Richard Ford Dissects the American Male
Every once in a while, some squirrelly critic comes along and compares novelist Richard Ford -- Pulitzer and Pen/Faulkner award-winning author of "Independence Day," its prequel, "The Sportswriter," and most recently, a collection of stories called "Women With Men" -- to Ernest Hemingway. Richard Ford does not like this."It's ridiculous," says Ford, from a Kansas City hotel in the midst of a seven-city book tour to promote the paperback release of "Women With Men." The Jackson, Mississippi, native speaks with a light twang that's raspy, good-natured and authoritative all at once. "Hemingway's view of the world is basically a young adult's view of the world. Those little short sentences, those little conclusions about life, those little deep-felt, uncomplicated emotions, attitudes about the relationships between women and men, are sophomoric."But there are similarities -- the male protagonists forever flogged with women troubles, the unsentimentality of these guys in the face of emotional doom, the decision to set two of "Women With Men's" three stories in Paris É to say nothing of the collection's title as a possible recasting of Hemingway's collection Men Without Women ."If it has anything to do with Hemingway, it's simply coincidental," Ford insists. "You know, Hemingway made such a big impression on the American literary memory that anybody who would dare write a short story or two stories set in Paris would necessarily, to the right person, be comparable to Hemingway. It's just rubbish. Not that I think I've outlived comparisons; they just don't have much to instruct me about."Be that as it may, one gets the feeling that the comparisons are intended as compliments. Ford's prose, while not quite as economic as Papa's, carries the same building revelations of emotional minutiae that most often lead to the Big Events. In 1986's The Sportswriter , he lets the divorced, melancholy but witty Frank Bascombe lay it all out for him: "This is a minor but pernicious lie of literature, that at times like these, after significant or disappointing divulgences, at arrivals or departures of obvious importance, when touchdowns are scored, knockouts recorded, loved ones buried, orgasms notched, that at such times we are any of us altogether in an emotion, that we are within ourselves and not able to detect other emotions we might also be feeling, or be about to feel, or prefer to feel. If it's literature's job to tell the truth about these moments, it usually fails, in my opinion, and it's the writer's fault for falling into such conventions."Taking the liberty that Ford is not merely speaking for his protagonist here, this is a distinctly unromantic position -- and a completely logical one -- to take for a guy whose stories are predominately about love. And it's a position that Ford, 12 years after penning The Sportswriter , still holds: "I, both as a human being and a human being who writes books, deal almost entirely in the particulars. So to stand away from my own efforts at being a writer and apply a literary term like romanticism to it, I don't know how to do it. "Still, those men in Ford's books are frequently shattered -- whether they're willing to admit it or not -- by loves lost or mistaken for something else. But Ford allows in his characters a level of self-awareness and candor that is right on the money -- painstakingly real in how much one can really know oneself and how that knowledge can fall short. In "The Womanizer," Martin Austin leaves everything he knows behind based on an under-informed, increasingly vague hunch that he might be in love with a woman in Paris he barely knows."Austin's basically operating in two moral frames," Ford says. "One is that he thinks that he's a realist, yet [the other is that] his realism is of such a sort that he's completely deluded and that becomes a kind of paralyzing moral division that causes him to be unable to do good. He does bad, basically by not understanding that he is acting on impulses which are impurely understood. He thinks he's in love with somebody, he thinks he terribly attracted to somebody, he thinks a lot of things, he feels a lot of things. None of which really are true."Ford sets the three stories in "Women With Men" in places he knows well: Paris and Montana. (Although he likes to call Chinook, Montana, home, he splits his time between these two and New Orleans, where his wife is director of planning for the city.) Through Ford's eyes, we get a good look at the American at home and abroad in the places he knows best. But unlike a lot of contemporary novelists who ransack their own lives for material, he heartily denies any trace of autobiography in his work."I guess there are some people -- and I have no argument, if that's a mode of invention that they like -- who choose through the agency of language to transform their life into literature," says Ford. "And maybe in the most generic way, everybody does that. But for me, if I thought I was writing autobiographical fiction, I'd be doing it because I lacked the imagination to do something else. For me, the human being's ability to make up another reality -- in this case, language-based -- is proof of the kind of optimism, proof of the virtue, of human endeavor."