Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Richard Ford: "Rock Springs" and "Great Falls"

The last line of "Rock Springs" lifts the story from a well-told anecdote, complete with internal anecdotes and meaningful nods, to a story rife with unfinished business because the business is yours. It is upon you to decide what Earl does and whether he is "anybody like you." This story has always struck me for its internal stories and minor characters: Edna and the monkey, Terrel and his grandmother, the cabdriver. The narrator interprets everyone as searching for meaning, and we are likewise involved. 

"Great Falls" is a picture of the horror of constant restraint. From the "double row of Russian olive trees" outside the "plain, two-story house" with "no place for the cars," we  get the sense of the mother's captivity, which is a metaphor for the whole family's captivity. They cannot escape their confines and end up behaving terribly toward each other, failing to pull together in bleak times.

In both both stories, notice how Ford employs contradictory thoughts and actions to undermine and complicate his characters.  


  1. I couldn’t help but think of Jeanette Walls and The Glass Castle while reading Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs.” The parallels between Walls’s father and the narrator in Ford’s story were obvious—from the road trips, to the moment-by-moment lifestyle, to the father figure trying to raise their children with a unique set of morals. Both Rex Walls and the “Rock Springs” narrator do what they can to provide be a standup example to their children, though ultimately [and unfortunately] we see them both fail.

    They’re both, to some extent, “good people,” and we see that in the very first page of Ford’s story. The narrator says that they had moved “in the first place to give his little daughter, Cheryl, a better shake in things” and that he wasn’t a “violent person,” instead more focused on raising Cheryl right. He retains his good character when he walks up to the woman’s trailer and uses her phone to call his family a taxi, and despite her suspicions of foul play, ends up giving her the “honest truth.” Of course, the car that broke down was actually a stolen car, a detail he chose to leave out—his slate isn’t completely clean. We see him at the end of the story, contemplating the contents of a parked car in a Ramada Inn parking lot. Here he realizes the distance between his girlfriend, his daughter, and of his success as a father. He observes his situation, understanding that he might not be the man he thought he was.

    Well, I’ve totally missed the Burroway in all this. In an attempt to save this entry, I’d say that the character complexity of the narrator is clear, as it is with Rex in The Glass Castle. The idea of self-contradiction is clear, as both men fail to see the reality of their relationships with their family—the whole time they’re convinced that they’re the best possible people, when in truth they’re quite the opposite. They are universal characters in their individuality— Rex’s creative “generosity” (offering Jeanette the entire planet of Venus for Christmas because he had no money to afford a real present), and the narrator of “Rock Springs,” who tells Edna “One of those cars outside is yours. Just stand right there and pick it out.” Both men do what they can to give, though they have nothing of their own to offer.

  2. Richard Ford's two stories are probably the ones I've loved the most out of what we've read so far. There's just this way he has about setting up a story, the simplicity, the sadness...everything is working together as best as it could be. I love the way he writes, too, and I think I mimic this writing style more than any in my own work: there's poetry in these; more poetry than there was in any of the other stories we've read, I think -- even more so than the ones written in prose blocks.
    I think the dialogue tags are often where this poetry effect I love so much is most present. Phrases like, "'What's the matter with you?' my father said into Woody's face, right into his face--his voice tight, as if it had gotten hard for him to talk." or "'Things pass too fast in your life, Jackie,' my father said. 'Don't worry about that. If I were you, I'd worry we might not.' He smiled at me, and it was not the worried, nervous smile from before, but a smile that meant he was pleased. And I don't remember him ever smiling at me that way again." These do so much work in characterization, even if it's the quietest way of doing so.
    I loved the loneliness, the listlessness of "Rock Springs," too. It's so interesting that Ford has named both of these stories after the names of the towns in which they take place. He's making a statement, here. These locations don't really seem to have much to do directly with the stories themselves -- "Rocky Springs" could've taken place in any desert shanty town with a gold mine -- but yet Ford still chooses to name them as such. Could this be a nod to the disconnect both Earl and Jackie feel in their lives? The fact that the town names seem to be an almost irrelevant detail is perhaps indicating the irrelevancy and ineptitude of the characters to whom we feel so intimately connected.
    Either way, I like the fact that Ford presents us with all these things to turn over in our minds. The text is plain, the events fairly straightforward, even the characters at first seem ordinary -- but it's in the character that Ford pours his true talent. There's a deep sadness the reader feels for Earl and Jackie at the close of these stories, and despite surface-level issues, I find it hard to put my thumb on just what makes me feel so lonely for them -- I think it's something I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.
    Welcome to the family, Richard Ford. Please be my literary father.

