What I want to write about is hard to discuss without potentially revealing myself as at least one of three things. 1) a moron, 2) a snob, 3) a cultural philistine. And yet this isn’t a post about TV, my inability to snag a man, or my not-so-secret love for a power ballad…
In recent years I’ve discovered I really like American fiction. American fiction in particular which is focused on specific landscapes and types of people. McCarthy, Leonard, Proulx, Meyer, Gay, Carver, Capote are names which roll off the top of my head. They aren’t all related by an easily boxed-up a theme, style or setting, but they are authors I think of as embodying an American literature that speaks to me, which shares particular qualities that I admire, enjoy and gain much food for thought. Qualities like a particular spareseness of style, an ear for language, an interest in those on the edges of society, an eye for landscape, an ability to express what is true. And now, after reading Rock Springs, I add Richard Ford to this list.
So why is it so bloody special for me to admit to liking American literature? Well, because it’s a public acknowledgment that I’m shaking off an old shackle. A shackle I wasn’t always necessarily aware was there, but which I think was clamped on my wrist from a young age. And that was that America is a cultural wasteland. Well, for ‘high’ culture. Rock ‘n’ roll and television, sure. Art, poetry, literature—no. My lovely American readers, please accept my sincerest apology.
I don’t blame anyone for this and I’m willing to accept it as a weird idea I gained as an impressionable youth, along with many other weird notions no one meant to place in my head (flannelette shirts were fetching, Luke Perry was hot, orange cheese-flavoured corn snacks were a food group). But if I look back on my schooling and on the cultural and literary influences in my life, they were pretty much pushing the British line of culture. Perhaps with the odd Italian painting or French classic thrown in for good measure, and some Australians, but pretty much British. And by British, I mostly mean English.
This could have been luck. A coincidental conglomeration of teachers, parents and other influential adults’ personal tastes; a strange symbiosis of syllabus; an unintentional leaning to Commonwealth cultural heritage. And, of course, it could have been just my subconscious. Somewhere around age 12 I may have decided that the absence of American culture in my learning meant that it wasn’t worth learning, that it had nothing to offer. Which is, of course, nonsense.
What this babble is about is that I think for a long time I was biased against American literature. As a school of writing—if I can be so insanely general. Sure I used to read American authors, but I wouldn’t have offered that American literature was something I was ‘in to’, or which I sought out. I was straightjacketed, in a way, by the notion that the odd American book may be wondrous, but British was best. And this is what I meant at the start about looking like a moron.
Whatever the connections my subconscious once made about the value of American literature, this cultural apartheid has served one good purpose: I now have the pleasure of discovering how much I really, really like particular branches of American writing; and how much I really, really like authors like Richard Ford.
Rock Springs is a collection of stories set in the American West, many of them in Montana and its surrounds. We read of unforgiving cold, single parents (many of them fathers), people holding down deadend jobs, bad cheques being passed, folk trying to avoid (some unsuccessfully) the law, odd strangers met and even odder family members being tolerated. These are not big stories. Some of them are more minute—in action, in setting—than you think a story can be. They entail part of a train ride, the fixing of dinner, random phone calls, an afternoon’s trip into the hillside, a drive to nowhere. And yet the power of Ford’s short stories reverberate inside you like a shift-change whistle. The language is as taut as a trip wire; the characters are ever-intriguing, and often endearing, in their everyday hopelessness. Some stories have an odd humour about them, some a plain old sadness, some a plain old oddness; there isn’t one you could do without, nor one you wish was different.
My book group read Rock Springs and it was one of those books which set us off on a tangle of conversations about writing, observation, authors’ abilities and then the western world, class, social stigmas, literacy, language, the different opportunities people have and how this affects their future, how this affects our society. We talked for hours and could have kept going; Richard Ford stirred up a whole lot of stuff inside us and we wanted a further whisking.
As I’ve said before, you know you’ve read a marvellous book when once you finish it you go online to look up everything the author has ever written and decide which books to immediately get your hands on. This was the case after I read Rock Springs. If you like short stories, of if, like me, you’ve decided you need more excellent American literature in your life, then I whole-heartedly recommend this collection of Richard Ford’s work.