Showing posts with label Richard Ford. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Ford. Show all posts

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Solitary Journey

Last week my long-time college friend, Bruce, wrote “My brother died this morning.  I tell you because you are my oldest friend, and also, because I sat down just now in front of our fireplace with the logs burning and read On Growing Old and remembered that we memorized that poem together.”

My first thought was of Camus’s novel L’Étranger which I read in French in school (alas, no longer have any ability in that beautiful language). But those haunting first words sprang to mind: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”  There is finality about it.  This is part of life.

I also remember memorizing John Masefield’s great poem On Growing Old with Bruce.  We were romantics back then and Masefield wrote so poignantly about what we thought was the unthinkable in our youth.  I wrote something about that experience on my 70th birthday which is now more than a half decade ago. 

I bring this up because last Saturday night I had to go to the local hospital ER.  I had been on antibiotics and Prednisone for a bronchial infection and late Sat. night I could hardly breathe, persistent uncontrollable cough in the chest in spite of all my medications.   Pulmonary Embolism?  Congestive Heart Failure?  That was the motivation to go.

My wonderful wife, Ann, was with me every step of the way but eventually, when they get you in that ER bed, everything is out of your control and even trying to explain my complicated health history seems of little interest except for recent medications. 

She was exhausted by midnight and as our home is five minutes from the hospital, I asked her to go.  And so, alone.  Then I was sent off for tests, x-rays, CAT scan, blood tests, finally being admitted to a room at 3.00 AM.  Indeed, a solitary journey.

Hospital life: constant interruptions, no rest with nurses and Doctors (most of whom I don’t know) popping in unexpectedly at all times.  Nighttime is the worst.  TV is useless of course so I brought one book in particular that turned out to “save” me.  It calmly and poetically put living (and dying) in perspective.

It is a recent book by one of my favorite writers, Richard Ford.  I wish I was writing this blog when his earlier Frank Bascombe novels were published, but I covered his last, Let Me Be Frank With You,which is actually a collection of novellas.  As I said in that entry: “I feel I know this person as I knew Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.  Frank is four years younger than I and Rabbit ten years older.  But the times recounted by these characters are of my era.  No wonder I’m so familiar with the landscapes of their lives.” 

I also loved his last novel, Canada, which was not from the Bascombe line, but Ford’s voice is unwavering.  I thought it one of the best novels of the year.

His latest work is essentially a memoir Between Them; Remembering My Parents.  It was particularly affecting reading it in my hospital stupor and I felt that Ford drew me away from the illness into the very private lives of two ordinary people, who did the best they could, swept along by the rivers of time and chance.  Edna and Parker marrying early in life, both from the deep south, building their lives as a partnership, accustomed to living on the road together as he was a salesman, even successfully surviving the depression.  It was just the two of them until later in life (in their 30s) along came their only child, Richard Ford.  The title of the book is particularly revealing.  It was in effect a life separately lived by the parents, and then Richard coming between them.  It changed the formula and as life dishes out the unexpected, so we make our adjustments.

Parker, Richard, and Edna
For Richard, this meant having a part-time Dad, who, even when he was in Richard’s life, wasn’t particularly interactive with him.  Neither was my father, who I loved dearly, and although he returned from work each night, he lived in a marriage which was essentially unhappy.  At the end of this entry I am pasting the brief essay I wrote about my own father.

What stunned me about Richard Ford’s sparse lapidary memoir is he poses as many questions about the multitude of blanks, things he could not even conjecture at, regarding his parent’s relationship.  Here he shines as a creative writer, while this blog, which is fundamentally an ongoing memoir, is the work of an essayist.  Ford engages the reader to think about those blanks as well, whereas I’ve tried to define some, probably woefully incorrectly.  Memory is so faulty, so fungible.

My mother carried most of the fury of my parent’s marriage.   My father was the “beaten” one emotionally. One neatly fed into the other.  But Ford’s memoir, reading it while I lay vulnerable in my hospital bed, reminded me there was another side to her.  The loving one.  Memories swelled, one’s I’ve forgotten. 

