Monday, July 22, 2019

Richard Ford and what Trump’s triumph reveals about America

.


"There is no use getting sentimental over a motorcycle. Especially a motorcycle. Even if it is the motorcycle I and ten million other American men have coveted all our lives, the last big-bore, honest-to-God motorcycle motorcycle made in America, and the epitome of what the motorcycle dream means. Harley-Davidson." – Richard Ford via granta.com

The acclaimed US writer talks frankly about race and what Trump’s triumph reveals about America.

Ford is fond for motorcycles, Brittany spaniels, bird hunting, fishing, and Bruce Springsteen.

By Neil Munshi April 28, 2017 via ft.com

Richard Ford is taking it easy on me. We’re playing squash at the YMCA that serves the jagged slice of coastal Maine he calls home. We knock the ball around a bit to warm up and then square up. He beats me 9-2 in the first game before he begins to suffer spotty vision from the migraines he’s had since he was a teenager. It’s a minor blessing. The author of the Frank Bascombe tetralogy beginning with 1986’s The Sportswriter, through 1995’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day, 2006’s Lay of the Land and 2014’s Let Me Be Frank with You is being generous when he says that I’m getting the hang of the game.

He’s 73 and hamstring problems have kept him off the court for the past six months. But he works me in a completely thoughtful and pleasant way even though playing against someone who has spent just 20 minutes on a court can’t be much fun for a man who has played the sport for the past 40 years.

Ford has three hobbies: squash, motorcycles and hunting. He emerged on the literary scene with the so-called “dirty realists”, who included his buddies Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. He keeps his notes and manuscripts in his freezer, in case the house burns down. He has a reputation for writing clear-eyed, often lush prose, grappling with life’s great themes and for having an explosive temper. At a party once, he spat on Colson Whitehead winner of this year’s fiction Pulitzer after he gave Ford a particularly sarcastic review. Once, he and his wife Kristina, both avid hunters, took an Alice Hoffman book and shot a couple of holes in it, then sent it to the author after she gave Ford a bad review. But Ford says he’s not competitive when it comes to squash. “I’ve just never found that winning was much different from losing,” he tells me. “I mean, I don’t like losing. But when I feel triumphant about winning a point, or a game, I always think, ‘Well, s**t, that doesn’t mean much.’

Fortunately, I don’t win that often.” He’s winning now. But, in my defence, he has home court advantage. Literally. Kristina donated the money to convert the racquetball court to squash as a 40th anniversary gift to her husband. They’ll celebrate number 50 next year. Among the rules frosted on its back glass wall — don’t wear black-soled shoes, change in the locker room, dry mop when you’re done — is one written specifically with Ford in mind: “Use of profanity is prohibited.”
He obliged that morning. But we had brooked no such restrictions at the nearby Thistle Inn during a freewheeling three-hour conversation the previous night, where we touched on race, writing, the recent election, boxing and his family. Ford’s slim new memoir, Between Them, consists of two essays written 30 years apart.
The first is about his mother, Edna, written in 1986, five years after her death. “I just missed her,” he says. “And I’m a writer, so I transact everything that I experience through that particular medium.” The second is about his father, Parker, written in 2016, 56 years after he died of a heart attack, when Ford was 16. “I realised that I’d been living with the memories of him and living with his absence and I just felt that . . . needed to be written into,” he says. “This is just one way in which imaginative writing or even memoiristic writing can function, that it writes into absences. In doing that, it in a way compensates for the absences.” Parker was a salesman for the optimistically named Faultless Starch. He married Edna in 1928 and they spent the next 15 years crisscrossing the Deep South. “They lived on the road. And since they didn’t have children, that wasn’t anything but fun,” Ford says. “Sort of a fly-by-night life.” Then, in 1943, Edna found out she was pregnant; her only son was born the next year. “They could see that it was going to radically change their lives,” he says. They settled in Jackson, Mississippi, “a bigoted, churchy, civil war-devastated town”. His father had his first heart attack in 1948. Ford was sent to live with his maternal grandparents at the 600-room Little Rock hotel his step-grandfather managed. “I became, as my father was fading a little bit out of the picture, more and more the creature of my grandfather,” he says. “There’s no saying he was a great man. But he was a colourful man . . . and he liked women and he wasn’t a racist” no small feat in 1940s Arkansas.

He was also a boxer. When Ford started to get beaten up at high school, his granddad took him to the boys’ club for training. In 1996, Ford wrote a classic New Yorker essay, “In the Face”, on the many people he’s punched there — and the many who have returned the favour. Is it more important to be able to take a punch or give one? “It’s more important not to get hit,” he laughs. “I wasn’t very good at that. I never have been good at that. I’m not fast enough. [I have] a typical naive boxer’s attitude, which is to say, I will absorb what you do to me so that I can do what I want to do to you. Well, that may be a winning proposition but, in the long run, it’s not a good proposition.” Ford’s family had been outsiders in Jackson, so Ford grew up one too.

