At some point last year or the year before I read several short stories by Richard Ford – Rock Springs, Communist and Under the Radar, and knew immediately I would like to read more of his work. I recently mooched his fourth novel, Wildfire, and within a few pages had this strange feeling I had read it before. I hadn’t in fact but the voice and the situation in Wildfire is nearly identical to the story Communist. I actually love it when something like this happens because it lets me see how Ford was playing with an idea, a situation, a certain voice and a type of character. Communist was published in his collection titled Rock Springs in 1987; Wildfire was published as a novel in 1990.
The bulk of the story of Wildfire occurs over a few short days in the fall of 1960 and is told by sixteen-year-old Joe. Joe, the only child of golf-pro Jerry and homemaker Jeanette, gives us a first person account of essentially three days. The three days which culminate in a two-year separation between his parents.
The novel begins like this:
In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.
It wasn’t until we meet Mr. Miller thirty pages later that I thought about the technique of opening the novel with this line and how it functioned against the novel as a whole. It’s a big statement. In fact, it’s a complete summary of what the next 163 pages are going to be about. The advantage of opening with a line like this is that I know when I first see Warren Miller on the page that he is someone I need to pay attention to, someone who will affect the story in a significant way. The risk is that it prohibits tension from building on its own.
Do I think Ford pulls it off? Yes, but that’s maybe not the real question. What I find more interesting is that Ford creates a certain mood around Warren Miller when we do meet him for the first time that this first hint about him is entirely unnecessary. Without it, I would still have “met” him and thought – pay attention, something interesting is going on here. The line works only as an introduction to the overall story and the information it gives is less important than the first person voice it establishes. Which is, I think, more to the point.
First person narration of this kind is a delicate and often difficult technique. The narrator, from some distant point in the future, is going over the events of a significant moment in his life. In some instances, a life-changing moment. But presumably the narrator is now beyond that moment, so how does he go about recreating the intensity of that instance for the reader? There is a certain amount of hindsight and analysis involved in the narrator’s recreation (elements which help represent the story on multiple levels and add deeper meaning), but at the same time, the narrator needs to reproduce the events in a way that will captivate the reader. The trick is to find a balance between self-awareness and disconnect so as to avoid melodrama and using a heavy-hand with revelation.
In Wildfire, Ford handles his narrator with a lot of understatement and subtlety. Sometimes too much, however, because there were moments I started to wonder whether this kid was going to react to anything. But I think this is probably the better side to err on, because if he’d been throwing things left and right and getting in people’s faces, he would have taken over what was happening between his parents and the novel would have become his story. Instead, he functioned as a watcher, a listener, a timid evaluator. And although he did venture contemplative reactions to what was going on around him, he did not ever “act” or put anything into motion on his own.
This is an interesting choice for Ford to have made. I should re-word one of my phrases above, in the sense that this novel maybe isn’t supposed to be “life-changing” for the narrator, but instead, eye-opening. It is essentially a sequence of events from his adolescence which teach him a valuable lesson – about adults, about love and about his family – and that he tells slowly and carefully over 160 or so pages. It’s a clever way to side-step the structure of a traditional coming-of-age novel.
Another aspect of the novel which was fun to chart was the dialogue. It very skillfully mirrors the increasing disjointedness between Joe and his parents. As their lives grow more haphazard and out of control, so does the dialogue grow more awkward and uncomfortable. Joe was a particular catalyst for this. He rarely offers anything more than variations of “I agree” or poses simple, fairly naïve questions. This reticence allows the adults around him to say too much. I can’t think of anything more conducive to awkward honesty than someone who doesn’t dare offer the slightest contradiction or opinion.
I think it is difficult to create a narrator who doesn’t “act” – and perhaps frustrating for a reader who might be more accustomed to the “I” being the novel’s mover and shaker, the one who will undergo some kind of overt transformation or affect change. In Wildfire, Joe doesn’t seem to change much at all. But as a witness to the transformation of those around him, a transformation which renders his world particularly unstable, he’s powerfully sympathetic.
The writing in Wildfire is quite exquisite so I’ll finish up with this passage:
I watched a tall spruce tree catch fire high in the dark. A spark had found it, and it exploded in a bright, steepling yellow flame that leaped and shot out bits of fire into the night toward other trees, and swirled its own white smoke, flaming and then dying quickly as the wind on the hillside- a wind that did not blow where we were – changed and died. It all happened in an instant, and I knew it was dangerous though in a beautiful way. And I understood, just as I sat there en the car with my mother, what I thought dangerous was: it was the thing that did not seem able to hurt you, but quickly and deceivingly would.