Silly ones, like the time we were driving back from my cousin’s house in New Hyde Park to our home in Queens one late Sunday night and my mother and I asked my father to stop at a drug store as we both were dying of thirst.  We jumped out of the car and in the paperback rack I saw one of the then best-selling books, Don't Go Near the Water, a 1956 novel by William Brinkley.  I showed my mother the cover as we were asking for water and we began to laugh so uncontrollably that those in the drug store probably thought we were wacky.  Funny how a memory like that, unlocked for years, could be unleashed in a hospital bed in the middle of the night while reading about someone else’s parents. 

In Ford’s skillful hands, the very ordinariness of these two forgotten people, his parents, is elevated to a kind of tribute to the human condition: the solitary journey we’re all on.

Some other writer’s memoirs emphasize how they developed as writers, influenced by parents, particularly mothers.  Ironically, I read the late Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life after emerging from open heart surgery now seven years ago.  His mother used to read him Gone With The Wind, instilling a love of reading.

I had no such mentoring and apparently neither did Richard Ford, although Ford supplies a teaser on that subject.  One day the young Richard and his mother were shopping at the “Jitney Jungle grocery,” and his mother asked him to look at a woman in the store.  Richard looked and saw “someone I didn’t know – tall and smiling, chatting with people, laughing." His mother said, "‘That's Eudora Welty. She's a writer,’ which was information that meant nothing to me, except that it meant something to my mother, who sometimes read bestsellers in bed at night. I don't know if she had ever read something Eudora Welty wrote. I don't know if the woman was Eudora Welty, or was someone else. My mother may have wanted it to be Eudora Welty for reasons of her own. Possibly this event could seem significant now, in view of my life to come. But it didn't, then. I was only eight or nine. To me, it was just another piece in a life of pieces.”

In Ford’s Acknowledgements at the end of the book he gives thanks (among others) “to the incomparable Eudora Welty, who in writing so affectingly about parents, have provided models for me and made writing seem both feasible and possibly useful.”  So there is an arc there, from that vague memory of being with his mother to becoming a writer.  Although in the Afterward he says something that Updike might have said as well about writing: “Mine has been a life of noticing and being a witness.  Most writers’ lives are.”

Unfortunately for me, I did not come from a reading family.  My father read Reader’s Digest Condensed books.  I can’t remember my mother reading anything but magazines.  But Ford and I share the fact we were poor students in high school.  He refers to a disability.  I had several, one an emotional one coming from a troubled family, feeling shame, and I was a small kid, trying to make up for it by excelling in baseball, and even basketball to a degree, anything to fit in.  But I also think I had a form of dyslexia.  My mother interpreted my disability as the need for speech therapy, which was also embarrassing as the speech therapist worked at the high school and I was still in elementary school, and had to walk through the halls with the high school kids, standing out as any young kid would.  I hated it.

And that of course was not the only problem.  My spelling was atrocious.  And as I said although my parents generally did not read to me as a kid, I do remember one that was read.  I loved to look at the pictures.  It was probably their sense of well-intended therapy: Boo Who Used to be Scared of the Dark.  I had reason.

In school I read only what was assigned and it wasn’t until I came under the influence of two great teachers in my life while a senior in high school that I discovered the joys of reading.   After publishing thousands of books in my publishing career, I guess I learned to compensate, word processing being a good crutch for poor spelling. 

Ford does not deal with the leap from his hardship in high school to his days at Michigan State to writer.  Not appropriate in this work as it is about THEM and less about HIM.  And there is yet another ironic thing we had in common.  He first thought of going into Hotel Management.  It is no wonder; his parents frequently took him on his father’s road trips, living in hotels all over the Deep South.  No such explanation for me other than Kent State had such a program and I vaguely thought of that as an escape route from my family (this plan did not work out thankfully).  I was flotsam in the tide of life.

Between Them is really two separate works, one about his mother which he wrote soon after she died, and the other about his father, which he recently wrote.  But you wouldn’t know it, as it flows with such continuity.  His prose is breathtaking.  Here is one paragraph that was particularly affecting (to me), about his father:

“But hardly an hour goes by on any day that I do not think something about my father. Much of these things I've written here. Some men have their fathers all their lives, grow up and become men within their fathers' orbit and sight. My father did not experience this. And I can imagine such a life, but only imagine it. The novelist Michael Ondaatje wrote about his father that ‘... my loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult.’ Mine is the same - and also different - inasmuch as had my father lived beyond his appointed time, I would likely never have written anything, so extensive would his influence over me have soon become. And while not to have written anything would be a bearable loss - we must all make the most of the lives we find - there would, however, not now be this slender record of my father, of his otherwise invisible joys and travails and of his virtue - qualities that merit notice in us all. For his son, not to have left this record would be a sad loss indeed.”

