Rock Springs

26/05/2024

Richard Ford might be best known for his Frank Bascombe books, including The Sportswriter and Independence Day, an expansive series that appears like the opposite of the minimalism evident in his early short stories. This saw Ford associated with Raymond Carver, Tobias Woolf and others known for a spare style But it would be a misjudgement to regard the collection Rock Springs as an apprentice work: the collection came out in 1987, a year after The Sportswriter, even if some of the stories were published, individually, before. 

     It can sometimes seem that the story form is preliminary — that a writer masters it all the better to extend his prose into a longer one. However, perhaps more than any nation, the United States has a long list of writers who didn’t only dabble in the form but insistently mastered it as an end initself. Hemingway’s short fiction, including 'The Killers', 'A Small Well-Lighted Place' and 'Hills Like White Elephants' are amongst his best works, with Julian Barnes saying “his novels are better known than his stories, but it is in the latter that his genius shows fullest, and where his style works best.” (Guardian) Fitzgerald, too, wrote brilliant short stories like The Rich Boy and May Day, while Edgar Allan Poe and Carver are best known for, or only ever wrote shorter fiction. Others like John Cheever and Andre Dubus are best known for shorter works, and Ann Beattie built her reputation on them, and they remain chiefly what defines her oeuvre. 

  But when Tobias Woolf speaks of a Renaissance in the short story during the 70s and 80s, this wasn’t a long-lasting commercial one. As Madison Smartt Bell proposed, “the collapse of the short story "renaissance" as a market phenomenon is analogous to the crash-and-burn of Reaganomics. Within the general economy, publishing plays the role of the canary down the coal mine. Publishing took its nose-dive long before there was any admission of a general recession.” (Mississippi Review) There wasn’t much money to be made from short work, and the renaissance didn’t last. Some, like Ford, could make money writing novels but perhaps literature is distorted by finance; much of the best work may be in the short story form, but most writers don’t get the chance to develop in it as a singular one. The way to make a living as a writer rests on bigger books.

   This is to say two things: one, that to understand American fiction at certain points in its history is to look at its shorter forms rather than its longer ones and to note that one could bypass Ford’s novels and still find a body of work worthy of attention as he became an exemplary minimalist. In 'Communist', 'Sweethearts' and 'Rock Springs', he offers short stories that capture an America in flux without feeling obliged to make them about their historical moment. We know reading them that they couldn’t have been set in an earlier period or another country, and this is hard to define but important to note. Literature proposes that a country is more than the sum of its parts, and no matter how many distinguishing features you offer, the work has placed its specificity elsewhere. Sure, 'Rock Springs' is nominally precise: you can find the place on a map and in the state of Wyoming. There is also a reference to the Vietnam war. We might too assume that Earl is an American name designating the white, working poor, just as in Britain it would be used to describe a person of the aristocracy. It is the name of the story's central character and the story’s geography which could clarify the story as American. Yet it seems still more evident in the sense of the story’s drift and confusion; the stray meetings in the middle of nowhere, the motel settings that give a sense of both freedom and limitation.

   Near the end of this tale about a guy who gets out of fixes by getting himself into bigger ones, his present partner Edna says, “there’s no use in my getting mad at you about it. It isn’t your fault. You do the best you can for everybody. But every trip teaches you something. And I’ve learned I need to give up on motels before some bad things happen to me.” A lot of bad things have happened to both Earl and Edna: he has been in jail, and she has lost her kids, even if she seems to couch the loss as a gain: she worries her ex will force her to take the kids back, though she’s “made a good adjustment to not having them.” Does this mean she is coping as best she can or having a good time without them? It seems more the latter since she sees being with Earl as a big adventure, and doesn’t have much of an attachment to Cheryl, Earl’s daughter. Even if “Edna was usually good with Cheryl” it seems she has had more than enough of Earl and says “I’m tired of this. I wish I’d stayed in Montana.”

