, might just be my favorite. The geese are transcendent. Equally riveting is the way that the mother continues to taunt Glen about the wounded goose until he shoots it. And then that climactic moment when Les wants to hit Glen hard in the face and “…see him on the ground bleeding and crying and pleading for me to stop.” That’s a great honest moment. The ending scene with the mother is probably the best of the stories that end this way (“Great Falls” and “Optimists” are the others). Again, another honest moment. The transition Ford makes with the first sentence of the last paragraph so simply and so quickly brings back the frame—just in time to break your heart.

As I said, this is one of my favorite short story collections. These are stories that I can read over and over, and the more I do so, the more impressed I become with the subtlety of Ford's art in these stories. They have the appearance of being one thing, often because of the narrative voice he establishes. Many of the stories begin with an older narrator reflecting on something that happened in his youth. That sets up the expectation that the story is going to be about something the narrator learned, or has now come to understand about that long ago experience. That setup is usually fulfilled. But the reason the stories have so much power is that there is this sense that much more has happened than the narrator lets on or is even aware of himself. After years of repeated reading I'm beginning to see that the hidden power is in the other characters, sometimes the minor, bit players, and what happens to them, or how questions about what they might be feeling, haunt us. The narrator's experience is a kind of ruse. The narrator's story is satisfying—these might be good stories even if that's all that was there. But what makes these stories resonate is the subtle currents that are on the periphery of the narrator's experience. Things that happen to other characters—and that the narrator describes in passing, while missing their significance, but that Ford clearly intends the reader not to miss. How difficult a writing task is that?
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