Yes, a sad loss, especially from such an exceptional writer, Richard Ford.  The book was a gift from my wife for my birthday and the coincidence of it landing in my hands while in the hospital, helped deal with the travails of my setback, and even more so with the ultimate philosophical question I’ve quoted many times before by Eugene Ionesco: “why was I born if it wasn’t forever?”   

I got to know two perfect strangers, now memorialized, and appreciate Ford’s writing even more.  I will always look forward to his next work 

As to my own brief essay about my father, I reprint it below as an appendage.  

An Unspoken Obligation

Up Park Avenue we speed to beat the lights from lower Manhattan in the small Ford station wagon with Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866, 100 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY imprinted on its panels. The Queens Midtown Tunnel awaits us.

It is a summer in the late 1950s and, once again, I’m working for my father after another high school year. In the back of the wagon I share a small space with props, flood lamps, and background curtains. The hot, midtown air, washed by exhaust fumes and the smoke from my father’s perpetual burning cigarette, surround me.

Me and my Dad
My father’s brother and partner, my Uncle Phil, occupies the passenger’s seat. They have made this round trip, day-in and day-out since my father returned from WWII. They speak of the city, its problems, the Russians, and politics disagreeing on most matters. Meanwhile I sleepily daydream about where my friends and I will cruise that evening in one of their cars, a 57’ Merc, probably Queens Blvd., winding up at Jahn’s next to the RKO on Lefferts Boulevard.

The family photography business was established right after the Civil War, soon after my great-great grandfather, Carl, emigrated from Cologne, Germany with his brother, settling in New York City.  Their portrait photography business at 142 Bowery flourished in the 19th century.  The 20th century brought a new focus: commercial photography which necessitated moving to a larger studio, better located, at 100 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 15th Street.  There the business remained until the 1980’s, occupying the top floor.

My father took it for granted that I was being groomed for the business, the next generation to carry it on. Uncle Phil was a bachelor and since I was the only one with the name to preserve the tradition, it would naturally fall to me.

This was such an understood, implicit obligation, that nothing of a formal nature such as a college education was needed to foster this direction. Simply, it was my job to learn the business from the bottom up, working first as a messenger on the NY City streets, delivering glossies to clients for salesmen’s samples, or for catalog display at the annual Furniture Show. As a youngster, I roamed NYC by subway and taxi with my deliveries without incident – after all, this was the innocent, placid 50’s.  Eventually, I graduated to photographer’s assistant, adjusting lamp shades under the hot flood lamps so the seams would not show, and, later, as an assistant in the color lab, making prints, dodging negatives of a clients’ tables, lamps, and sofas to minimize any overexposures.

I see my father through the lens of his working life, revealing a personality normally invisible to me. At home he was a more contemplative, private person, crushed by a troubled marriage. My mother expected more, often reminding him of his failures. But strolling down the halls of his photography business he is a transformed person, smiling, extending his hand to a customer, kidding in his usual way. “How’s Geschaft?” he would say.

His office overlooks the reception area and there he, my Uncle, and his two cousins preside over a sandwich and soda delivered from a luncheonette downstairs. I sit, listen, and devour my big greasy burger. They discuss the business among themselves. Osmosis was my mentor.

In spite of the filial duty that prompted me to continue learning the photography business, I inveigled his support to go to college – with the understanding I would major in business. By then I think I knew going to school would be the first step away from the family business, a step, once taken, would not be taken back. The question was how to reveal this to him.

However, as silently was the expectation that I would take over one day, my retreat was equally furtive. We both avoided the topic as I went to college and yet continued to work there during the summers. Once I switched majors from business to the humanities, we both knew the outcome of the change, but still, no discussion. This was territory neither he nor I wanted to visit at the time.

My reasons were instinctively clear to me, in spite of the guilt I often felt. In the studio he was larger than life, the consummate photographer, but he was also provincial in his business thinking. He had bet the future on producing those prints for salesmen, discounting the impact of the developing mass media.  My opinion on the matter would mean little. After all, he was my Dad and I was his kid. So I kept my silence and progressively moved away.

