Richard Ford sits solemnly in an interview, gesturing his hands this way and that, referencing Raymond Carver, asserting a masculine presence. This presence, in his interviews and in his writing, is directly informed by the presumed “honorable” masculine Western tradition. This tradition is evident in the development of American Western literature over decades, as well as having been represented in our Western film tradition. If you look at John Wayne or Shane dramatically striding across the screen gun-toting with spurs clinging, you’re immediate thought is a “true man,” when in actuality these characters are as full of heightened myth as they are sexual frustration and artificiality. In Rock Springs, Ford’s modern Western characters do little to negate the problems with this Western masculinity; instead, they often prescribe to it, leaping further into its accompanying violence and denial in a postmodern veil.
The narrator of the first and title story of the collection, “Rock Springs,” seems to see through a very backward western lens. With all his problems in Montana, mainly due to his insistence on performing criminal activity, he feels that Florida will bring him and his family greater chances to flourish – as if crime is somehow tolerated more in Florida. Earl, the narrator, at least comes to terms with his relationship to his girlfriend’s son, Danny. “Danny was afraid of me because Edna had told him I’d been in prison in Florida for killing a man, though that wasn’t true. I had once been in jail in Tallahassee for stealing tires and had gotten into a fight on the county farm where a man had lost his eye,” (Ford, 2). Somehow, this doesn’t do much to redeem the character in the eyes of the reader, as it instills the feeling that he would kill if the situation progressed that far, even if he says he wouldn’t.
Earl isn’t the only character to blame. His girlfriend Edna and the seemingly personified presence of the Montana landscape seem to promote a sense of hopelessness that, in turn, promotes violence within Earl. This notion can be carried for many of Ford’s confused male characters, as they search or ignore the search for meaning in everything from violence to sex. Ford stated to the Washington Post that he “[tries] to invent these structures so as to feel freest in getting the most interesting and intelligent things you can say onto the page,” (Burns, 22). While the family is driving through Wyoming: “Edna had out a whiskey bottle… She liked drinking, and drinking in the car, which was something you got used to in Montana, where it wasn’t against the law… I took a drink” (Ford, 5). Edna’s son Danny is the true victim of this confused couple, as they drink while driving him around, and it’s very interesting Ford takes this perspective considering the majority of his narrators are those confused, misplaced adolescents searching for role models. In an interview with The Guardian, Ford stated that he “was an only child born in Mississippi,” and I presume that he was as confused and misplaced as these narrators (Barton, 31).
“Rock Springs” ends with Earl confirming his doubts in himself, passing them off as doubts of others in the Ramada Inn where they are staying. “Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him [or that] his girlfriend was leaving him,” (Ford, 27). Although its necessary to recognize these postmodern instances of the male in mental turmoil, these seemingly existential questions do very little to separate the men from their veil of traditional masculinity. However, Ford says he “believes in the things that draw you sympathetically closer to others, and that the promise of that closeness is a valuable commodity,” (Guagliardo, 185).
The father of the narrator in “Great Falls,” embodies masculinity as an ex-Air Force Sergeant, an avid fisherman and duck hunter, as well as selling this illegal game out of season. “He ran his hand under the seat, found a half-pint bottle of whiskey…he unscrewed the cap and took a drink, then held the bottle out to me. ‘Have a drink, son,’” (Ford, 33). The presence of alcoholism overlaps between Ford’s pieces of fiction as it does in Thomas McGuane and Raymond Carver’s works as well. It seems as though it’s a trademark, even though there’s sadness in it, as if these characters are forced to drink. In reality, they drink because as postmodern selves, they can’t live up to the masculine traditions of their landscape; that the old-time ranching and resilience imprisons them into believing that they aren’t good enough for the land.
The narrator’s mother states, “Your life’s your own business, Jackie. Sometimes it’s so much your own business that you want to run,” (Ford, 47). And, in fact, his mother does just that; she leaves. Along with that pressure on the masculine, Ford equally paints a picture of women as manipulative in many cases, yet solemn and unreliable in their relationships with their children. The end of “Great Falls” speaks to this hopeless balance between gender, which I believe is a factor contributing to the violence and insecurity of the male figures. “Although Ford leaves his narrators in isolation at each narrative’s end, he reveals the heightened awareness that has projected them into the act of observation,” (Walker, 121).
