Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford. Ecco. $25.99, 192pp.
Richard Ford, as decorated an American writer as currently exists, has thus far avoided mining his own life for material. He is known most widely for his Frank Bascombe novels, which comprise a trilogy (and lingering additional linked collection) that on the surface appears like an update to the Updikean conceit of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom: take an American every-man (always white) and let him wander through the vicissitudes of postwar middle-class life. And while there are some similarities of conceit and ambition, the Bascombe novels aren’t really updates on the latest decade, as the Updike novels were; moreover, Frank Bascombe, as a character and narrator of his own adventures, is a much different presence: no detail of his travels goes undetected, undescribed, unphilosophized. Bascombe’s narrative voice is a great lyrical weather balloon, expanding and contracting and oftentimes contradicting, which gives Frank the paradoxical effect of seeming both interminably wise and also full of noxious gas. His reports of conditions on the ground are not wholly accurate.
As with other extremely convincing first-person narrators, there is the frequent readerly trap of confusing Frank Bascombe for Richard Ford. And while parsing out the distinctions between these two creatures is not the purview of this review, Ford is interesting in that he is a postwar novelist first and foremost. He is consummately a “fiction writer.” In this way he’s again less like the protean Updike, who tried his pen at every genre imaginable, and more like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, or, more his contemporary, Lorrie Moore: writers who found their niche and worked it tirelessly with few stray efforts into journalism or playwriting or—the great specter over novel-writing for the past 30 years—the confessional narrative memoir. That is to say, there is something heroic (I think) about the celebrated writer who today doesn’t write a memoir, who resolutely clings to the old-fashioned but still perhaps functionally useful world of making things up—the writer who scorns the obvious market rewards and staves off the pangs of reality hunger. These writers’ relentless devotion to fictionalizing—Junot Diaz! George Saunders! Alice Munro!—is reaffirming.
But now Richard Ford has written a memoir. To be sure, it is strange, almost an anti-memoir. The book consists of two halves, a recently written remembrance of his father and a remembrance of his mother, written shortly after her death in the early 1980s. The conceit of the book is that his parents are essentially unknowable and that they had a rich and fulfilling life before he arrived on the scene—that he came “between them.” His view is of the only child who sees the margin where his life ends and theirs continues on without him. The result is a memoir that is empathetic to his parents’ sovereignty as adults.
The best part of the book is about his parents’ life before he came along. His father, Parker Ford, was a salesman for the Faultless Starch Company who travelled around the south visiting grocery stores, demonstrating and hawking his product. For many of those early years his wife Edna simply travelled with him. They kept an apartment in Arkansas that was mostly a provisional landing pad and otherwise lived on the road out of hotels and diners, and the picture Ford paints is a pre-interstate-highway-system, responsibility-free bliss. “He and she—barely out of their twenties and exceedingly happy—handed out little boxed starch samples and cotton hot pads to the country girls, who were flattered to receive such gifts at a time when nobody had anything.”
When Richard comes along they settle down in Jackson, Miss., a central location for Parker to venture out each work-week, returning to the now home-bound Edna and baby Richard only on the weekends. Domestically speaking, Richard’s father is somewhat of a stranger in the house, and the lacuna of his character floats somewhere within the haze of this book:
I cannot remember, over the years, my father ever explicitly teaching me much. . . He did not teach me to read and did not, that I remember, ever read to me. He did not teach me to tie knots or to hunt or to shoot a gun or how to start a campfire or how to change a spark plug or a tire. . . . He didn’t talk to me about sex or girls, about religion, about his own worries, about current events or politics. . . . I do not recall ever having an actual discussion with him; I don’t remember him asking me what was going on in my mind. . . . When I think about my father through the haze of all these poorly recollected details, my truest and most affectionate assessment of him was that he was not a modern father. Indeed, even then, when I knew him best, he seemed to be from another place and another time far away.
