Richard Ford's story 'Communist' offers a perspective which is that of both a sixteen-year-old boy and a forty-one-year-old man. By this,we don't mean the boy at its centre and his mother's boyfriend, Glen Baxter, who goes out shooting with him and who is himself no more than in his mid-twenties. No, this is both the narrator who goes shooting and the forty-one-year-old man who recollects the incident. But it is as though the sixteen-year-old boy is narrating a story about someone who might not be so far away from him in years, attitude and experience, with the story's mystery reliant on the gap not so much between the narrator and this relatively older man, but between the narrator and the older man that he has become.
The narrator, Les, as a boy lives with his mother near Victory, Montana, West and his mother is thirty-one and still very attractive the narrator informs us. But is it the boy or the forty-one-year-old man who happens to be narrating the story? Clearly the latter in the strict sense; it is that man who is looking back on his youthful self, but there is also the feeling that the younger self returns to dictate the mood and tone of the narrative so that when the older self comes in it feels close to an interruption. Yet it also allows for an ambiguous, hesitant narration that combines a sixteen-year old's knowledge with a grown man's recollections. Who is it who finds his mother attractive, the young boy seeing his mother through Glen's eyes, the young boy or the older Les? When he says that she was young, he also adds he knew that even then. Meanwhile, Les describes Glen both assertively and tentatively. "Glen Baxter was a Communist and liked hunting, which he talked about a lot. Pheasants, Ducks, Deer. He killed all of them, he said. He had been to Vietnam as far back as then, and when he was in our house he often talked about shooting the animals over there - monkeys and beautiful parrots - using military guns for sport." Les then adds "we didn't know what Vietnam was then, and Glen, when he talked about that referred to it only as the 'far, far east." The 'we' is a little ambiguous. Is this Les and his mother or the US generally? Obviously, this hadn't yet become 'Vietnam', a toponym for the lost lives of many young Americans, a war the US lost and central to much US soul-searching. Here Les is both the naive teen ignorant of history but also the older man aware of its consequences.
Politics interests Ford. His best-known novel is called Independence Day and takes place against the backdrop of the Dukakis/Bush 1988 election. His central character Frank Buscombe at one stage near the end of the novel, observing a minor character in the novel, says: He considers himself a strong Defense - Goldwater Republican. Buscombe is a Democrat and perhaps one reason a friendship can't develop between them though they have known each other for years. In a 2007 interview, Ford talks of the "unthinkable circumstances in Iraq today", "the cause of America's near-obliterated role as a potential force for good in world affairs." (Granta) Just after the election of Donald Trump, Ford wrote an article horrified at the result, also adding that he thought he knew America's base. He then admits, "I'm actually fairly certain I did not try to understand them, just thought I generally knew what they needed, and probably as a result condescended to them". He also acknowledged that he called the incumbent "a moron, a liar, a boob, a puerile charlatan, a huckster and a sexual lout..." (Guardian) Yet such an abject apology would seem less likely coming from the late John Updike, Philip Roth or Saul Bellow, as if Ford saw it as part of his creative duty to understand "all those rural or rust-belt, under-educated, under-employed white guys, or Latinos or blacks who don't feel sufficiently noticed by their elected officials..." (Guardian) It's as if Ford's failed political prophecy somehow meets with a writer's instinct and that suddenly it had deserted him. If the question who one is writing for has always been a weak one, the question about who one is writing about is surely of immense importance. After all, the people one writes for will change, but what happens if we feel the people we are writing about have changed too, and that the writer hasn't adjusted to the changes? Whatever the occasional racial stereotyping an over-simplifications some might find in Independence Day, it is a book that wants to take in a wide swathe of American society, from Mexicans a friend is suspicious of, to a black ex-lover who was murdered, a black family he rents a house to, and a white couple who don't have a lot of money but who want to buy a house that can match their aspirations.