     Obviously in other countries, people leave marriages, even leave children. People move from one part of the country to the other, but perhaps these feel very American notions as drift because of four things: the geographic, the mythical, the political and the ideological. The USA is 2,892 miles wide, and 1,100 miles long, with plenty of opportunities for change without leaving the country. It is also part of the mythical consciousness, the manifest destiny that led people to seek new opportunities by traversing it and conquering new territory. As John L. O’Sullivan said, what mattered was:”…the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.” (Encyclopedia Brittanica) Politically, the US’s federal system allows people to move from state to state with different laws and expectations: when Earl speaks of the bad checks he has been cashing and notes that in Montana this is a prison crime, elsewhere it wouldn’t be. When Earl says after their stolen car breaks down that things could be a lot worse, Edna says: "yes, things could always be worse. …You could go the electric chair tomorrow.” He could in Wyoming, where they now are, or in Montana, where they have come from, and too in Florida, where they intend to conclude their journey, but not in other States they might pass through, like Colorado. Ideologically, Americans believe in their capacity for success. According to a Harris Poll in 2022, “some 44% of U.S. adults believe they have the available tools to become billionaires.” (CNBC) Earl would probably share that type of optimism, though Edna is beginning to doubt his chances. “You don’t think right, did you know that, Earl? You think the world’s stupid and your smart. But that’s not how it is. I feel sorry for you. You might’ve been something, but things just went crazy someplace.” 

   All these aspects can give to the story the sense of it being American, without quite saying its tone, plot and characters couldn’t be imagined elsewhere. It is the specificity that allowed Ford to become a successful writer, according to Geoff Dyer, while his earlier novels were vague. “swamped by low-lit contrivances, by loading the banal with a freight of ‘hard emptinesses’.” (LRB) Dyer adds, “Ford had always been a writer with a message, in the sense that there was always a mood, a resolution, his fiction was drawn towards; he wanted to put over a generalised sense of the way things tended. But he had done this through people (like the hero of Bascombe’s unfinished novel [in The Sportswriter) on the edge of things.” (LRB) The Frank Bascombe novels rested on putting a middle-class man at its centre, while some of his best stories have put a working- class man on the periphery. Earl is such a character, and also the central character's mother’s lover in Communist, and the ex-boyfriend in Sweethearts. We sense all of them, and the people around them could drift.

    Again, people can drift anywhere, but it was as though in the story collection Rock Springs, and the title story as much as in any, Ford found in the minimalism that was the abiding American literary form in the seventies and early eighties (Carver, Dubus, Wolff, Mason Phillips and others) its perfect encapsulation in the short story, where characters will usually be found in temporary states. In traditional short stories, this will be a moment of amplification: a divorce, a death, a sports victory, a bank robbery. The event will be exceptional and this is why the writer chooses to make it the story we happen to be reading. But in Ford and others’ work this realism in minimalist fiction had to eschew bigger events, "since no rendering of everydayness and quotidian existence would be authentic if it were full of intensified dramatic events", Zoltan Abadi-Nagy says. "Thus when studying what is happening to the plot in minimalism, we are dealing with a technique which is, again, minimalistic, i.e. basically reductive. Instead of presenting the crucial dramatic moments, minimalism is interested in human fates that are unmistakably decided or in motion in hidden, invisible ways, or flounder in indeterminacy.” ('Plot Versus Secondary Narrative Structure in Contemporary Minimalist Fiction') Think of all the stories in 'Rock Springs' that could have been dramatised: Earl’s time in prison, Edna losing her kids, the ex-husband breaking into her place. Instead, it is about a car breaking down and Earl and Edna stuck in a small town in Wyoming. It isn’t so much that there is a story to tell but within it stories that get told.

  One is Edna saying how she once had a monkey. When she heard it had more strength in its fingers than she had in her whole body, she tied a clothesline wire to its silver collar and when she woke up the next morning, the monkey was dead. The monkey fell off the chair and hanged herself. The other we hear is when Earl goes looking for a phone after the car has broken down: they need a taxi into the town centre. He ends up in someone’s mobile home and gets talking to the black woman who lets him use hers. She tells him that the little boy he sees has special needs and that she and her husband who work at the nearby gold mine are taking care of the boy. The boy’s dad was killed in Vietnam; the mother ran off without him. 

