On Richard Ford’s abiding love for children
All these lists of Rules for Writers have me paralyzed. I’m unable to proceed, sitting as I am at the wrong kind of chair, using the wrong kind of pencil, working at the wrong time of day … and now I’m thinking I might as well quit, because apparently I’ve already broken Richard Ford’s rule number two: don’t have children.
I’ve consulted with my wife, but apparently there’s no way to stuff this genie back into the bottle.
There are probably risks in following other people’s rules, as suggested by The New Yorker: “I delight in Richard Ford’s terrifically sourpuss ‘Don’t have children,’ because I’ve read his books and this rule strikes me as being so Richard Ford.”
Being Richard Ford works for Richard Ford, but only because he’s Richard Ford. And if you consider his attitude towards children in fiction, and in life — “I sometimes see them as such malevolent little creatures who rule (and not often benignly) the lives of adults” — and then read The Sportswriter with that in mind, you might decide that his attitudes have limited his emotional range.
I can’t think of any genuinely tender depiction of the father-son relationship, fraught as it can be, in the Frank Bascombe novels; certainly nothing on the order of that Thomas McGuane achieves in Something to be Desired. Ford’s children are usually teenaged boys (Rock Springs, Wildlife), or small, manipulative creatures who speak in preternaturally adult voices.
Which is no accident:
You use them as extremely potent characters, rather than as bothersome non-entities (which they mostly are in life); little oracles who speak as adults or who affect events in large ways yet remain deceptively “innocent.” You know, if you have to have children speak as children, they won’t say anything very interesting. They don’t know anything.
But surely what a character says is not his sole value to a story. Perhaps Ford’s attitude towards kids prevents him from seeing them as important in other ways, and most importantly to the motives and actions of his adult characters, over whom their influence, to him, seems primarily malign. In fact, he seems to resist their possible influence:
… children are, for me, little condiments in stories. You know, you shake them in to spice it up, but the real events take place in the lives of people who are responsible, who bear the consequences of action as fully as it can be borne.
So Ford’s stories center around adults moving through a world in which children are mere ornaments, without any sense that children can, in fact, bear the consequences of action in ways that parents often prefer not to contemplate.
Those consequences reverberate throughout adult life. This is not lost on Thomas McGuane, whose fiction is deeply influenced by a difficult relationship to his father. Something to be Desired begins with young Lucien Taylor and his father, lost on a dark mountainside; father has returned from Peru, whence he has “mailed deranged letters to his son until his son flunked his courses and got kicked off the baseball team,” and has now abducted him. This father is an absentee or a failure.
And then the fictional clock fast-forwards to adult life, in which Lucien abandons his own family and then tries to win them back. Lucien’s son, James, fears him but also loves him as only a son can love a father. Lucien returns that love, but with the father’s terrible sense of his own power. In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, Lucien takes James to capture and band a prairie falcon. They lie under camouflage netting with a pigeon for bait, and the boy falls asleep only to be awakened in panic by the violence of the falcon’s strike, and the ensuing struggle to band it.
Lucien held the terrifying bird out before him and released his grip. The falcon pulled vertically from his glove and with hard wing-beats made straight into deep sky, swept straight off and was gone.
When Lucien looked over at James, he was holding the pigeon in his hands. Its eyes were closed. Its head was angled harshly onto its back. Blood ran from the nostrils down the domestic blue feathers of its narrow shoulders. Lucien said nothing.
“We both fell asleep at the same time,” said James in an unsteady voice.
One of the great challenges in writing children, a challenge that McGuane meets, that many writers fail, and that Ford, I think, shies away from attempting, is to avoid sentimentality. But this is the challenge that great stories have to meet: to confront the real emotional content of our lives without becoming corny. The relationship between parent and child is one of the most important, and difficult, that we can deal with. It would be a mistake to ignore it altogether.