Inspiring Older Readers
Wildlife by Richard Ford
I always enjoy reading a novel by Richard Ford with his deliciously slow ticking prose that is almost in real time. Please do not try to read his books whilst travelling on a busy train or if you have a lot of distractions or reasons to pick it up and put it down because he is an author who requires full attention from his readers.
This one is told by Joe who has recently moved with his parents to live in Great Falls, Montana, a small and claustrophobic kind of place. Being sixteen is never easy and he goes to school in a half- hearted way, plays football rather badly and works part time in a photographer’s studio. He has no friends of his own age and instead spends a lot of time with his dad who works as a golfing teacher at a local club. They haven’t lived there very long before their steady, dull lives are rocked when dad is fired from his job and begins to unravel.
Watching from the side-lines, Joe begins to realise that his parents are fallible and we share his agony of realising that he is not the centre of their lives. This is all tangled in with a growing fear of the future and a keen awareness of mortality. Stillness and intense quiet pervades this novel as the plot unfolds and Joe examines what might happen next ‘I felt that the best part of my life was over now, and other things were starting’.
He has a very close relationship with his handsome young father who seems to treat him like a buddy. Looking back over the years Joe realises that he was a likeable but essentially shallow man even before he goes off the rails for a while when he loses his job at the country club. Joe tries to please him by pretending to be interested in sport as well, but soon admits to himself that he is never going to measure up. After a few weeks of loafing about town, his father undergoes a change and ‘began to wear different kinds of clothes, khaki pants and flannel shirts, regular clothes I saw people wearing, and he did not talk about golf anymore’.
He then becomes obsessed with the local wildfires that are rampaging across the countryside as the August heat builds. These have been in the background of the story right from the start when Joe describes how he watches them from afar:
‘At night, when I stood at the window and looked west up the valley of the Sun River towards the mountains that were blazing, I would taste smoke and smell it, and believe that I saw flames and hills on fire and men moving, though I couldn’t see that, could only see a brightening, wide and red and deep above the darkness between the fire and all of us’.
But although the fires are still far away, they become much more dangerous to Joe when his dad decides to re-invent himself by going away to work at fighting the local wildfires for three long days . He is desperate for his son to be proud of him.
Joe admires his fiercely independent mum who takes a job as a swimming teacher when her husband loses his job. The couple seem to have an easy relationship based on gentle and affectionate bantering but everything changes when dad goes away to the fires. Joe sees another side to her when she wastes no time in seeming to throw herself at a local businessman, Warren Miller. The reader shares Joe’s misery of witnessing their drunken flirtation when she takes him along with her to his house for an evening meal. At the same time, as any a sixteen year old would be, he is guiltily fascinated with their sexual involvement and we stand tensely with him in the shadows of his own house as he later sees Miller naked in the hallway. His relationship with his mother remains close, but increasingly awkward when she confides inappropriately intimate details about her relationship with his dad and her lover. He feels anxious when she tells him of her plan to move away from the family home and he isn’t at all sure what to do.
When his father returns he seems changed and much more confident but it’s too late because he senses that his marriage is finished:
‘I feel like everything’s tilting. The whole works’.
Time and time again Joe is put on the spot by his mother who wants to know what he thinks about her behaviour and his opinion of her lover. Later his father asks him about what has happened while he was away. Should he tell him the truth ‘because if said the wrong thing something in me would be ruined and I would never be the same again’.
He decides that he has to tell the truth and when he then tries to take his revenge and it all goes horribly wrong, he and Joe sit together in the car outside Warren Miller’s house. His father remarks on what a long odd day it has been and that he feels exhausted. What a remarkable author to make the reader feel exactly the same way. He reassures Joe that:
‘This won’t stay important forever, Joe’
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times gave suitable homage to Richard Ford as ‘one of the most compelling and eloquent storytellers of his age… providing us with both the pleasures of narrative and the sad wisdom of art’. This family portrait is spot on as it scrutinises these self -centred parents who really don’t deserve such a wise, mature and sensitive son. ‘Wildlife’ is a very unusual coming of age because it is one that is affectionate and non- judgmental that affirms the importance of a close family life with all its many joys and sorrows. I really enjoyed this elegantly told story and very much look forward to reading the other three that are set against the same landscape.