richard ford

But speaking of America, I just read Independence Day, which is about as American as books come. The book is set during the long weekend of our national birth, and our hero, Frank Bascombe, is a real estate agent. 

The book is long and often rudderless, but it’s worth reading if only because Richard Ford comes up with sentences that break you a part. One of my favorites was: “The world, as I told him, lets you do what you want if you can live with the consequences.” 

On first read, the consequence part of the sentence loomed large, as consequences are often impossible to imagine. On the other hand, doing whatever you want is pretty easy to conceptualize. In this framing, consequence seemed like a never-ending punishment for choice. 

I quoted this sentence to a friend, who had, as Ford would put it, a hardscrabble start. She thought it was an optimistic view. Not everyone has the freedom to face consequences. Another friend said the fear of consequences is what keeps most people in their place. (In either view, North Koreans—the ones who can’t defect and the ones who do anyway—are a powerful example.)

Sometimes when I’m nervous at parties, I’ll ask a stranger what he thinks the American Dream is. Recently someone said there’s a “pat answer,” and that answer is having your children do better than you. In Frank’s case, his child isn’t going to do better than him. But I do think Frank is living a kind of American Dream, and not just because he owns property and has a business. He is able to face the consequences of his decisions, which might be just what the founding fathers had in mind. 

"A fact was something solid and useful, like a penknife you could put in your pocket in case of emergency."

And what I felt was only that I had somehow been pushed out into the world, into the real life then, the one I hadn’t lived yet. In a year I was gone to hard-rock mining and no-paycheck jobs and not to college. And I have thought more than once about my mother saying that I had not been raised by crazy people, and I don’t know what that could mean or what difference it could make, unless it means that love is a reliable commodity, and even that is not always true, as I have found out. 

Let’s face it: fiction’s a gamble. Nothing that happens in a novel is a fact. Read a book about Alaska, and no matter how the sentences are put together, you’ll know something about Alaska. 

But I read fiction for the chance to learn something about being a person. I lose this bet more than half the time. But I keep reading to learn a truth, which I can keep in my pocket along with my penknife. Richard Ford’s Rock Springs is that kind of fiction. Reading it right now feels like the best thing that has ever happened to me.