In these ten stories, Ford mines literary gold from the wind-scrubbed landscape of the American West - and from the guarded hopes and gnawing loneliness of the people who live there. A refugee from justice driving across Wyoming with his daughter; an unhappy girlfriend and a stolen Mercedes; a boy watching his family dissolve in a night of tragicomic violence; two men and a woman swapping hard-luck stories in a frontier bar as they try to sweeten their luck. Rock Springs is a masterpiece of taut narration, cleanly chiselled prose, and empathy so generous that it feels like a kind of grace.
I was sitting in my bathtub when I read the opening chapter of "Jaws." (No kidding!)
I was sitting in the back row of my senior high English honors class, teetering on that border 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 "Rock Springs," a collection of 10 short stories by Richard Ford nearly 15 years ago, I was standing in the Public Library of Livingston, Montana. I’d come to the 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. 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 harsh 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 take me out of my struggling, lower-middle-class life.
Little did I know I was a character straight out of Ford’s stories.
I can remember standing there in that library in Livingston, opening this collection of 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." The hairs on the backs of my hands rustled.
Indeed, Richard Ford (whom I’d never even heard of prior to that night in that library) does know all about me—and, I’d venture to say, a lot about you. Ford has made it his business to delve deep into the mysteries of human behavior. His characters are flawed, occasionally hopeless, but always hopeful. In fact, one of the finest stories in "Rock Springs" is called "Optimists" and it starts like this:
"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."
Ford writes of shattered marriages, distrust between fathers and sons, life’s gamblers on the perpetual losing streak—and all of this set in the bleak, wind-swept plains of Wyoming and Montana (that’s right, not only was Ford writing about me, he’d also set his stories in the very place where I lived at the time!). Characters struggle to come to grips with their situations and, more often than not, end up regretting the paths their lives take.
All of this may sound pretty depressing, but in the hands of a talented prose artist like Ford, the hard realities of life become, somehow, mysteries that shimmer and sparkle. There’s much to think about in these stories, but he manages to slip in the messages with concrete, riveting language that is deceptively simple and unadorned. Here’s another example (this one’s from "Children"): "When you are older, nothing you did when you were young matters at all. I know that now, though I didn’t know it then. We were simply young."
With "Rock Springs," Ford joined the ranks of the great short story writers like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver (who, by the way, was a close friend of Ford’s). He’s written several novels ("The Sportswriter" and "Independence Day" among them), but it’s the shorter form where he really gets the most mileage out of his words. His poignant descriptions of character and place are dead-on accurate. I know; I was one of his characters in that place and time.
It is easy to single out the first three stories in the collection for special mention: “Rock Springs”, “Great Falls”, and “Sweethearts”. Each is riveting. Tales of heartbreak and loss, love and despair, violence and its consequences, as characters skim the surface of survival in the wide, lonely spaces of Montana. The local bar and the highway that heads up toward Canada (an almost mythical otherworld, here) are the only exits, if you don’t count Deer Lodge prison as an exit. The events are simple and simply told, unadorned but ruminating. Like the dirge you might hear at the end of the night at a country dance.
The other thing that makes this collection so enticing is the way that Ford works his seam. The Montana stories aren’t like his Frank Bascombe novels, and they aren’t like his other collections of short stories (so I’m told). But as you read them, you’ll think that they are so pure that they must come directly from his soul. You won’t be able to even imagine him writing any other way. Which, in my book, is high praise indeed. Highly recommended.
Rock Springs: Stories is an interesting collection of tales of middle America and the characters straddling the line between good and evil, love and hate, success and failure. Ford’s prose is simple and straightforward. Most of the characters have a matter-of-fact attitude towards their situation. In the title story, Earl and Edna are driving a stolen car across the country with their daughter Cheryl in the back seat. The car breaks down, and they do worry about a state trooper stopping to help – but only for a minute or two. They want to make it to the next town so they can steal a new car.
I really didn’t have one favorite story – I enjoyed them all equally. However, I did enjoy this exchange between the narrator, Russ, and Arlene, his wife in the story titled “Sweethearts.” “‘What do you think when you get into bed with me every night? I don’t know why I want to know that. I just do’ Arlene said. ‘It seems important to me.’ // And in truth I did not have to think about that at all, because I knew the answer, and had thought about it already, had wondered in fact, if it was in my mind because of the time in my life it was, or because a former husband was involved, or because I had a daughter to raise alone, and no one else I could be absolutely sure of. // ‘I just think,’ I said, ‘here’s another day that’s gone. A day I’ve had with you. And now it’s over.’ // ‘There’s some loss in that, isn’t there?’ Arlene nodded at me and smiled. // ‘I guess so,’ I said. // ‘It’s not so all-bad though, is it? There can be a next day.’ // ‘That’s true,’ I said. // ‘We don’t know where any of this is going, do we?’ she said, and she squeezed my hand tight. // ‘No,’ I said. And I knew that was not a bad thing at all, not for anyone in any life. // ‘You’re not going to leave me for some other woman now, are you? You’re still my sweetheart. I’m not crazy, am I?’ // ‘I never thought that,’ I said.” (67-68).
Other stories involved sons reminiscing about their childhoods, a crotchety old man who finds children playing with fireworks bothersome, and some Native Americans trying to scratch a living in the plains of Montana.
These stories all please on different levels. I found much empathy for the struggles of these “ordinary Americans,” and I wanted them all to get what they wanted. I think you will find – as I did Richard Ford’s 1987 collection of short stories, Rock Springs, a most pleasing companion on a rainy afternoon. 5 stars
"You've got a character that leaves something out, Earl. I've known that a long time."