Dirty realist

By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Richard Ford was born in Jackson, Mississippi, 73 years ago. The son of a traveling salesman, the themes of transience and locomotion, and the influence of William Faulkner figure heavily in the various genres he later tried his hand at.

At one point in his career, he decided to give up writing novels and an academic teaching position to pursue a career as a sportswriter.

These days, Ford is best known as the author of four novels about sportswriter-turned-real estate agent Frank Bascombe, set in the fictional Haddam, New Jersey. The second in the series, “Independence Day” (1995) won the PEN/Faulkner award and the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for its subtle parody of contemporary America along with the specter of hope it left for its inhabitants.

Ford has been called a Southern writer, a New Jersey author, and after a 1987 edition of “Granta Magazine” published his short story “Rock Springs,” he got a rep as a Montana writer as well. Ford doesn’t like to be pigeonholed as a regional author, saying in one interview that he is content to try “to write a literature that is good enough for America.”
His 1990 novel “Wildlife,” and his 2012 novel “Canada,” are both set in and around Great Falls, Montana, a place that, like Mississippi, Arkansas and Maine, he considers home.

In that now infamous edition of the British quarterly, editor Bill Buford identified what he saw as a movement in American literature, grouping together a new generation of writers, including Ford’s friends Tobias Wolfe and Raymond Carver, and dubbing them “dirty realists.”

According to Buford, the “dirty realists” had noticeably less epic ambitions than the previous generation of American writers, like Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow. Their styles were also not self-consciously experimental like so much postmodern or deconstructionist writing of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and refreshingly unpretentious by comparison.

Many of the so-called “dirty realists” had their reservations about that assessment, but it did popularize a new kind of minimalism and herald a revival of the American short story. Undoubtedly, many of these writers had written unadorned, low-rent tragedies about rural Americans losing their way or who had already lost their way, and how they dealt with the brokenness of their lives in a fragmented world.

Many of Ford’s characters are unemployed drifters and grifters trying to get by in the spiritually-bankrupt ethos of modern consumerism. Ford’s recurring theme is not an easy idealism, but a suspicion of heroes, creeds, and crusades. Many of his fellow “dirty realists” shared the same assumptions about language, character and narrative and a willingness to engage the seamier sides of life

The title story of his short story collection “Rock Springs” is one that exemplifies the “dirty realist” approach to literature, both peculiar and haunting. It follows a car thief on the run for passing bad checks on his journey from Whitefish, Montana, to the town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, as he, his girlfriend, his daughter and her dog Duke try to make it to Florida in a cranberry Mercedes stolen from an ophthalmologist.

Read it and see if by the end you aren’t empathizing with a man casing for a new stolen vehicle in a Ramada hotel parking lot under the cover of night, trying to make sense of where things went wrong.