Why he never brought up the subject I will, now, never know, although I suspect he understood I wanted to find my own way in life. Ultimately, I married and found a job in publishing with an office, ironically, only three blocks from his studio. I still occasionally joined him for that greasy burger at his office during those first few years of my publishing career, his greeting me with a smile when I arrived, “so, how’s Geschaft?

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Perfectly Frank

Richard Ford is one of the few authors that’ll I’ll buy any book he writes as soon as it is published in hardcover. I’m particularly fond of the Frank Bascombe novels, Ford’s protagonist from The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land, written in the first person by a “familiar old friend” from New Jersey.  I feel I know this person as I knew Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.  Frank is four years younger than I and Rabbit was ten years older.  But the times recounted by these characters are of my era.  No wonder I’m so familiar with the landscapes of their lives. And it is interesting that both Updike and Ford had declared the end of their Angstrom and Bascombe novels with the completion their trilogies, only to come out with one more, as if the character told the writer he had something else to say.  I certainly thought the Bascombe works had come to an end when he wrote Canada, a fine novel.

But primarily it is Frank’s voice, the way he thinks, that connects with me -- plaintive, sardonic, ironic, perplexed, now somewhat resigned, and with a wry wit. 

The hardcover edition of Let Me Be Frank With You is also a treasure to hold, a three piece binding, nicely designed  including the jacket, printed on an off white stock, with headbands and foot bands, but as with most hardcover editions nowadays, no longer smyth sewn – instead it’s a “perfect bound book” in a hard case.  In my book production days, this would be library-unacceptable, but I suppose we should be grateful that the hardcover book still hangs on, pre-digital-historical relic though it may be.

I confess I ordered this as soon as I heard about it without knowing the details.  It’s by Richard Ford and it’s another Frank Bascombe book.  That’s all I needed to know.  It turned out not be a novel but instead four lengthy short stories, loosely held together by Hurricane Sandy and the theme of aging. 

The leitmotiv of the Hurricane is actually central to the first story, “I’m Here.” At the request of an old real estate client, Arne Urguhart (Frank became a real estate agent after he was a sportswriter and an aspiring novelist), he goes to the Jersey shore to see what’s left of the house he sold Arne, actually the house that Frank lived in with his ex-wife Ann. 

In the second story, “Everything Could Be Worse,” he is visited in his present home in Haddam, the town where Frank began his journey in the The Sportswriter, by a Mrs. Pines, who has become displaced by the Hurricane, and injured as well, a cast on her arm, and has an unexpected urge to see the home in which she grew up and in which a terrible crime was committed.  Frank invites her to tour the house and her story unfolds.

From there we segue to “The New Normal” where Frank goes to visit his ex-wife who is now a resident of a high-end retirement community, with progressively deteriorating Parkinson’s disease, one she even blames on the Hurricane as a “super-real change agent.  It was in the air. 

The concluding story says much about the underlying theme of the entire collection, “Death of Others.”  Here he goes to visit a friend who is literally at death’s door, living in a home he’s occupied for scores of years, being attended to by hospice.  Frank was once his neighbor.  The dying man, Eddie Medley, makes a startling confession to Frank. The Hurricane in this story hangs in the background on Eddie’s silent TV, a program surveying the damage.

I was prepared to be disappointed by this book as it is not another FB novel.  Independence Day, the second FB novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is probably his best.  Just the opening sentence of that one expresses his love of the geographic territory: In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems.  In his new short story collection, such a sentence would seem to be impossible.  Why?  Because FB has aged.  He sees life and Haddam differently now.

So, while being disappointed that this was not another novel, if one concentrates on “the voice” and the themes, perhaps it actually works better as a number of loosely connected short stories.  I think that genre feels so natural for what Ford has to say.  What Frank says about “love” could be said about his life — Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.  And so these stories represent single acts, making up Frank as he enters old age.

When you grow old, as I am, you pretty much live in the accumulations of life anyway.  Not that much is happening, except on the medical front.  Better to strip things down.  And where better to start stripping than the words we choose to express our increasingly rare, increasingly vagrant thoughts.

It's not true that as you get older things slide away like molasses off a table top. What is true is I don't remember some things that well, owing to the fact that I don't care all that much. I now wear a cheap Swatch watch, but I do sometimes lose the handle on the day of the month, especially near the end and the beginning, when I get off-track about "thirty days hath September ... " This, I believe, is normal and doesn't worry me. It's not as if I put my trousers on backwards every morning, tie my shoelaces together, and can't find my way to the mailbox.