Ford came to prominence in the seventies and early eighties alongside Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips and Tobias Wolff, a generation at odds with the metafictionists of the campus and the literary legends of New York. John Hawkes, John Barth, Robert Coover and William H. Gass were interested in questioning and playing with structures and forms. Saul Bellow, John Updike, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer were still concerned with character and situation. But Ford and others wished to examine the nation more broadly, to feel that their purpose was to understand an America often ignored and worth exploring beyond the major cities and campuses. When Ford says "I suppose I've stored a fair amount of trust in my instinct" (Granta) it looked as if getting the electorate so wrong in 2016 wasn't just a bad call, but hinted at a perceptual crisis. This needn't have concerned the urban legends or the campus-located novelist. Middle America was not their terrain.
'Communist' is set in 1961 and might ostensibly seem autobiographical. The boy would have been born around the same time as Ford, in the mid-forties, and Ford's father passed away in 1960 just as the boy's mother happens to be a single mum. Yet the setting is Montana, not Jackson where Ford grew up, and Ford himself has said, when asked if stories are created or discovered: "that's easy. Stories are created. It isn't as they're 'out there' waiting in some Platonic hyper-space like unread emails...It might be when stories turn out to be good they then achieve a quality of inevitability, of there seeming to have been a previously existing and important space that they perfectly fill." (Granta) Consequently, even if he writes often about loss this doesn't mean he "needs to have suffered loss himself. We can imagine loss. That's the writer's job. We empathize, we project, we make much of what might be small experience." (Granta). Yet if the writer does not work from the personal, Ford appears to acknowledge that he doesn't work from abstractions either. It matters whether he understands or not what he sees as the American people. Ford may in 'Communist' have written a story that some will read autobiographically as it discusses a boy who would have been Ford's age at the time he has lost his father, but a story isn't true because it is based on fact; it is true because it understands the fact of something.
To understand the fact of something we can leave aside for the moment 'Communist' and look at a couple of other Ford short stories, 'Sweethearts' and 'Pretty Boy'. The latter is an entertaining enough tale about a young man who finds himself in Paris after making a small fortune in finance Stateside. He has over a million to spend and decides he will do it by going travelling. The story relies a great deal on the specifics of the French capital, as the narrator tells us about a building on the "Avenue de Lowendal, by the Ecole Militaire, near where the metro emerged from underground and you could see Invalides, and after a moment the Eiffel Tower and the river itself." He talks about the rich area around Trocadero, the great lion at Denfert-Rochereau, and the traffic clogging up Boulevard Raspail. We are inclined to believe that the writer visited Paris and knows the city quite well. But these are facts yet not quite the fact of something. As the story details an encounter with a woman slightly older in age, someone who seems to have gone through various partners and at least one husband and has a child, a boy they deposit across the city to the father, so the story gives us a feel of Paris but little sense of the integrity of people's lives. It feels, finally, like just another story about an American in Paris.
'Sweethearts' on the other hand looks at the complicated lives of working-class Americans. the setting is much vaguer than in 'Pretty Boy', as we can't locate precisely where the characters happen to be, though the milieu explored seems much more vivid. The story is about the narrator's girlfriend's ex-partner who is about to go to jail. They are going to drive him over there and while he awaits incarceration, so he can't help letting feelings of anger and frustration out. As the narrator Russ overhears Bobby and Arlene talking next door, Bobby tells Arlene that he had put all his faith in women and sees now how he was wrong to do so. Just afterwards, Russ's daughter Cherry wakes up and asks Russ if he has fed her goldfish. Ford sets up a complex web of feeling here as Russ sympathises with Bobby's plight but obviously wouldn't wish to be in his place. Yet from another point of view he is in Bobby's place, replacing Bobby as the object of Arlene's affections. Russ is the reasonable character who allows Bobby to have his say, to come into his home and even by the end of the story threaten them with a gun, but we wouldn't know how different things might be if circumstances were reversed. Is our narrator someone capable of immense compassion and patience or someone just smart enough to know that situations could easily be otherwise, who knows that circumstance dictate a life at least as much as a disposition? "I had already been out to the store for groceries and came back to make coffee, and was drinking it and staring out of the window while the two of them said whatever they had to say. It was a quarter to six in the morning." Russ tells us that he will make Bobby breakfast and they will drive him to prison on a full stomach, while Arlene has even put up some bail money. It is a compassionate response but it seems to come from a place of shared chaos: as if they are all in the same boat even if happens to be Bobby who has gone overboard.