During a long rant and attempt to attain answers for the events that take place, the narrator explains “some helplessness that causes us to misunderstand when it is pure and plain, makes our existence seem like a border between two nothings, and makes us more or less than animals who meet on the road,” (Ford, 49). After his mother left, the narrator turns to doubt; forced to confront the artificial masculinity that his father conveys and his mother’s decision to abandon him for Woody. It’s interesting because it would seem that Jackie initially likes Woody as much as or more than his own father. “Woody exudes an urbane detachment; Jackie admires him for knowing ‘about a lot of things, about the life out in the dark, about coming out here, about airports, even about me,’” (Leder, 103).
The narrator of “Children” seems equally detached from a motherly presence, leaving him in the arms of the masculine tradition and dooming him to lead the life of his father or play the role of some “postmodern cowboy.” The second scene in this story revolves around Claude and his friends standing around drinking whiskey at a “cottage party” across from the motel the narrator’s staying at. “Behind the cabin screen I could see Claude’s father in his white shirt. He was kissing the woman in the green dress, his big arms wrapped around her, hooked around her…I could hardly see the woman at all,” (Ford, 75). A direct physical representation of masculinity eclipsing femininity, Claude’s father doesn’t notice his son standing there watching.
In return, Claude asserts his homosexual frustration with what he’s seeing to his friends: “’I think we should kill her just to piss him off’” (Ford, 75). In a new type of Freudian complex, Claude seeks to dethrone the women that his father obsesses over so much, and in their place, he essentially wants to “marry” his father or a male like him out of jealousy. As Western homosexuality becomes an issue in culture as well as in postmodern literature (Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” for example), Claude hides behind the veil of violence in fear of being ridiculed by his peers. Even in the seemingly vagrant, place-to-place lifestyle of these narrators, homophobia flourishes among the older generations. The Western masculine tradition showcases an often isolated rancher, prideful of his work and strong against the raw landscape, but it never seems to discuss sexuality. Isolation and sexual insecurity lead to many of the hate crimes that have occurred recently, and in “Children,” the inferred crime is murder essentially for Claude not being able to express his sexual preference. “Claude raised his fist and held it out like a boxer in the dark of the car. ‘I’m strong and I’m invincible,’ he said. ‘Nothing’s on my conscience.’ I don’t know why he said that,” (Ford, 98). Essentially the penultimate attempt by Claude to affirm his supposed heterosexuality, Ford seems to go to great lengths a few lines after that to assert homosexuality as somewhat juvenile. “When you are older, nothing you did when you were younger matters at all. I know that now, though I didn’t know it then. We were simply young,” (Ford, 98).
As the narrator in “Winterkill” fishes with Troy, Troy asks him “’Do you ever just think of just doing a criminal thing sometime? Just do something terrible. Change everything,” (Ford, 161). A disturbing scene follows where the two discuss why or why not to go through with any “mayhem,” ending with Troy stating “I’d never do that” while laughing hysterically. Even while amidst the serene background of time spent fishing, the imbedded need to perform violence bugs them into discussion thereof. The result of their catch being a dead deer rather than a fish, Troy vents against the masculine pressure of Western society: “’I can’t change a fucking tire,’ he said and sobbed. ‘But I’ll catch a fucking deer with my fucking fishing rod’” (Ford, 167). Violence has been reeled onto shore, and in facing its presence, Troy breaks down against another masculine role of being handy. Confused on an entirely different level than the prior protagonists from “Children” or “Great Falls,” the narrator reflects on the reality of the current Western male; an assault on the honorable Western hero, he states “I thought about the matter of trust, [how] I would always lie if it would save someone an unhappiness” (Ford, 169). The story ends with the narrator beginning to fish religiously in an attempt to assert his masculinity against that very real sight of violence, refusing to submit to fear or internalization.
In “Optimists,” the opening passage seems to mimic the beginning of a mythic Old Western story. Even though it states the year as 1959, the narrator states that his father killed a man and that he fled home in attempt to fool the Army all in the same year. “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, 171). Myth and olden style for that matter, flourishes on the page as Ford continues to introduce the characters with their historical information including, coincidentally enough, their employment history (similar to Proulx). Ford said in an interview with Paris Review, “I certainly think we have histories. And based on them we can purport to have characters – invent or allege character, in a sense,” (Lyons, 4).