When Richard is four, his father has a heart attack, but after a brief recovery period, his life as a traveling salesman resumes with only the alteration of a few surface habits. Twelve years remain until his second, fatal heart attack. Toward the end of his life, Parker is seized with a yearning for the suburbs and a car of his own, a pique of aspiration that Ford approaches but ultimately refuses to fully interpret. “It’s also just as possible to think of him—for once—as a man of his time. If the suburbs were not his glimpsed dream in the clouds, they were nonetheless there and new, and he could go toward them—a country boy with no wish to return to the country, who’d exceeded his station and found himself free to think of things many other people thought of.” And yet a page later, he writes “And so once again I approach their otherness and they elude me, as our parents do.” This is coming from the author of Independence Day, which is almost totally about real estate and the psychodrama of place in the American male imagination. Yet his thoughts about moving to the suburbs and then moving back into the city after his father’s death are alarmingly slim; they suffer from a willed anemia. It’s as if his parents are kryptonite to his normal powers of observation and interpretation.
The most riveting portion of this first section of the book is the moment his father has his second, fatal heart attack and its aftermath. It’s here that Ford’s powers as a novelist are briefly let out of their cage, and where the simple incongruity of the horrible event is felt. This is also a climax in terms of family drama and psychological depth. After the viewing of the body at the funeral home, Parker Ford’s brother orders that the body be shipped back to Atkins, Arkansas, for burial in the family plot—not at a location of his wife’s choosing, a site where she could presumably join him when her time came. In this moment of family revenge and cruelty, the mother-in-law’s rage at her youngest son marrying outside the family’s approval is finally made manifest, and there is nothing the teenaged Richard or his poor widowed mother can do about it. It’s a gesture of Faulknerian spite, and Ford knows it. But again he shies away from dwelling on this rage and instead concludes with the oddest observation:
Some men have their fathers all their lives, grow up and become men within their fathers’ orbit and sight. My father did not experience this. And I can imagine such a life, but only imagine it. The novelist Michael Ondaatje wrote about his father that “. . . my loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult.” Mine is the same—and also different—inasmuch as had my father lived beyond his appointed time, I would likely never have written anything, so extensive would his influence over me have soon become. And while not to have written anything would be a bearable loss—we must all make the most of the lives we find—there would, however, not now be this slender record of my father, of his otherwise invisible joys and travails and of his virtue—qualities that merit notice in us all. For his son, not to have left this record would be a sad loss indeed.
Here Ford blithely asserts that had his father not died a tragic premature death he wouldn’t have been a writer at all—this coming from someone who’s published eleven previous books, won the Pulitzer Prize, and who is generally regarded as a torch-bearer of lyrical, realistic fiction in the 21st century. To be so seemingly glib over one’s life work is simply baffling. “A bearable loss”! As if writing books were like a semi-memorable vacation that you once took. And then to say that a small redemption in the face of his father’s death is this “slender record,” where Ford lays out the qualities that would have indeed comprised an admirable portrait—invisible joys and travails, etc.—but which have been hardly sketched at all in the preceding pages. Every time his father comes alive on the page, Ford backs away, frightened. It’s almost as if, at this moment, he is ashamed of what he’s done—committed a memoir—and is trying to cover his tracks.
The mother section, though composed much earlier, follows chronologically. Richard is a surly teenager with brief, criminal lapses in behavior, difficulty in school—and then suddenly he’s off to the University of Michigan and somehow miraculously becomes the writer he is today. (Though it’s not the focus of the book, that is a memoir I would like to read: how the father-less boy of a couple of Arkansas hicks with no academic aptitude and no apparent literary leanings somehow becomes Richard Ford, Decorated American Novelist. What in the hell happened?)
The most interesting part of the latter half of the book is the brief amount of high school time where Richard is still living at home with his widowed mother and they are both sexually active and on the prowl. His mother, quite naturally, begins to date again: “He was a big, bluff, good-natured man, possibly in the furniture business, who drove a Lincoln Continental with an automatic pistol strapped to the steering column. I liked him. I liked it that my mother liked him. It didn’t matter that he was married—not to me and, I guess, not to my mother. I really have no idea about what was between them, what they did alone.” This is supreme bunk, of course, a negligent narrative blindness. But the young Richard seems to know more about what’s going on than the older Richard putting these words on paper. One night when his mother doesn’t come home, and he knows she is with the boyfriend at the apartment he keeps in town, Richard drives over and bangs on the door. The mother is there, hanging out and having a drink, and her seventeen-year-old-son says, “Where have you been? I didn’t know where you were.”