And I was also amused by Frank’s description of the dangers of falling as a senior citizen.  I’ve been warned as well because one of my so-called “necessary” medications has the side effect of thinning bones. They even wanted to give me other medication to combat those side effects, but that one has its own likely side effects (I refused). Pick your poison I’m told, although as one doctor empathetically told me, “it’s not your bones that’s gonna get you, it’s something else.”  I could not have said it any better than Frank, though, and reading this book should be required as one enters the final stage of one’s life.  As Bette Davis said, “growing old is not for sissies.”

Here’s Frank’s take on it: I'm also concerned about stepping on a nail, myself And because of something Sally said, I feel a need to more consciously pick my feet up when I walk-"the gramps shuffle" being the unmaskable, final-journey approach signal. It'll also keep me from falling down and busting my ass. What is it about falling? "He died of a fall." "The poor thing never recovered after his fall." "He broke his hip in a fall and was never the same." "Death came relatively quickly after a fall in the back yard." How fucking far do these people fall? Off of buildings? Over spuming cataracts? Down manholes? Is it farther to the ground than it used to be? In years gone by I'd fall on the ice, hop back up, and never think a thought. Now it's a death sentence. What Sally said to me was "Be careful when you go down those front steps, sweetheart. The surface isn't regular, so pick your feet up." Why am I now a walking accident waiting to happen? Why am I more worried about that than whether there's an afterlife?

He somewhat reluctantly, but obligingly, goes once a month to visit his ex-wife (his present wife, Sally, is fine with this) Ann who now lives in cutting edge senior care center, one in which there is progressive health care, right to the grave. At Ann’s new home, Carnage Hill (love the name of the place), being sick to death is like a passage on a cruise ship where you’re up on the captain’s deck, eating with him and possibly Engelbert Humperdinck, and no one’s getting Legionnaires’ or being cross about anything.  And you never set sail or arrive anywhere, so there’re no bad surprises or disappointments about the ports of call being shabby and alienating.  There aren’t any ports of call. This is it.

Ann get’s under Frank’s skin. And she has a knack of getting me under her magnifying glass for the sun to bake me a while before I can exit back home to second-marriage deniability.

He handles his visits by displaying his “default self.” The Default Self, my answer to all her true-thing issues, is an expedient that comes along with nothing more than being sixty-eight - the Default Period of life. Being an essentialist, Ann believes we all have selves, characters we can't do anything about (but lie). Old Emerson believed the same. " ... A man should give us a sense of mass ... ," etc. My mass has simply been deemed deficient. But I believe nothing of the sort. Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts. In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do. Plus, whatever we think about all of that. But nothing else - nothing hard or kernel-like. I've never seen evidence of anything resembling it. In fact I've seen the opposite: life as teeming and befuddling, followed by the end.

His move back to Haddam -- where he originally began as a sportswriter aka aspiring novelist – gives him both a sense of place and an opportunity to express his sense of change.   Wallace Stevens commented “we have lived too shallowly in too many places.”  Not Frank Bascombe. 

Our move to Haddam, a return to streets, housing stocks and turbid memories I thought I'd forever parted with, was like many decisions people my age make: conservative, reflexive, unadventurous, and comfort-hungry - all posing as their opposite: novel, spirited, enlightened, a stride into the mystery of life, a bold move only a reckless few would ever chance. As if I'd decided to move to Nairobi and open a Gino's. Sadly, we only know well what we've already done.

Indeed, neighborhoods change and new neighbors are remote….  

In the eight years since Sally and I arrived back from Sea Clift, we haven't much become acquainted with our neighbors. Very little gabbing over the fence to share a humorous "W" story. Few if any spontaneous invitations in for a Heineken. No Super Bowl parties, potlucks, or housewarmings. Next door might be a Manhattan Project pioneer, Tolstoy's grand-daughter, or John Wayne Gacy. But you'd hardly know it, and no one seems interested. Neighbors are another vestige of a bygone time. All of which I'm fine with”

Code variances have led to such unpredictable changes, especially for Frank’s neighborhood which has been recodified as a “mixed use” neighborhood, the end of life as we know it.  Though my bet is I’ll be in my resting place before that bad day dawns.  If there’s a spirit of one-ness in my b. ’45 generation, it’s that we all plan to be dead before the big shit train finds the station…..How these occurrences foretell changes that’ll eventuate in a Vietnamese massage becoming my new neighbor is far from clear.  But it happens – like tectonic plates, whose movement you don’t feel ‘til it’s the big one and your QOL goes away in an afternoon.  From my own experience, Amen to that.