What comes through in the story is Bobby's recklessness, but perhaps too Arlene's and Russ's. "Arlene and I had been together almost a year. she had divorced Bobby long before and had gone back to school and gotten real estate training and bought the house we lived in, then quit that and taught high school a year, and finally quit that and just went to work in a bar in town, which is where I came upon her." Notice the use of this phrasal verb. He didn't meet her, he came upon her, suggesting perhaps that she wasn't in the best of places and neither was he. There they are meeting in a bar that he was drinking in and that she was working in, after she quits other more illustrious professions. Quit after all is a strong verb, much stronger than if the narrator said she left. We also find out that the house Arlene and Russ shares isn't up too much, "shabby and white. At one time Arlene's house had been a jewellery store, and there was a back security camera above the kitchen door, though it wasn't connected now." Russ also has a daughter, of course, living with Russ and Arlene, suggesting a broken marriage on his part too, since Arlene and Russ haven't been together very long at all. But it seems the chaos of these lives goes further back. Bobby talks about phoning his late mother, saying he used to ring her and "and it took her a long time to get out of bed. And I used to wait and wait and wait while it rang. And sometimes I knew she wouldn't answer it because she couldn't get up. Right?" Maybe she was dead, right?" We have no idea when she died or what she died of, why if she was so ill she wasn't in hospital, or whether the death may have been drink or drugs related. We don't know whether she lived relatively nearby or in another State altogether.
We find in this very fine story that not only does Ford keep the locale vague but also the nature of the characters' lives a little vague too, as Ford adds dialogue that can be cryptic as well. After talking about Bobby's mother's death, Russ says "it's what you think now...but then was different." "There's a familiar story" Bobby replies. "It's everybody's story," Russ says "the then and now story." Bobby responds: "we're just short of paradise aren't we, Russell?" This is a man to man talk with the child inside of Bobby about to come out and Russ probably well aware that his own isn't too far away. Bobby's eyes well-up and though Russ doesn't move to touch him he thinks maybe he should have. There are no simple people in the story if for no better reason than there are no simple situations. A life, however apparently straightforward the person living it might appear to be, accumulates complexity - the "here and now" story.
Was this why Ford was so dismayed by the Trump presidency? This wouldn't just be the liberal-minded man of literature disappointed that he got it wrong and fretful over what will come, but even more the writer who would feel he ought to know these people just a little, since might Bobby, Arlene and Russ have voted for a president who promised to sort their lives out, aware that they weren't doing a great job of sorting out their own? When we read 'Sweethearts' back to back with 'Pretty Boy' we might believe that Ford didn't need to understand a people to write the latter, he simply needed to understand a figure a little like himself, an American abroad looking for a bit of excitement and experience, aware that there are things he isn't likely to fully understand. But 'Sweethearts' reads like a piece of rustbelt fiction - the sort of terrain Raymond Carver explored so very well, and others like Andre Dubus, Jayne Anne Phillips and Bobbie Ann Mason have also enquired into.