   If Abadi-Nagy in another essay compares minimalism and post-modernism, saying “the world of minimalist fiction was indeed conceived under the signs of a postmodern zodiac” ('Minimalism versus Post-Modernism in Contemporary American Fiction'), then we can add that minimalism inverts the post-modern by proposing that the proliferation of stories, often central to post-modernism, is evident too in minimalist work, but as dramatically eschewed rather than narratively exaggerated. Cat’s Cradle and The Crying of Lot 49 are post-modern works that hyperbolise story; Carver, Ford, Wolff and other minimalists often bury the story in minutiae and the past. Ford might say:" I want a reader at the beginning of a story to understand that he or she is reading a story. I'm trying to make a clear, almost contractual arrangement with the reader of the story” (The Kenyon Review) but this contract, such as it is, seems to say that the tale will be contained by an acceptance that hardly any story will be told at all, as opposed to post-modern maximalism that says the story is so over the top nobody would be inclined to believe it. It is why Abadi-Nagy can say that "...if there are similarities between post-modern writing and minimalist prose, it rests on the difficulty of believing in grand narratives and general truths:” ('Minimalism versus Post-Modernism in Contemporary American Fiction') it is the postmodernist epistemological skepticism", he says, "latently present in minimalism that leads to the latter’s reduction of the ontological horizon, to cutting out the metaphysical dimension and locking its fictional world into the microcommunal sphere.” Stories will still be told in Ford, Carver and others, yet it's as if everything is on the level of anecdote over narrative, if we distinguish the former from the latter based on the casual intimacy of the telling.

     In this sense, Heart of Darkness would not be an anecdote, it would be a narrative: it contains its own import. When the waitress in Carver’s Fat tells a friend about a large man in her diner, when Edna discusses the monkey in Rock Springs, when Louise tries to speak to her husband about her weight loss in The Fat Girl, or when the narrator tries to explain the importance of a bowl she puts in the houses she tries to sell in Janus, they all have the quality of speaking to a friend or a lover. If post-modern fiction appears to seek the largest of audiences by implication as they exaggerate their narratives, minimalism seeks to explore the intimacy of the negligible. 

        At the end of 'Rock Springs', Ford makes this explicit without quite making the work self-conscious. Earl is out in the motel car park looking for another car to steal, and sees that two rooms have a window light on; one of which is his. Earl wonders what would “you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night, looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn?” "Would you think he is trying to clear his head; getting ready for a day of trouble; would you think his girlfriend is about to leave him; would you believe he had a daughter?" Ford doesn’t say what would someone think but what would you think as he turns the reader into the person potentially looking out of that other motel window. The use of the second person plural can seem like a post-modern device, and is used by Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and Italo Calvino in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, but here in Ford’s story it becomes like a personal query, a sign of confessional desperation more than a prod towards the reader’s knowingness. It gives to the short story an awareness of the reader but it doesn't propose that the reader needs be entertained or amazed. It is as though the short story form, as practised by minimalists at a given time, in the US, wanted to allude constantly to a much greater presence, a greater presence a novel might ruin and that the short story could encapsulate.  

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Rock Springs

Richard Ford might be best known for his Frank Bascombe books, including The Sportswriter and Independence Day, an expansive series that appears like the opposite of the minimalism evident in his early short stories. This saw Ford associated with Raymond Carver, Tobias Woolf and others known for a spare style But it would be a misjudgement to regard the collection Rock Springs as an apprentice work: the collection came out in 1987, a year after The Sportswriter, even if some of the stories were published, individually, before.

It can sometimes seem that the story form is preliminary that a writer masters it all the better to extend his prose into a longer one. However, perhaps more than any nation, the United States has a long list of writers who didn't only dabble in the form but insistently mastered it as an end initself. Hemingway's short fiction, including 'The Killers', 'A Small Well-Lighted Place' and 'Hills Like White Elephants' are amongst his best works, with Julian Barnes saying "his novels are better known than his stories, but it is in the latter that his genius shows fullest, and where his style works best." (Guardian) Fitzgerald, too, wrote brilliant short stories like The Rich Boy and May Day, while Edgar Allan Poe and Carver are best known for, or only ever wrote shorter fiction. Others like John Cheever and Andre Dubus are best known for shorter works, and Ann Beattie built her reputation on them, and they remain chiefly what defines her oeuvre.

But when Tobias Woolf speaks of a Renaissance in the short story during the 70s and 80s, this wasn't a long-lasting commercial one. As Madison Smartt Bell proposed, "the collapse of the short story renaissance as a market phenomenon is analogous to the crash-and-burn of Reaganomics. Within the general economy, publishing plays the role of the canary down the coal mine. Publishing took its nose-dive long before there was any admission of a general recession." (Mississippi Review) There wasn't much money to be made from short work, and the renaissance didn't last. Some, like Ford, could make money writing novels but perhaps literature is distorted by finance; much of the best work may be in the short story form, but most writers don't get the chance to develop in it as a singular one. The way to make a living as a writer rests on bigger books.

