Rock Springs by Richard Ford, 1987
The magic trick:
Casting a man’s struggle for happiness against different images and examples of domesticity
There is a genre of short story that appears in the 1980s, embodied I think most by Richard Ford. Maybe it comes out of the Raymond Carver influence. Maybe it stems from the times. Maybe it doesn’t really exist as a genre anywhere but in my head.
But… it seems like there are a ton of stories from the era and this group of male writers (and here I’m talking about T.C. Boyle, Carver, Denis Johnson, Tobias Wolff sometimes, Richard Bausch, Ford, a little bit of Stuart Dybek though he’s usually treading different ground) that focus on a protagonist, usually a first-person narrator, who is keenly observant, painfully aware of his own shortcomings, and yet steadfastly disinterested in other people’s feelings.
Is this what being a man was in the 1980s?
It’s very strange. It’s almost as if empathy is simply not allowed. But, almost uniformly, it’s that lack of empathy and ability to consider others that makes these men so lonesome, sad, and self-loathing. They can’t connect with anyone. They can’t connect with anything outside themselves. And they know it. They know it all too well.
It’s definitely intriguing to read about, if frustrating and exhausting in large doses. There is certainly a real man feeling to the stories, which can be off-putting or enticing, depending on your mood or point of view.
But ultimately the air of tragedy usually falls flat because there is too much privilege here, too much opportunity, too much feeling sorry for yourself.
“Rock Springs,” to bring it specifically to today’s feature, does a nice job of setting our narrator’s ennui against pictures of domesticity. It’s very much a tug of war for him between settling down and not being able to settle down.
And that’s quite a trick on Ford’s part.
I’d gotten us a good car, a cranberry Mercedes I’d stolen out of an opthalmologist’s lot in Whitefish, Montana. I stole it because I thought it would be comfortable over a long haul, because I thought it got good mileage, which it didn’t, and because I’d never had a good car in my life, just old Chevy junkers and used trucks back from when I was a kid swamping citrus with Cubans.
The car made us high all that day. I ran the windows up and down and Edna told us some jokes and made faces. She could be lively. Her features would light up like a beacon and you could see her beauty, which wasn’t ordinary. It all made me giddy, and I drove clear down to Bozeman, then straight on through the park to Jackson Hole. I rented us the bridal suite in the Quality Court in Jackson, and left Cheryl and Little Duke sleeping while Edna and I drove to a rib barn and drank beer and laughed till after midnight.
As always, join the conversation in the comments section below, on SSMT Facebook or on Twitter @ShortStoryMT.
Subscribe to the Short Story Magic Tricks Monthly Newsletter to get the latest short story news, contests and fun.