Last reviewed: June 2017
American novelist and short-story writer.
February 16, 1944
In Richard Ford's novel The Sportswriter, the title character remarks, "The world is a more engaging and less dramatic place than writers ever give it credit for being." This observation sums up a central aspect of Ford's fiction, which elevates the undramatic concerns of ordinary people above the banality of their situations to a level of universal meaning and significance.
A sketch of Ford's early life reads much like the biography of one of his fictional characters. (Indeed, he has incorporated autobiographical elements into the lives of several of his protagonists.) He was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1944, the only child of a traveling starch salesman whose death from a heart attack he witnessed at the age of sixteen. He grew up close to his mother and a grandfather who managed a hotel in Little Rock, Arkansas. Ford entered Michigan State University in 1962, initially planning to study hotel management, but he changed his major to literature. He began writing in college but had no plans to pursue a writing career until he quit law school at Washington University after one semester in 1968. He married Kristina Hensley that year and moved with her to California to study writing at the University of California at Irvine, from which he received his MFA in 1970. Richard Ford.
Ford recounted in a 1987 interview how he spent his first two years out of graduate school in Chicago, trying unsuccessfully to sell short fiction. In 1972 he was offered a teaching fellowship by the University of Michigan for writers trying to complete a work in progress and began work immediately on a novel in order to qualify. That novel, A Piece of My Heart, was published in 1976. The story of a working-class drifter and a Chicago law student whose mutual rootlessness brings them together on an island in the Mississippi delta, it introduced the themes of spiritual isolation and alienation that underlie much of Ford's writing. The book was well-received and was a runner-up for the Ernest Hemingway Award for best first novel, although its vivid evocation of the rural South led some reviewers to criticize its neo-Faulknerian style and to label Ford a Southern writer.
Ford shook off that label when his second novel, The Ultimate Good Luck, was published in 1981. Its plot is the stuff of "B movies": Vietnam veteran Harry Quinn finds himself caught between a corrupt government and a vengeful drug kingpin while trying to spring a former girlfriend's brother from a prison in a revolution-torn Mexican village. Ford uses these pulpy elements to elaborate on existential ideas carried over from his first novel, most notably life's inherent chaos and confusion, the importance of adapting to its unpredictable turns, and the anomie that awaits those who search for life's meaning.
A threat of violence hovers in the background of Ford's early fiction. The protagonists in A Piece of My Heart and The Ultimate Good Luck indulge self-destructive tendencies bred by their disaffection, and several characters in the stories collected in Rock Springs are outlaws or men driven to violence through their inability to take control of life's circumstances. Ford's third novel, The Sportswriter, departs sharply from this pattern, even as it crystallizes the concerns of its predecessors. It is narrated by Frank Bascombe, a thirty-eight-year-old resident of Haddam, New Jersey, who has floundered in life ever since he failed to follow through on the literary promise of an early short-story collection. The death of Frank's nine-year-old son caused him to detach emotionally from his world and eventually precipitated a divorce from his wife, whom he refers to throughout the novel simply as "X."
Frank now makes his living as a sportswriter for a Manhattan-based magazine, and although he professes comfort with his current lifestyle he is clearly not happy. He admires athletes for their "literalness"—that is, their ability to relinquish "doubt and ambiguity and self-inquiry" and to be "happy to be what they do," because these are the very qualities he lacks. Frank is in life, as in his job, an outside observer, someone who has lost the means to participate and experience directly. He takes the reader on a guided tour of his life, in which each romantic liaison, meeting with friends, or visit to his ex-wife and two surviving children underscores his inability to connect emotionally with others. Set over the course of one Easter weekend, the novel culminates in the death of a friend, an event which appears to effect a symbolic resurrection of feeling in Frank.
The Sportswriter garnered Ford overwhelmingly positive reviews and earned him the PEN/Faulkner citation for fiction. In 1987 his reputation as an important writer of his generation was solidified with the publication of Rock Springs, whose stories several critics compared favorably with the work of Raymond Carver. Together with Carver, Ford became seen as a leading example of the literary movement labeled "dirty realism."
Ford held teaching positions at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Princeton University; and Williams College between 1976 and 1979 and was a Guggenheim Fellow and twice a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow between 1977 and 1986. He was awarded the Mississippi Academy of Arts and Letters literature award in 1987, and the New York Public Library Literary Lion Award and American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters literature award in 1989.
Ford's fourth novel, Wildlife, published in 1990, extends his Rock Springs story cycle through its account of an itinerant family's breakup during the course of a forest fire that rages through Great Falls, Montana, in 1960. Independence Day, published in 1995, is a sequel to The Sportswriter, set two years after that story's events. The novel won both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Frank Bascombe is now a real estate broker who applies the wisdom of his experience to his business and to helping his emotionally troubled son Paul avoid making some of his own mistakes. Self-assured but cynical, Frank emerges as Ford's most memorable creation, a malleable character capable of shifting to accommodate Ford's changing perspective on the human condition. Frank's growth and maturation match Ford's own transformation from a young neo-Faulknerian to a seasoned writer whose best work compares with that of Walker Percy, Richard Yates, and Raymond Carver.
Ford would continue the story of Frank Bascombe, documenting further stages of the character's life. The 2006 novel The Lay of the Land chronicles Frank's later years as a real estate agent, with age and cancer adding complications to his relationships. It received generally strong reviews, and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Despite Ford's claims that The Lay of the Land brought Frank's story to an end, 2014 saw the publication of Let Me Be Frank with You, a collection of four novellas centered on the character as he faces old age and the wreckage of his hometown by Hurricane Sandy. The work put Ford in the running for a second Pulitzer Prize, though it did not win.
Though Ford's Frank Bascombe books remain his best-known, he also found success with other works. His short-story collection A Multitude of Sins (2001), focusing on issues of love, and his novel Canada (2012), about a boy whose bank-robber parents are arrested, were both well-received. Ford also served as editor for several volumes of short fiction throughout his career.