This is to say two things: one, that to understand American fiction at certain points in its history is to look at its shorter forms rather than its longer ones and to note that one could bypass Ford's novels and still find a body of work worthy of attention as he became an exemplary minimalist. In 'Communist', 'Sweethearts' and 'Rock Springs', he offers short stories that capture an America in flux without feeling obliged to make them about their historical moment. We know reading them that they couldn't have been set in an earlier period or another country, and this is hard to define but important to note. Literature proposes that a country is more than the sum of its parts, and no matter how many distinguishing features you offer, the work has placed its specificity elsewhere. Sure, 'Rock Springs' is nominally precise: you can find the place on a map and in the state of Wyoming. There is also a reference to the Vietnam war. We might too assume that Earl is an American name designating the white, working poor, just as in Britain it would be used to describe a person of the aristocracy. It is the name of the story's central character and the story's geography which could clarify the story as American. Yet it seems still more evident in the sense of the story's drift and confusion; the stray meetings in the middle of nowhere, the motel settings that give a sense of both freedom and limitation.

Near the end of this tale about a guy who gets out of fixes by getting himself into bigger ones, his present partner Edna says, "there's no use in my getting mad at you about it. It isn't your fault. You do the best you can for everybody. But every trip teaches you something. And I've learned I need to give up on motels before some bad things happen to me." A lot of bad things have happened to both Earl and Edna: he has been in jail, and she has lost her kids, even if she seems to couch the loss as a gain: she worries her ex will force her to take the kids back, though she's "made a good adjustment to not having them." Does this mean she is coping as best she can or having a good time without them? It seems more the latter since she sees being with Earl as a big adventure, and doesn't have much of an attachment to Cheryl, Earl's daughter. Even if "Edna was usually good with Cheryl" it seems she has had more than enough of Earl and says "I'm tired of this. I wish I'd stayed in Montana."

Obviously in other countries, people leave marriages, even leave children. People move from one part of the country to the other, but perhaps these feel very American notions as drift because of four things: the geographic, the mythical, the political and the ideological. The USA is 2,892 miles wide, and 1,100 miles long, with plenty of opportunities for change without leaving the country. It is also part of the mythical consciousness, the manifest destiny that led people to seek new opportunities by traversing it and conquering new territory. As John L. O'Sullivan said, what mattered was:"...the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us." (Encyclopedia Brittanica) Politically, the US's federal system allows people to move from state to state with different laws and expectations: when Earl speaks of the bad checks he has been cashing and notes that in Montana this is a prison crime, elsewhere it wouldn't be. When Earl says after their stolen car breaks down that things could be a lot worse, Edna says: yes, things could always be worse. ...You could go the electric chair tomorrow." He could in Wyoming, where they now are, or in Montana, where they have come from, and too in Florida, where they intend to conclude their journey, but not in other States they might pass through, like Colorado. Ideologically, Americans believe in their capacity for success. According to a Harris Poll in 2022, "some 44% of U.S. adults believe they have the available tools to become billionaires." (CNBC) Earl would probably share that type of optimism, though Edna is beginning to doubt his chances. "You don't think right, did you know that, Earl? You think the world's stupid and your smart. But that's not how it is. I feel sorry for you. You might've been something, but things just went crazy someplace."

All these aspects can give to the story the sense of it being American, without quite saying its tone, plot and characters couldn't be imagined elsewhere. It is the specificity that allowed Ford to become a successful writer, according to Geoff Dyer, while his earlier novels were vague. "swamped by low-lit contrivances, by loading the banal with a freight of 'hard emptinesses'." (LRB) Dyer adds, "Ford had always been a writer with a message, in the sense that there was always a mood, a resolution, his fiction was drawn towards; he wanted to put over a generalised sense of the way things tended. But he had done this through people (like the hero of Bascombe's unfinished novel [in The Sportswriter) on the edge of things." (LRB) The Frank Bascombe novels rested on putting a middle-class man at its centre, while some of his best stories have put a working- class man on the periphery. Earl is such a character, and also the central character's mother's lover in Communist, and the ex-boyfriend in Sweethearts. We sense all of them, and the people around them could drift.

