Under The Radar by Richard Ford, 2000
The magic trick:
Working hard to establish identity for the main characters only to shock the reader with their behavior as the story develops
Originally published in The New Yorker as “Issues,” this story is a doozie. If you’ve been following my week-long series of posts about Richard Ford stories, you’ll know that I’ve been a little disappointed. I would never suggest the stories in A Multitude Of Sins are subpar; it’s just that many of them left me feeling a little empty. I liked moments, little nuggets of truth here and there, but I didn’t feel a complete love or admiration for any of them. Until “Under The Radar,” that is.
True, it could very easily pass itself off as Joyce Carol Oates without anyone questioning the byline, but whatever. Why quibble with claims of influence or similarity as if it were a capitol crime? This is quite simply a phenomenal story.
My favorite magic trick here? The slippery, slippery character of Marjorie Reeves. Ford works very hard throughout the first half of the story to narrate character pasts and adjectives. The reader gets the feeling – at least I did – that they are learning quite a bit about the story’s main characters. We have a pretty good handle on the situation here, we think. Even as the narration describes Marjorie as a woman “no one could pigeonhole” we read on confident in the presentation. But the story’s very theme, we are late to cotton on to, is the inability to know someone, even those seemingly close to us. As the narrative develops, the characters we thought we knew so well thanks to the intensive backstory begin to act in surprising ways. Not surprising, really, as much as shocking. It’s a pretty brutal lesson all around. And that’s quite a trick on Ford’s part.
Steven said nothing, though he felt less at a loss for words now. His eyes, indeed, felt relieved to fix on the still corpse of the raccoon.
“Do we do something?” Marjorie said. She had leaned forward a few inches as if to study the raccoon through the windshield. Light was dying away behind the slender young beech trees to the west of them.
“No,” Steven said. These were his first words – except for the words he took no responsibility for – since Marjorie had said what she’d importantly said and their car was still moving toward dinner.