The narrator’s father returns home from work to tell a story about a death on the job, and a house guest, Boyd Mitchell, begins to criticize him about not trying to save the man’s life; pointing out that he’s a “feather-header” for remaining frozen in the man’s time of need. In response, he punches Boyd in the chest, knocking the breath out of him so badly that he dies. As the narrator’s father goes to prison, he is forced to confront that violence and its impact on both his own masculinity and his father’s. “What mattered was, I felt that my father had fallen down now, as much as the man he had watched fall beneath the train just hours before. And I was as helpless to do anything as he had been. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but for some reason I did not,” (Ford, 185). Another instance of Ford’s narrator being afraid to express emotion and a direct influence from the Western masculine, “Optimists” remains violent and masculine, yet domesticates them creating lawlessness not on the frontier but in the home.
Again, at the end of “Optimists,” another of Ford’s narrators is left alone by their mother. “She bent down and kissed my cheek through the open window and touched my face…held me for a moment that seemed like a long time before she turned away, finally, and left me there alone,” (Ford, 191). In this case, however, the adolescent is left in the hands of an impulsively violent father; one of few of Ford’s fathers that actually commit violence instead of just thinking about committing it.
The last story in the collection, “Communists,” showcases a similarly violent character in Glen Baxter. After the narrator’s father dies, his mother begins dating Glen and the two of them fight very frequently; yet, the narrator seems to favor Glen throughout the story. As Glen hunts, drinks and fixes things around the house, the teenage boy sees him as a role model, but again, Ford marginalizes his female character for the sake of promoting the masculine. In fact he waits until the end of this story to give the mother virtually any empowered dialogue, and then as soon as the young male narrator admits that she’s feminine, it says he never sees her again. Finally, she says “’you don’t have a heart, Glen. There’s nothing to love in you. You’re just a son of a bitch, that’s all,’” (Ford, 231). The Guardian stated that Ford has also “undeniably carved himself out as a man’s man, and an all-hunting, all-fishing, Harley-riding sort of writer,” (Barton, 31).
Glen’s ominous presence throughout the story influences the narrator to the point where he has no problem hunting ducks, but listens to Glen when he tells him not to fetch the dying duck from the lake. Instead, Glen shows off his male dominance by emptying the clip of a pistol into the duck. Before doing so, he has what seems like a planned breakdown in front of the narrator and his mother. “[Glen] held the pistol out to me. ‘Don’t you want this? Don’t you want to shoot me? Nobody thinks they’ll die, but I’m ready for it right now,’” (Ford, 232). By posing this question to his narrator, Ford posits the pressure of violence in words on the page, forcing the narrator to confront his notion of masculinity in whether or not he shoots Glen. Before he can decide, Glen shoots the duck undermining the boy’s possible maturity through making that decision.
As seen in Richard Ford’s narrators and their role models, the masculinity of his new west is skewed to say the least. The old west rings through in some of the violence and sexual repression, however, Ford paints a postmodern and doubtful masculinity in his stories. While his characters seek to better themselves through internalized thought, they adversely perform masculine roles such as hunting, domestically eclipsing their wives, trying to prove themselves to their fathers, or even murder and crime in some cases.
Barton, Laura. “Other voices, Other rooms: An interview with Richard Ford.”
Guardian. 30-38. 08 Feb 2003: Print.
Burns, Carole. “Off the Page with Richard Ford.”Washington Post. 20-29.
14 Dec 2006: Print.
Guagliardo, Huey. “A Conversation with Richard Ford.”Perspectives on Richard Ford. Ed. Huey Guagliardo. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2000. 177-196. Print.
Leder, Priscilla. “Gender Relations in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs.”Perspectives on Richard Ford. Ed. Huey Guagliardo. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2000. 97-120. Print.
Lyons, Bonnie. “Art of Fiction 147: Richard Ford.”Paris Review.
22 Sep 1996. 3-26. Print.
Walker, Elinor Ann. “Redeeming Loneliness in Richard Ford’s “Great Falls” and Wildlife.” Perspectives on Richard Ford. Ed. Huey Guagliardo. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2000. 121-139. Print.