Again, people can drift anywhere, but it was as though in the story collection Rock Springs, and the title story as much as in any, Ford found in the minimalism that was the abiding American literary form in the seventies and early eighties (Carver, Dubus, Wolff, Mason Phillips and others) its perfect encapsulation in the short story, where characters will usually be found in temporary states. In traditional short stories, this will be a moment of amplification: a divorce, a death, a sports victory, a bank robbery. The event will be exceptional and this is why the writer chooses to make it the story we happen to be reading. But in Ford and others' work this realism in minimalist fiction had to eschew bigger events, since no rendering of everydayness and quotidian existence would be authentic if it were full of intensified dramatic events, Zoltan Abadi-Nagy says. Thus when studying what is happening to the plot in minimalism, we are dealing with a technique which is, again, minimalistic, i.e. basically reductive. Instead of presenting the crucial dramatic moments, minimalism is interested in human fates that are unmistakably decided or in motion in hidden, invisible ways, or flounder in indeterminacy." ('Plot Versus Secondary Narrative Structure in Contemporary Minimalist Fiction') Think of all the stories in 'Rock Springs' that could have been dramatised: Earl's time in prison, Edna losing her kids, the ex-husband breaking into her place. Instead, it is about a car breaking down and Earl and Edna stuck in a small town in Wyoming. It isn't so much that there is a story to tell but within it stories that get told.

One is Edna saying how she once had a monkey. When she heard it had more strength in its fingers than she had in her whole body, she tied a clothesline wire to its silver collar and when she woke up the next morning, the monkey was dead. The monkey fell off the chair and hanged herself. The other we hear is when Earl goes looking for a phone after the car has broken down: they need a taxi into the town centre. He ends up in someone's mobile home and gets talking to the black woman who lets him use hers. She tells him that the little boy he sees has special needs and that she and her husband who work at the nearby gold mine are taking care of the boy. The boy's dad was killed in Vietnam; the mother ran off without him.

If Abadi-Nagy in another essay compares minimalism and post-modernism, saying "the world of minimalist fiction was indeed conceived under the signs of a postmodern zodiac" ('Minimalism versus Post-Modernism in Contemporary American Fiction'), then we can add that minimalism inverts the post-modern by proposing that the proliferation of stories, often central to post-modernism, is evident too in minimalist work, but as dramatically eschewed rather than narratively exaggerated. Cat's Cradle and The Crying of Lot 49 are post-modern works that hyperbolise story; Carver, Ford, Wolff and other minimalists often bury the story in minutiae and the past. Ford might say: I want a reader at the beginning of a story to understand that he or she is reading a story. I'm trying to make a clear, almost contractual arrangement with the reader of the story" (The Kenyon Review) but this contract, such as it is, seems to say that the tale will be contained by an acceptance that hardly any story will be told at all, as opposed to post-modern maximalism that says the story is so over the top nobody would be inclined to believe it. It is why Abadi-Nagy can say that ...if there are similarities between post-modern writing and minimalist prose, it rests on the difficulty of believing in grand narratives and general truths:" ('Minimalism versus Post-Modernism in Contemporary American Fiction') it is the postmodernist epistemological skepticism, he says, latently present in minimalism that leads to the latter's reduction of the ontological horizon, to cutting out the metaphysical dimension and locking its fictional world into the microcommunal sphere." Stories will still be told in Ford, Carver and others, yet it's as if everything is on the level of anecdote over narrative, if we distinguish the former from the latter based on the casual intimacy of the telling.

In this sense, Heart of Darkness would not be an anecdote, it would be a narrative: it contains its own import. When the waitress in Carver's Fat tells a friend about a large man in her diner, when Edna discusses the monkey in Rock Springs, when Louise tries to speak to her husband about her weight loss in The Fat Girl, or when the narrator tries to explain the importance of a bowl she puts in the houses she tries to sell in Janus, they all have the quality of speaking to a friend or a lover. If post-modern fiction appears to seek the largest of audiences by implication as they exaggerate their narratives, minimalism seeks to explore the intimacy of the negligible.

At the end of 'Rock Springs', Ford makes this explicit without quite making the work self-conscious. Earl is out in the motel car park looking for another car to steal, and sees that two rooms have a window light on; one of which is his. Earl wonders what would "you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night, looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn?" Would you think he is trying to clear his head; getting ready for a day of trouble; would you think his girlfriend is about to leave him; would you believe he had a daughter? Ford doesn't say what would someone think but what would you think as he turns the reader into the person potentially looking out of that other motel window. The use of the second person plural can seem like a post-modern device, and is used by Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow and Italo Calvino in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller, but here in Ford's story it becomes like a personal query, a sign of confessional desperation more than a prod towards the reader's knowingness. It gives to the short story an awareness of the reader but it doesn't propose that the reader needs be entertained or amazed. It is as though the short story form, as practised by minimalists at a given time, in the US, wanted to allude constantly to a much greater presence, a greater presence a novel might ruin and that the short story could encapsulate.


© Tony McKibbin