As he got older, his peripatetic lifestyle kept him that way. His first two novels, 1976’s A Piece of My Heart and 1981’s The Ultimate Good Luck, after which he gave up novel writing and worked for a sports magazine in New York were warmly received but little read. It was only in 1986 that he had his breakthrough with The Sportswriter, which tells the story of a failed novelist who writes for a sports magazine in New York. “The thing that sparks creativity, at least in part, is this torque between being an outsider but wanting really very much to get in, and the instrumentation by which you get in is your work,” he says. “Your work is in a way compensatory for your own inadequacies as a person, for creating for yourself a sense of establishment, of credibility, of plausibility.” *** The next morning, over breakfast, Ford explains why he gave up one particular spirit. “Gin is the fist-fight drug for me. The last time I got put in jail was on the back side of a glass of gin.” He’d fought in the street with a neighbour in New Orleans. “He just nailed me, came out of nowhere.” The next year, he saw the neighbour, apologised and they hugged.

Boxing. Hunting. Motorcycles. Punching someone in the face and then hugging him a year later. Ford has as strong a claim on the bygone American masculine ideal as any writer in the past 40 years. That temperament suits Boothbay, where he lives, and its environs, which are populated by fishermen, shipbuilders and seasonal employees, “and then there’s just a lot of old people who don’t do s**t. I don’t know if I’m one of those or not, I might be transitioning at this moment.” The locals are blue collar and rough-hewn “which isn’t to say dumbbell”. But it is Republican country. “There are a few people in the town that I get in the s**t of,” he says, including an old veteran who owns a big hotel. “I noticed one day, when I was at the grocery store, he had a Trump sticker on his car. I went over and I tapped on his window and I said, ‘What in the f**k are you telling me, you old moron?’ I said, ‘How dare you have this Trump sticker on your car? It’s unpatriotic to vote for this goddamn idiot.’ But I was just picking on a cripple there. He’s old and he’s a lovely man and I’m crazy about him, but I was kidding him.”

The election, he says, revealed a number of grim things about the country: “A strong nihilist impulse. An ignorance of history. A complacence about the status quo, a willingness to blame others for one’s own circumstances, a lack of personal responsibility. Is that enough? And a longing to be lied to.” Ford’s Democratic bona fides are fairly well established. But some of his writing on race has sparked criticism, including his portrayal of black characters in the most recent Bascombe book. Having grown up white in the segregated south, his views are complicated. His mother took him to see Ray Charles and James Brown concerts at about the same age he was going downtown to watch the police set dogs on civil rights activists. He was in part raised by the black people who worked at his grandfather’s hotel in “a not very interesting colonial situation”. One critic noted that Ford, like Bascombe, has used the word “negro” to describe African Americans in what would be for many the far too recent past, including in an interview in the 1990s. Ford has argued that it is not a pejorative term, noting its use by the United Negro College Fund, an African-American scholarship organisation to which the Fords plan to leave their estate. In a candid 1999 New York Times Magazine essay, he grappled with his shame over discovering his use of the word “n***er” in a 1981 letter to a friend. His views on the slur -“that word is denigrating and obscene but I really would have liked to have black people quit using it too, because it certainly does hold back conversation” would be seen as problematic in many liberal quarters. But he never shrinks from the conversation. “Growing up in Mississippi and not being a racist, I’ve thought about [race] all my life. “I kind of have wanted to write an essay about race for about the last two or three years. But, in a way, [Ta-Nehisi] Coates’s book, [Between the World and Me] — although it didn’t relegate all my considerations to irrelevance — it spoke to most of the things that I cared about. I mean, I don’t have, obviously, any insight of what it’s like to be an African American. But I have some insight on what it’s like to be white. And there is this race and there is that race. And the fact that we look different doesn’t mean anything. But so many people think it does mean something, including blacks,” he says. “It’s a really good book. I would like to have a conversation with him sometime, not to prove him wrong but just to kind of advance the argument. But when you’re a 73-year-old white man from Mississippi, people aren’t going to put you on stage [for that conversation].” Ford hasn’t written much about race recently. Instead, his work is, as always, littered with — and occupied principally by — the detritus of failed marriages and busted relationships. His own doesn’t fit the mould. He calls Kristina “my everything”. Childless by choice, they’ve spent an itinerant life travelling for his job or hers, including her seven years as director of city planning in New Orleans. Fifty years in, they still dote on each other. So why the preoccupation with divorce and infidelity? “Marsha Norman, one of our good playwrights, said if you want to write something good, write about the thing that scares you the most,” he says. “So I think that, probably, I write about the things that scare me the most. I’m going to get as close up to it as I can.”
Neil Munshi is an FT reporter in New York

1 comment:

Bill Smith said...

This guy is a self righteous idiot. I love to read the articles and stories on your page. Sadly I have never left a comment to praise the past articles But today this guy just really peeved me with his tone and self righteousness.