The last story seems to tie everything together.  It carries the ironic title of “Death of Others” as if it can’t happen to us, something we all secretly believe, even knowing intellectually it will.  If we didn’t hold on to that fantasy, perhaps we’d go crazy.  In this regard, I envy religious people who actually look forward to the “afterlife.”

In the mornings as he has his breakfast Frank listens to the local call in radio station, a program called Yeah?  What’s It To You?  Most of the discussion lately has been about the “killer storm.” He enjoys listening to his fellow Haddam citizens, their views and personal life evaluations…as nutty as they sometimes are.  For a man in retirement, those brief immersions offer a fairly satisfying substitute to what was once plausible, fully lived life.

He also reads the local obits to honor the deceased, but also quietly to take cognizance of how much any life can actually contain (a lot!), while acknowledging that for any of us a point comes when most of life’s been lived and there’s much less of it than there used to be, and yet what’s there is not to be missed or pissed away in a blur.”

On that radio program he hears the labored voice of Eddie Medley, ex neighbor, and a Michigan Wolverine alumnus as Frank.  An old friend.  A dying friend.  Eddie also leaves a message on Frank’s answering machine.  Something in his voice…frail, but revealing of an inward-tendingness that spoke of pathos and solitude, irreverence and unexpected wonder. More the tryer than I'd first thought, but caked over by illness and time. Even in a depleted state, he seemed to radiate what most modern friendships never do, in spite of all the time we waste on them: the chance that something interesting could be imparted, before-the-curtain-sways-shut-and-all-becomes-darkness. Something about living with just your same ole self all these years, and how enough was really enough. I didn't know anyone else who thought that. Only me. And what's more interesting in the world than being agreed with?

Frank really doesn’t want to see him, a dying man.  He tells him on the phone he’s too busy.  Eddie replies: I’m busy too.  Busy getting dead.  If you want to catch me live, you better get over here.  Maybe you don’t want to.  Maybe you’re that kind of chickenshit.  Pancreatic cancer’s gone to my lungs and belly…It is goddamn efficient.  I’ll say that.  They knew how to make cancer when they made this shit.

At his advancing age Frank has also been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness  Only (in my view) it’s a less-ness that’s as good as anything that happened before – plus it’s a lot easier. 

Although Frank does volunteer work, reading for the blind and welcoming veterans back home, he leaves 60 percent of available hours for the unexpected – a galvanizing call to beneficent action, in this case.  But what I mostly want to do is nothing I don’t want to do.  Nonetheless, as he has the time for the “unexpected” and he goes to see his old friend.

He finally gets to Eddie’s house and is admitted by the hospice worker to the bedroom. Eddie looks like a skeleton, has trouble even talking, breathing, but he is trying to tell him something. Frank bends down to listen ’That’s what I’m here for.’ Not literally true.  Eddie may mistake me for the angel of death, and this moment his last try at coherence.  Death makes of everything in life a dream.  Eddie reveals an old, dark secret, one impacting Frank.  No spoilers here.

The take away of this splendid collection of FB stories is if you are planning to grow old, or if you have already joined our group, this is a primer of what is in store.  But it’s more than the content, it’s the unique voice of Frank Bascombe, and hopefully there will be other such works from Ford in the future.  And remember, there’s something to be said for the good no-nonsense hurricane, to bully life back into perspective.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Richard Ford’s CANADA -- a Classic

Parents.  You trust them and see the world through their eyes.  They make plans and you follow, their logic not being completely clear, but you go along.   Life metes out some choices but the accident of our parents meeting, marrying, and having children hurls us unrelentingly onto a path not of our choosing or, in most instances, not even theirs. Then in turn we make our own choices and in retrospect that is our life.  These inexplicable choices, a form of accidental determinism, are what Richard Ford deals with in Canada, destined to become a classic American novel.