It is a fiction about those left behind by industrial developments or places that never quite got the attention of urban centres. When the New Republic leads with a headline saying, in 2019, "is Trump DOA in the rustbelt" it is a warning indeed. While Ford might be far away from Trump in his politics he wishes to understand the demographic just as shrewdly. A writer can get by creating work that is close to their own lives and it needn't be any better or worse than a writer who sees the importance of delineating the lives of a people. Indeed, one of Ford's most successful books (and where Frank Buscombe is first introduced), The Sportswriter, is a lot closer to Ford's own existence than a story like 'Sweethearts'. Who reading this passage from the former might not wonder how close it might be to Ford's own at a certain moment in his life? "One thing certain is that I had somehow lost my sense of anticipation at age twenty-five. Anticipation in the sweet pain to know whatever's next - a must for any real writer." (The Sportswriter) The problems start when that instinct for the latter fails, when the writer feels as Ford believes that they shouldn't discover, they should create, and wonders whether the inquiry into lives unlike their own has outstripped their creative capacity. If Ford reckons creativity as he couches it comes out of empathy and understanding, what happens if the people you have generally shown feeling for and a comprehension of, happen to belong no longer to a dispossessed working class - one aware of its dispossessed status yet which might still be capable of unionised political action - and affiliates itself instead with a xenophobic neo-liberalism? A new approach to character and situation might seem required. Your characters are no longer people who feel that life has just happened to them as the writer seeks to examine the nature of that series of events, but characters who falsely believe that they are in control of their own destinies. In a story like 'Sweethearts', Ford shows with a careful mix of sub-text and elliptical information that sense of deflation and hopelessness. The techniques required for false optimism and buoyant jingoism are quite different. The former moves towards litotes and sympathy; the latter towards hyperbole and irony. 'Sweethearts' isn't only a very fine story because Ford is a good writer, but also because there is a quality in the people that he can draw out which registers an America which is complex and that the people themselves are complicated. There is no sense in the story that our narrator is assured in his position either as a citizen, a lover or a narrator, never more evident than when Russ sees Bobby's jaws tightening as he tells Arlene that "I just oughta slap you" while his daughter is naked in the dark, sprinkling food into the aquarium as Russ sees her through the open bedroom door. In Paris Review, Ford describes how sometimes he starts with what he thinks will happen in a given scene and then finds that his characters deviate from it. Ford wonders whether this makes such people irresolute, but he also says that if he isn't sure if people have characters "I certainly think they have histories. And based on them we purport to have characters." But if we take histories to mean not just one's basic biography but also a broader socio-political positioning, how does a writer adapt to a very different time or must they accept they are writers of a particular era, and thus a particular history and character?
These are bigger questions than we can readily answer but let us return to 'Communist'. Ford doesn't focus as we might expect on the titular character's political affiliations positively but negatively: he seems according to the narrator looking back someone who might have worked for the CIA and didn't like what he saw. Glen says that he wanted to go to Russia, reckoning that "Russians treated Americans who came to live there like kings." Glen goes on to say there were many Communists in Montana but they were in danger all the time and you needed to protect yourself. Ford presents Glen less as a figure of political transformation than one of paranoia and anger, and so we could conclude that Ford might be able to examine the contemporary working class that has swung to the right, just as Glen had swung to the left, from the perspective of a misguided, even selfish, disillusionment. It is clearly a question Ford felt he needed to address when Trump was elected. "...How to honour the other chap's point of view, be empathic and all, and allow that you might be wrong about what's generally good for him, without rendering yourself toothless and civilly flaccid" as he also says "too little empathy is bad news if you're a novelist." (Guardian) Yet how to empathise with those you fundamentally disagree with, people you see as idiotic for voting in someone you believe is a moron? If Ford's success partly resides on rust belt America, on being one of the dirty realists as Bill Buford coined his generation back in the early Eighties in Granta magazine, then what do you do when that reality changes and the people who you previously defended have now become so obviously on the opposite side of the political divide? Our question is bigger than one that Ford should be expected to answer, even if it is Ford who has allowed us to instigate it. But looking at 'Communist' and especially 'Sweethearts' we might see that character gets absorbed into history, into seeing that a writer might need slightly different tools at their disposal to understand a people as the people might seem to have changed. We've noted Ford is suspicious of the idea of character, saying too that "I don't believe in a toehold Greek sense of character a core, a permanent moral essence that we are all supposed to contain or display or enact."(Michigan Quarterly Review) If we think again of 'Communist' we might see in its narrative chasm (between the sixteen year old protagonist and the forty one year old narrator who happens to be the same person) a technique that might usefully be capable of exploring the tensions of Trump's America, seeing in a character who narrates in the present a past self who becomes more apparent than the ostensible narrator whose socio-political position has changed but where we might see what has been lost in that shift.
© Tony McKibbin