by Richard Ford
“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.” ― Richard Ford, Wildlife
Richard Ford is best known for his short stories and his three Frank Bascombe novels (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land). While I have not read those books, I may consider them because I found Wildlife (1990) to be an intense and interesting character study. It is set during the 1960 summer of rampant Montana forest fires which provide both background and metaphor for the flame-out of the narrator's home life.
The narrator is sixteen-year-old Joe Brinson whose family has recently moved to Great Falls, Montana. While Joe is trying to adapt to a new school and neighborhood his parent's marriage is slowly disintegrating. The decay of the marriage is exacerbated by Joe's father Jerry's loss of his job, after being falsely accused of theft, and his choice to become a firefighter; a decision that takes him away from his wife and son. Joe's mother is attracted to another man and this leads to situations that make Joe wonder about the meaning of his life and his relationship with his mother and father.
Joe is a thoughtful young man, but is confused by the changes he has been experiencing. They've left him a troubled and puzzling teenager on the border of maturity. With a spare, carefully shaped prose style that reflects the setting of the action and the quality of the problems and choices Joe faces, Ford creates a character and situations with which many young people can, no doubt, identify---Joe thinks to himself:
"I wondered if there was some pattern or an order to things in your life---not one you knew but that worked on you and made events when they happened seem correct, or made you confident about them or willing to accept them even if they seemed like wrong things. Or was everything just happening all the time, in a whirl without anything to stop it or cause it---the way we think of ants, or molecules under the microscope, or the way others would think of us, not knowing our difficulties, watching us from another planet?"(p 96)
While Wildlife is a coming of age story Ford uses the family relationships to provide it with a unique approach to a familiar form. Adding to the situation of the family is a growing intensity of thoughts and questions percolating in young Joe's head. The events slowly create a level of dramatic intensity that lead to a thought-provoking ending to the story of Joe and his family. This reader found the novel a sad but riveting tale reminiscent of Raymond Carver and Walker Percy in my experience.