Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Richard Ford

Richard Ford, Toronto, Oct. 1990

I'D NEVER READ ANY OF RICHARD FORD'S BOOKS WHEN I WAS ASSIGNED TO TAKE HIS PORTRAIT over a quarter century ago. He was, I knew at the time, an important writer, heir to the mantle of Raymond Carver (who I had read) and part of a long tradition of American novelists going back to the first sustained flourishing of fiction writing in the U.S. with Fitzgerald and Hemingway (back when that sort of thing actually mattered.) He had a certain gravitas, and I tried to capture that; truth be told, I was more than a little intimidated.

When I found these negatives in my files I decided to read something by Ford, and went for the obvious choice - The Sportswriter, the novel that, just four years before, had made him a literary star. It was the first of what would be four books (three novels and a novella collection) featuring the first person voice of Frank Bascombe, an ex-novelist-turned-sportswriter-turned-real-estate-agent who was frequently misidentified (at least according to Ford) as the author's alter ego.

Richard Ford, Toronto, Oct. 1990

At first it's a bit trying to live inside Frank's head; he's perceptive and eccentric by nature, but striving to escape into normalcy - or at least his own perception of what's normal, which includes his adopted hometown of Haddam, New Jersey, a bedroom community of no particular noteworthiness as Frank painstakingly (and approvingly) paints it. Frank's marriage has recently collapsed in the aftermath of his son's death and his own infidelities but more particularly from what he diagnoses as his "dreaminess," a quiet alienation that cushions him from his own life and those close to him.

At first I kept imagining Frank and his contemporaries as men older than me, and had to keep reminding myself that he's in his thirties in The Sportswriter, and that it would take two more novels set a decade apart for him to reach an age close to my own. Perhaps this has to do with how acceptable behaviour for men has changed in the last three decades; the '80s were probably the last time when grown men newly arrived in middle age were supposed to give up the affectations of youth. Perhaps it's my own memories of the book's '80s setting, when I still considered myself young and anyone older than me by at least a decade seemed part of a different world.

It's not a period novel, as such - it was a contemporary one when Ford wrote it, after all - but one brief passage early in the book brought back the time with a jolt. Frank is describing Vicki, his latest girlfriend, a Texan whose ripe sexiness is matched only by her utterly average mind, the combination of which Frank is hugely drawn to:
"Vicki is wearing black slacks that fit her tight but not too, a white, frilly-dressy blouse-and-scarf combination, a blue Ultrasuede jacket straight from Dallas and shoes with clear plastic heels. These are her dressy travel clothes, along with her nylon Le Sac weekender tossed in the back and her little black clutch where she keeps her diaphragm."
It's two details - the Le Sac bag and the shoes with the clear plastic heels - that brought the early years of the decade back to me with a slap. Those shoes - the heels were often Cuban, and I remember them in coloured tints, particularly orange - were only in fashion briefly, and someone with access to an archive of women's wear catalogues could probably date the precise year when the Easter weekend Ford sets The Sportswriter across happens.

Richard Ford, Toronto, Oct. 1990

The book ended up drawing me in, right through the mortifying Easter dinner with Vicki's family that's the emotional pivot of the book, and the point when you realize that Frank's quest for aggressive normalcy will probably always elude him. It's a judgment underlined by observations like the one Frank makes after Vicki cold cocks him by his car, outside her father's house:
"There is no betrayal like voice betrayal, I can tell you that. Women hate it. Sometimes X would hear me say something - something as innocent as saying 'Wis-sconsin' when I usually said 'Wisconsin' - and turn hawk-eyed with suspicion, wander around the house for twenty minutes in a brown brood."
A man who notices this kind of thing will never be an unreflective passenger on his journey through life, or an untroubling companion to friends, family or strangers.

All this, of course, is a roundabout way of saying that I don't have much of a memory of my shoot with Richard Ford. He was younger than I am now when I took these shots, and barely older than Frank during The Sportswriter. I don't know why that's so significant to me, but it is. What I do know is that I doubt if I'd have really understood The Sportswriter if I'd read it in preparation for my shoot with Ford, and that has to be some kind of recommendation.


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