  3. I really liked both of the stories by Richard Ford and thought that they were among the stories that I have liked best so far. Some things that really caught my attention were his specific and carefully thought out use of dialogue and also the way he uses this to enhance the characterization. I think Ford shows a lot about his characters through his dialogue, more so probably than the way he directly characterizes them through appearance and scenery. Another thing that I liked, although unrelated, was the way that he started Great Falls with the line, "This is not a happy story. I warn you." I thought that was a really great way to begin because he tells the reader outright that this is not a happy story. What this reminded me of was A Series Of Unfortunate Events where the novels always begin by telling the reader that it is not a happy tale about unfortunate children.
    What I thought I could take from Ford was to be able to use dialogue in such a way that it really adds to the characterization and is more than just about he words that they're speaking and more about developing the character through the use of dialogue.

  4. What struck me most about either of these stories was Jackie's point of view in "Great Falls." Here we're faced with a sort of distant narrator, who doesn't even really want to know what's going on, he just knows that something's wrong and he wishes it weren't. Even at the end, his questions focus around why certain people acted as they did in the heat of the moment, not about what happened.

    I think that in this character of Jackie, Ford really shows us what a story should be. It's not about what happened. It's not about the plotline, it's about why it happened. The story is where Woody stands outside risking his life and we want to know why. I know this from reading Burroway, but I think this is the clearest and most in-my-face example that we've read so far, and it was an effective tool for me to understand what a story can and should be.

  5. I really enjoyed reading Richard Ford’s stories and I have to say that there are some of my favorites so far. What I loved mostly about it was how Richard described the father and son/daughter relationship, which ironically is what I mostly write about. He helped me see how to convey the relationship without making it seem fake or too stereotypical in that the fathers from the stories were very unique in how they dealt with their children in difficult situations. Earl from “Rock Springs” was my favorite character from both stories because I see a lot of my own character in him and I felt that despite the flaws and being a criminal, he is still a lovable character because he values family. I did like Jack from “Great Falls” as a father in that he tries to be sort of like a friend to Jackie but I felt that there was something off about him that made me question him as a father. I know that some caring fathers are hunters but the amount of hunting and the way he traps the fish and ducks makes me wonder if he has PTSD from being in the air force or something.

    In addition, I hated the main female characters except for Cheryl. I felt that Edna and Mrs. Russell were very selfish, misleading, and didn’t really care about their lovers. I especially hated Edna ever since Ford first mentioned her because I immediately got the image of an angry, arrogant, self-obsessed person. I was also really upset when Mrs. Russell left Jack and Jackie that I wanted to go inside the story and slap her to make see what she was missing. I guess Richard achieved his goal in making the reader hate these women based on their actions and what they said. From these two characters I have really found that Richard Ford could extremely help me with my writing. I could take his technique of describing a character through their dialogue, action, and change to make them lovable or hated. The narrator from both stories had both changed because of the women in their lives decided to leave them. “Rock Springs” ended with Earl questioning why his girlfriend was leaving and what would people think of him. Similarly Jackie in “Great Falls” also ends the story by asking questions that relate to Woody, his mother, and his father. In a way these questions connect with the reader because they address the same questions as the reader does in which Richard doesn’t answer in the story. I like this mysterious feeling that Ford creates and I would like to use in it in my own writing. So Richard Ford is definitely my literary father.

  6. I really enjoyed Richard Ford's writing. It kept the reader interested. I naturally skim every once in a while in stories, especially if I have other people talking around me, but I could not do that with this story. I felt as though each sentence brought something to each story and the reader needed to pay attention to each sentence. Also, I loved how the questions posed at the end of each of the pieces were not really a part of the story but more of questions directed to the reader to make them not only question the stories and the characters but their own lives.
    However, I found certain moments were too predictable in Ford's pieces. In "Rock Springs," as soon as Edna started getting pissy in the car, I knew she would leave him. In "Great Falls," once the father deviated from their normal routine and started talking about broken hearts, the reader knew there would be another man in the house. I, generally, prefer to be surprised while I read but Ford did what I expected with slight twists that made the events refreshed. That is something I would like to bring into my writing. I want to be able to give a new take on what the reader expects and not have them unsatisfied or left feeling like they read a cliche.

  7. These two stories by Richard Ford are some of my favorites thus far. I just loved the writing and the way Ford set up the settings and the characters, and how he let you know that these stories weren't going to have happy endings. I was really interested in the character Earl from "Rock Springs." I think what really intrigued me was just how obsessed he seemed to be with the Mercedes he stole, and how he took on the role of being an ophthalmologist, even in the motel. There was no need for Earl to say that he was an ophthalmologist, he just liked the look of it, and how important he felt seeing the letters M.D. next to his name. Ford did a really good job of setting up the character of Earl, and just how important appearance was to him, especially with lines like "I had a small pain of regret as we drove under the Ramada awning that we hadn't driven up in a cranberry-colored Mercedes but instead in a beat-up old Chrysler taxi driven by an old man full of complaints." Also, the whole last paragraph was devoted to how people would see Earl as he searched the parking lot for his next car. Even as he plans his next criminal act and as his wife is leaving him, Earl is still worried about what people are thinking of him.
    I could really learn how to make a well-rounded character by using all different types of characterization from Ford. He used detail, and character thoughts, and even indirect characterization such as authorial intent, when he describes Jack in "Great Falls." Even those details he gives us, such as how Jack was in the air force and how Jack had chosen to take a civilian job instead of doing what the mother wanted, suggest other things to us than just what the Ford is stating. There is clearly already tension between the father and mother. I would like to claim Ford as a member of my family tree, I think either a father figure or grandfather. His writing is really some of the best that we've read so far.

