Monday, June 16, 2008

Watching a Family Fall Apart

Life can be full of troubles. Sometimes these troubles are the result of parents making a mess of their lives—putting their worries, scrapes, fears, and anger on display for their sons or daughters. When a family bond starts to show cracks, very often a person within this shake up learns things about human character that are surprising, maybe frightening. These things one can carry on as burdens, shake off like a bad habit, or learn to endure. Still, it is rarely something forgotten.

In Richard Ford's Wildlife, we read a story narrated by sixteen-year-old Joe Brinson as he watches his parents' marriage and lives unravel. The story takes place in Great Falls, Montana. It's a small town, with not much going on, except for a wildfire burning out of control just outside of town. With smoke on the horizon, obscuring the nearby mountains, people in town go about their day with some normalcy; though, everyone has a tingling sense that something dangerous is nearby. The year is 1960, but there isn't much in this book to place it squarely in that period.



Joe's dad, Jerry, is a gifted athlete, despite little dedication to practice. Jerry is a golf instructor, which has led for a somewhat itinerant life for his family. Joe's mother, Jean, has worked as a bookkeeper and a substitute teacher in the past, but she isn't working in Great Falls. She's pretty, and kind to Jerry and Joe, but she is longing for something that seems to be missing in her life. Joe's parents both graduated college, but the choices they have made about work and where they are is a disappointment to both of them. They've just moved to Great Falls, hoping for a little luck to come their way. As the story begins, Joe is okay with where his parent's lives have taken them. He doesn't have any friends in Great Falls. High school is just a place to go, and maybe a place where someday he'll figure out how to find his place. Joe's thoughts about high school and how to navigate his personal life are put on hold when his dad gets fired and his parents start to pull him into their difficulties. Soon, everything Joe believed or understood about his parents will change.

What makes this book such a great read is the quality of the writing, the exquisite details that grab you by the shirt collar and catch your breath. For example, these are Joe's thoughts as he begins to tell this story, thinking back on the years of his parent's difficulties:
The life my mother and father lived changed. The world, for as little as I'd thought about it or planned on it, changed. When you are sixteen you do not know what your parents know, or much of what they understand, and less of what's in their hearts. This can save you from becoming an adult too early, save your life from becoming only theirs lived over again—which is a loss. But to shield yourself—as I didn't do—seems to be an even greater error, since what's lost is the truth of your parents' life and what you should think about it, and beyond that, how you should estimate the world you are about to live in.
There are some books that seem so real, so full of life, that when you read them, you're amazed that a writer can have the power to reveal raw emotion on the page with such clarity. You learn something about life because a window into a character's mind and guts has been opened for you. Wildlife is that kind of book, and Richard Ford, that powerful of a writer. Many other books, in comparison, seem thin and shallow. If you have ever thought about or have experienced a family break up, this book will offer a clear-eyed perspective on how one lives through that kind of drama.

The last part of this book is riveting. You won't be able to put the book down. I can't let you in on the details, as it would ruin the climactic finale. You'll read what goes down and be reminded of how strange, challenging, and sometimes wonderful it is to watch parents navigate their challenges.

Richard Ford is well known for writing books that pulse with sharp realism. His prose is rarely fast paced. Ford writes like a skilled fly fisherman, expert and precise casting, again and again, and then, suddenly, the line snaps with life on the end, and he carefully reels you in to his brilliant point. Ford was born in 1944 in Oxford, Mississippi. He has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award (in fact, his novel Independence Day was the first to win both). He now lives in Maine. Read more about him at Wikipedia, the Mississippi Writer’s Page, or a Google search.)

Wildlife
is oddly not a well-known book, even among fans of Richard Ford, but it is one that I highly recommend.

Wildlife
by Richard Ford
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Vintage (June 4, 1991)
ISBN-10: 0679734473


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1 comment:

Kelly said...

And here's to think I'd read every Richard Ford novel out there, K.M. Apparently not. This one goes to the top of the list. Thanks for the review.