This moment of role-reversal, the son turned into a kind of father who simply wants to know where his child is located, who wants to be a fully informed party regarding her deviance, seems to end the relationship between his mother and the boyfriend, and seems to end all future romance for the mother. As far as Richard knows, there is never another man. Young Richard goes to that apartment for some reason, even if the adult Richard no longer recalls what it was.
There’s also a companion scene where a terrified Richard confesses backseat sexual transgressions to his mother out of fear that he’s gotten his sweetheart pregnant. His mother lies her head off and tells him he has nothing to worry about, an obfuscation for which the adult Richard, now writing this memoir, praises her. These are some of the most intimate moments of parent-son transaction in the book.
At the end of the book, after his mother succumbs to cancer, Ford writes, “But somehow she made possible for me my truest affections, as an act of great literature bestows upon its devoted reader.” It’s notable that when he’s confronted with describing his love for his mother, Ford’s writing becomes mostly opaque. There are many moments in the book of almost-sense. The sentences pile up into a mirage of clarity, but then a paragraph later, the reader does a double-take.
As I record these events, I realize that like many renditions of childhood, mine—under time’s ruthlessness—might seem incomplete or lacking. I do not believe, however, that I was ever ignored or given a short straw, or that my father was anything but a good father—as good as he could be. . . . But if I had to I would say that because I was his son, I can recognize now that life is short and has inadequacies, that once again it requires crucial avoidances as well as fillings-in to be acceptable. Most everything but love goes away.
Where his father’s death is the tragedy that somehow gives him permission to write, his mother’s existence is described as the text that teaches him how to read—that makes possible his “truest affections,” though it’s not clear what these are, what precisely she has bestowed upon him. But lest we get too caught up in the notion of his parents as interpretable beings related to his life in literature, Ford reveals his modus in the Afterword:
Has it been my hope to testify to my parents’ lasting-ness? To their greater-than-obvious importance? In another son’s hands, a memoir might do that—try to confer an extra “dimension” where one might not have been evident before. I, however, have tried not to make grand claims for my parents. If anything, I’ve tried to be cautious, so that my own acts of telling about them and their influence on me not distort who they were. I’ve thus tried, as best I could, to write only about what I factually knew and did not know. My parents were, after all, not made of words. They were not literary instruments employable to conjure something larger. Lastingness seems foreign to them and to the sense they had of themselves. If you had known my parents, I’m comfortable you and I could come to different assessments of them. But my hope is that by this writing they would simply be recognizable as the two people I say they were. At day’s end, my fondest wish is that my notice of them will ignite thoughts in a reader’s mind that my parents can partly, usefully occupy.
What a strange, self-defeating way to approach a memoir of one’s parents. If they are not ultimately “employable literary instruments,” why write about them at all? And don’t they—simply by virtue of being now written about—become literary instruments thus employed? It’s as if he wants to capture them, but not too forcefully, and he wants the reader to understand them, but not too clearly.
Here are the last lines of the Afterword:
The memoirist is never just the teller of other people’s stories, but is a character in those stories. So, to write about my parents long after they’ve gone inevitably discloses hollow places, failures, frailties, rents and absences in me, insufficiencies that the telling, itself, may have tried to put right or seal off, but may only have re-opened and left behind, absences that no amount of life or truthful telling can completely fill or conceal. These I agree to live with. Though when I turn to regard life—my own or others’—I now never fail to be struck, amid the onslaught of all that’s happened and still is happening, by how much that’s gone from me. Absences seem to surround and intrude upon everything. Though in acknowledging this, I cannot let it be a loss or even be a fact I regret, since that is merely how life is—another enduring truth we must notice.
What are these “absences” he constantly alludes to? Why can’t he let an absence be a loss or even something he regrets? What sadness is he so forcefully denying?
In the mother portion of the book, Ford thinks about his parents after his surprise conception and the abrupt end of their life on the road together, wondering what they made of that shifted state: “Psychology was not a science they practiced any more than history was. . . . They simply found, if they had not known if before, that they’d signed on for the full tour. . . . I don’t think the intrusion of me into their lives was anything they didn’t think of as normal and at least as all right. Life was going this way now and not that way anymore. They loved each other. They loved me. Nothing else much mattered. They must’ve accommodated.”
