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Huey Guagliardo, ed. Perspectives on Richard Ford. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2000. xx + 210 pp.
In his introduction to Perspectives on Richard Ford, editor Huey Guagliardo states, "There can be little doubt that Mississippi author Richard Ford will find a secure place in the canon of American literature" (xi). Where exactly that place will be, however, remains an open question. It seems safe to assert that Ford's fiction can currently be found in far more creative writing classrooms than in postmodern American literature courses. Despite the fact that Ford won the Pulitzer and PEN/Faulkner Award for Independence Day, he is probably best known for Rock Springs, a stark collection of short stories admired for its careful attention to language, sober representation of place, and painstaking examination of human relationships. Ford's short stories have provided a valuable example for writers studying the craft of fiction. But what place does Ford's work, with its realist style and ceaseless investigation of modernist themes of alienation and existentialism, have among more fully canonized contemporary writers such as Morrison, Silko, Pynchon, and DeLillo?
As a first organized attempt to map Ford's writing and place in American literature, Perspectives very effectively identifies the major themes in the body of Ford's work and suggests critical approaches to his fiction that extend beyond the study of craft. Yet many of the essays, including Guagliardo's own on Ford's marginal characters and W. Kenneth Holditch's on despair and desperation in A Piece of My Heart, examine Ford's fiction largely on Ford's own terms. A major desire, as Guagliardo states in reference to his interview with Ford that concludes the collection, is to "allow the writer himself to have the last word" (xvii), and coincidently or not, a third of the nine essays in the collection actually conclude with a Ford quote. Similarly, because Perspectives is the first compilation of Ford criticism, it is also the first to establish a canon of secondary materials. Chief [End Page 368] among them are an article Ford wrote for Esquire entitled "The Three Kings: Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald" and Kay Bonetti's Missouri Review interview with Ford, sources cited repeatedly in many of the essays. While the ability of authors to comment on their own works should not be discounted, the collection sometimes yields to Ford when it might be more critical. In "Redeeming Loneliness in Richard Ford's 'Great Falls' and Wildlife," for example, Elinor Ann Walker quotes Ford from her own South Carolina Review interview with him to explain his protagonists' motivations, stating, "Ford provides a lens through which to view his narrators' searches" (136). Ford's comments are insightful, and his fiction clearly demonstrates a writer in complete control, but perhaps he is a bit too in control of the lenses through which his books are being read as well.
While many of the essays deftly scrutinize and celebrate Ford's handling of the themes of loneliness, despair, and dislocation, the most engaging studies are those that extend the bounds of conventional readings. Robert Funk's inventive analysis of The Ultimate Good Luck, for example,resuscitates what has often been deemed Ford's "failed novel" by reading it as a type of postmodern detective/adventure story. Drawing on the novels of Chandler, Hammett, and Hemingway, Funk argues that The Ultimate Good Luck's extraneous subplots and illusive hero are not flaws; rather, they advance the novel's complicated portrayal of constructed human agency at play in an existential world. In similar fashion, Jeffrey J. Folks's essay entitled "Richard Ford's Postmodern Cowboys" provides an insightful analysis of Ford's portrayal of the American cowboy, demonstrating how the author employs the mythological figure to epitomize a contemporary condition of dislocation. Folks's essay also includes perhaps the most provocative comment in the anthology: "Richard Ford's more radical examples of western 'independence' similarly echo, in a prescient manner, the militant antigovernment sentiments that reportedly led to the actions of those responsible for...