This is a coming of age novel, narrated by the fifteen year old protagonist, Dell Parsons, but it is written by him some fifty years later.  Thus, the voice in the novel is that of a somewhat naïve boy, but written with the knowledge of a mature man, one who we learn towards the end is the teacher of literature in high school. (How Ford walks this fine line is evidence of his writing skills.)

In fact, among the novels he teaches is The Great Gatsby and The Mayor of Casterbridge “that to me seem secretly about my young life.” And, indeed, Canada echoes some of our narrator’s favorites, with a Gatsby like character one of the novel’s centerpieces and Hardy’s sense of place and dark fatalistic themes playing out in Canada as well.

Ford has long been one of my favorite authors, ever since reading Sportswriter and more recently Lay of the Land, both part of the Frank Bascombe trilogy, which also included Independence Day. Canada elevates his work further.

He gets right to the point in the few sentences of the first paragraph and if this isn’t a sufficient “hook” to reel in the reader, then this book isn’t for you: “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed.  Then about the murders, which happened later.  The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed.  Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”

This novel deals with themes about life, choices, and chance, and it is fittingly staged on the sprawling small towns and prairies of Montana and the Province of Saskatchewan in the late 1950’s. There is a sense of isolation and solemnity of an Edward Hopper painting, a heaviness Dell Parsons has to deal with and in his innocence he goes forward, somehow ending up with a life more of his choosing than his less fortunate fraternal twin sister, Berner.

Poor Berner.  Never even likes her name, but that was the one given to her by their father, ironically “Bev” Parsons. He is from Alabama, a fast talker, engaging, and able to turn on the southern charm.  He wanted to be a pilot in the war but was a bombardier, dropping bombs on unknown victims.  Dell thinks that it was his father’s charm that attracted his mother to him and she had “unluckily gotten pregnant from their one hasty encounter after meeting at a party honoring returning airmen.”  Their mother is Jewish, which complicates where they can live (the south is out of the question).  Her name is Neeva Kamper, and she is as different from Bev as she could be: “His optimism, her alienated skepticism.  His southernness, her immigrant Jewishness.  His lack of education, her preoccupation with it and sense of unfulfillment.  When they realized it…they each began to experience a tension and a foreboding peculiar to each of them and not shared by the other.”

After the Air Force Bev sells new and, then, used cars, while Neeva teachers 5th grade school, they having finally settled down in Great Falls, Montana (where people didn’t even know what a Jew was).  But Bev is a schemer and wants more and finds ways to make money selling stolen beef he acquires from local Indians, but this leads to a debt and he needs much more money, fast, the Indians threatening him and his family.  He had always fantasized about robbing a bank, thinking his fast talking ability would enable him to do so smoothly, without much risk, and as long as he robbed less than $10K, the government would pay the price and depositors wouldn’t, and he wouldn’t hurt anyone, so why not?  His son could drive the getaway car. he thought.  Neeva steps in to protect Dell and the inexorable fulcrum of the novel is set in motion.

Neeva has plans to use some of the money to go to her parents in Seattle with her children, leaving Bev.  But she also has a contingency plan for the kids if they are caught – a friend has a brother, a very bright man, one who had once attended Harvard, but now lived in Saskatchewan where he owns a hotel, and this friend, Mildred, agrees to drive Berner and Dell there so they would not wind up in an orphanage.  The parents are apprehended, but Berner flees to join a boyfriend, and Dell is left alone to accompany Mildred.  Where they were going is unknown to him until they practically cross the Canadian border.

During the drive, Mildred offers advice to Dell: “’Don’t spend time thinking old gloomy….Your life’s going be a lot of exciting ways before you’re dead. So just pay attention to the present.  Don’t rule parts out, and be sure you’ve always got something you don’t mind losing. That’s important…Does that make sense to you?’ She reached across the seat and knocked her soft fist against my knee the way you’d knock on a door. ‘Does it? Knock, knock?’ ‘I guess it does,’ I said.  Thought it didn’t really seem to matter what I agreed with.  That was the final time Mildred and I talked about my future.”