Of the plentitude of parental love flowing through the Ford house we are simply going to have to take Ford at his word. I am not a psychotherapist, but to think of one’s own existence as an “intrusion” in any way seems to deny one’s own validity, one’s right to exist. And I hope I don’t sound like a “you’re-okay, I’m-okay” cream-puff when I say that I hope my own children feel that their existence is slightly more than “at least as all right.”
This assertion of happiness comes a few pages before a brief memory of his mother running away from him, leaving the six-year-old Richard in the front yard. “Just running away, her flowery cotton dress flapping in the warm breeze. . . . I have always understood from this event that there might be reasons to run away.” What these reasons might be, he either can’t or won’t discuss.
His effort to perceive and praise his parents’ separateness from him surpasses simply being a counterintuitive but interesting observation and begins to become a kind of special pleading, almost as if he is making a philosophical excuse, a post facto justification, for their aloofness. What in his telling are fiercely independent intimate parents—“They wanted me; but they did not need me. Together—though perhaps only together—they were fully formed”—in another’s telling would be a parental disinterest bordering on neglect. Perhaps the rotor blades of my own parental helicopter are fyup-fyup-fyup-ing too loud here, and I am judging the past (though how else to look at it?), but it’s the parents who are the absence.
What they talked about and what was in the air was only the present, interrupted by the long times between Monday and Friday. These absences made their closeness to each other even more paramount, since together was where they’d always, only been. I was where things had deviated and always sensed that. For all this to be blissful [Ford’s repeated description of his childhood] love is certainly required, and a willingness—on my part—to fill some things in and deflect others.
What seems unsaid here is that his arrival as a child in their lives was an accident—a mistake—and he was aware of it; he was not just a person who came “between them” but an obstacle, a burden, a sentence. This is the overwhelmingly sad discovery that the book has led me to, but that Ford doesn’t seem to want me to make. Ford seems resolutely committed to not speaking ill of his parents, an old-fashioned stance, morally admirable, but it makes for a tepid, confusing memoir, a memoir that is less than forthcoming, a book that is less than frank. Its stylistic vagaries pile up: there are too many rhetorical questions, too much summary, too many paragraphs greased with italics, and precious few moments of dialogue in the whole book. It’s a memoir by a writer who doesn’t seem to want to write this memoir.
There are promising embers left glowing in the margins that would make a fabulous novel: the way his maternal grandmother, exceedingly young when she gave birth to Ford’s mother, insisted that this mother be known as her sister rather than her daughter; there is the parental parallel, years later after the death of Richard’s father, where his mother says they should think of each other as partners more than parent and child; there is the time his mother gets shipped off to a catholic school because her new stepfather takes too keen an interest in her (Humbert Humbert clouds in the forecast); there is the time little Richard is shipped off to these very same grandparents after his father’s first heart attack so that Edna can go back on the road with her traveling husband; there is the previously mentioned moment when the stay-at-home Edna runs away from a six-year-old Richard, standing helpless in his front yard; there is the brief moment in an elevator when Edna, in answering a casual question about offspring, forgets she has a child. One wants Frank Bascombe to show up and start talking and turn this into the rollicking novel it seems to want to be. One’s reminded of Philip Roth’s memoir, The Facts, which ends with a letter from Roth’s famous alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who explains just how boring Roth is without Zuckerman’s filthy, uncontainable, unmitigated mouth. Well Frank Bascombe’s certainly more polite, but he’d be able to make lunch out this loose bag of ingredients in no time.
Perhaps it’s not only heroism that keeps my beloved fiction writers from writing a memoir: you have to be shameless to write a good memoir—shameless and brave. You have to be willing to sell someone out, most often yourself, nail people down, penetrate their absence, paint the picture with more than just negative space. You have to reckon with them, not just notice them. It’s a messy, cruel, deviant enterprise. In hindsight, lying about people who never existed seems much healthier for all involved.
Barrett Hathcock is a short story writer currently writing the great American birdhouse. He has written one collection of stories, The Portable Son. He lives in Mississippi.
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