  8. Based on the stories I read Richard Ford seems to be a good writer. I was able to see some similarities between his two stories. I think if I read another story by him, I would be able to tell it was him writing. One similarity is that both of the stories were named after the towns that they took place in, and each of the towns were named after some kind of natural water formation. However none of these town names really mattered much to either sories. I might just want to look at the titles of other stories by Richard Ford, just to see if he continues this pattern. Maybe there is a big reason behind it?

    I thought the fact that he ended his stories by asking questions was odd. I have been told for a while not to end a story by asking questions. However Richard Ford managed to pull it off so well, that I forgot why I even thought that way in the first place. I bet if I try that in one of the writing assignments I could find a good medium between my belifs about that idea, and Fords.

  9. I'l start out by saying that I think there is nothing special about Richard Ford, especially in "Rock Springs." I feel like most of what we have read for this class thus far has done something unique, or different, or has done something to inspire. To me, this story just seemed mediocre.

    The voice of the main character is that of an old person with dementia, and has to tell us every single little detail, to a point where it almost becomes annoying. many of the details used have nothing to do with the actual plot of the story. "Rock Springs," is 18 pages, but I feel it could be cut down to 8 or 10 pages.

    On a different note, though, I could take Ford's use of oddities and detail and use it in my own writing, but in a way that is more in line with the story. It wasn't my favorite use of detail, but the imagery from Ford's writing was very concrete and is something to be admired.

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  11. Richard Ford's writing is very complex. The main characters of both stories appear to be very observant of their surroundings, considering everything they observe with philosophical questions and comments. Nothing out of the ordinary, perhaps, but certainly interesting enough to make very long "short" stories run by more quickly than I expected.

    "Rock Springs" was most interesting to me because of a very neat narrative trick. It was clear from the beginning that this was not going to be a happy story, with the foreshadowing including a broken-down car, a story about a monkey that was accidentally strangled by the main character's sleeping partner some time in the past, and the fact that the "family" was on the run in the first place. However, Ford still managed to confuse the reader and mitigate the darkness of the foreshadowing by inserting the kind grandmother and the gold mine (which the main character first looked at with dread, but later considered it in a happier light). This slight ray of light in a rather depressing plot made the entire story more interesting.

    It's harder to summarize the point of "Great Falls." Most of this story is made up of the main character's thoughts and impressions of the world around him, as his family falls apart. Interestingly, this turns the story in a meta direction. The main character's questions regarding his family members' thoughts and motivations directly correlate with most authors' thought processes. Why did this character do that? What was this character thinking? It was an interesting touch... although, sadly, I was more interested in reading about the main character's reaction, and found the character himself to be rather flat, as he was too interested in observing his family members' reactions to have any of his own.

    NOTE: Sorry for the double post, but I had to fix something.

  12. Richard Ford's Great Falls is a peculiar story of loss of self. The main character, Jackie, narrates a story of him as a young a boy and how his parents split up in an air of confusion. The night they did, his mother had a strange man with a strange connection to her, pick her up from the house to leave for good. As Jackie's father, Jack, becomes infuriated, yet helpless, Jackie stands in a numbing shock watching everything happen. Even as he goes on in life, he never addresses the strange questions that arose from that night. It's as if he became a man that night and was no longer able to be a child. Ford creates a character who's life seem so confusing and we see exactly why, but at the same time we don't. We're drawn in, but never get the full story (just like Jackie.)
    I think I can take away a few things from this story. Ford has a funny way of developing characters, yet cutting them off in a way. An air of mystery to a person, or even a mysterious person, could really draw a reader in and make them want more. Ford is so great at bringing you in, but still leaving you outside, which is something that I'm really interested in. I'd like to be able to keep the reader at a distance, but still be able to engage them and I think by studying Ford's works such as Great Falls, I will learn the tools to help me do so.

  13. I found both stories to be boring. I struggled to keep my eyelids open and employed all kinds of techniques to keep me interested. The stories for me didn't seem to really move along very quickly. Great Falls was much more interesting, the characters intrigued me and I was anxious to find out what happened next until it didn't end. I kept flipping pages expecting for it to end and both stories kind of tried to flip everything around in the last sentence which made it feel very forced to me.
    I definitely did like the way he wrote a fiction piece in the style of a memoir and would certainly include this idea in my own writing. It forces you into your characters head and you are almost writing two stories, the one of what he choices to say when he is older and the one of what happened when he was younger.