 He is the perpetual optimist, and learns to adjust. One of his interests is chess, always carrying chess magazines and his chess pieces, hoping to find a game, but ending up playing against himself. His philosophy is expressed as the novel ends its “American segment,” Dell thinking, “It’s odd, though, what makes you think about the truth.  It’s so rarely involved in the events of your life.  I quit thinking about the truth for a time then.  Its finer points seemed impossible to find among the facts.  If there was a hidden design, living almost never shed light on it.  Much easier to think about chess – the true character of the men always staying the way they were intended, a higher power moving everything around.  I wondered, for just that moment, if we – Berner and I – were like that: small, fixed figures being ordered around by forces greater than ourselves.  I decided we weren’t.  Whether we liked it or even knew it, we were accountable only to ourselves now, not to some greater design.  If our characters were truly fixed, they would have to be revealed later.”

While Hardy’s characters always seem to come to crossroads, ones that inevitably lead to their downfall and most of the main characters in Canada seem to suffer the same negative fate, Dell’s trusting, and childlike-innocence ironically enables him to escape similar misfortune.

His greatest challenge is dealing with the Gatsby-like character, the person to whom he has been abandoned, Mildred’s brother, the mysterious Arthur Remlinger.  (“He was tall and handsome and had fine blond hair parted carefully on the right side…Mildred had said he was thirty-eight but his face was a young man’s handsome face.  At the same time he seemed older, given how he was dressed.  He wasn’t consistent, the way I was used to people being.”) Dell had fantasized that he would befriend Remlinger, perhaps play chess with him, learn from him, but he rarely sees him and is assigned to a strange young scoundrel named Charley Quarters  (a character straight out of Dickens) who works for Remlinger and serves as a guide to “Sports,” men who visit the Remlinger’s hotel to hunt geese. Charley sets up decoys and cleans the dead geese and this is the trade Dell learns for his keep.  We find out that Remlinger has something on Charlie, something he could reveal, but Charlie has even more on Remlinger, a dark secret that becomes the denouement of the novel and one in which Remlinger involves Dell.  To Charley’s credit, he reveals that secret to Dell (one that Dell at first finds a way of doubting given his innocence) and warns Dell that he is merely a pawn to Remlinger,

As this terrible secret begins to be played out, Dell is at first caught off guard, thinking “I’d had plenty of time since the day before to route everything through my mind, and observe the things I needed to know, and be satisfied with not knowing all that was true, and to feel that probably not the worst was, and that in all likelihood nothing bad was going to happen….’Our most profound experiences are physical events’ was a saying my father often pronounced when my mother, or when Berner or I, was tortured by something we were worried about.  I always took it as true – although I hadn’t known precisely what it meant.  But it had become part of my sense of being normal to believe that physical events, important ones, that changed lives and the course of destiny, were actually rare and almost never happened.  My parents’ arrest, as terrible as it had been, proved that – in comparison to my life before, where there had been very little physical activity, just waiting and anticipating.  And in spite of believing what my father said about the importance of physical events, I’d come to think that what mattered more (this was my child’s protected belief) was how you felt about things; what you assumed; what you thought and feared and remembered.  That was what life mostly was to me – events that went on in my brain.”  Until Remlinger reveals his true character.

But Dell befriends Remlinger’s paramour Flo, who is an artist (whose style, fittingly, is Hopper’s “Nighthawk” school of painting). “Her arrangement with Arthur Remlinger suited her because he had money and good manners and was handsome, in spite of being private and an American and younger than she was.” Flo arranges for Dell’s ultimate escape to Winnipeg where her son and daughter-in-law live and they would put Dell in high school there.  “She said I should consider becoming a Canadian….This would fix everything.  Canada was better than America, she said, and everyone knows that – except Americans.  Canada had everything America ever had, but no one was made about it.  You could be normal in Canada, and Canada would love to have me.”

Ford’s writing is sparse and compelling and the novel unfolds like a force of nature.  He is finally reunited with his twin sister, but life has dealt her a harsher hand, she being more the pawn than a power piece in her own life. “Her life turned out to be different from mine.  I have had one wife and been a high school teacher and sponsor of chess clubs through my entire working years.  Berner had had at least three husbands and unfortunately seemed able to please herself only on the margins of conventional life.  I lost track of most of it…. [She] was bitter about the ‘substitute life’ she’d led instead of the better one she should’ve led if it had all worked out properly – our parents, etc.  Of course she was right.  I HAD given up a great deal, as Mildred told me I’d need to.  Only I was satisfied about it and about what I’d gotten in return.”

Canada is a haunting work of fine writing; my only regret is that its 400 some pages flew by so quickly.