Novelist Richard Ford remembers his parents in ‘Between Them’ – USA TODAY
Entering the past is precarious business, Richard Ford tells us at the beginning of his thoughtful but uneven new memoirÂ Between Them: Remembering My Parents,Â because the past âstrives but always half-fails to make us who we are.â
Few are afforded the luxury of writing a book like this â brief, meandering, meditative Â â but Ford, author of the Bascombe novels and winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for fiction â deserves to be one of those people.
His first foray into non-fiction (Ecco, 175Â pp., **Â½Â out of four stars)Â is divided into two parts, about his father, Parker, and his mother, Edna.Â âI’ve tried to be cautious,â Ford explains, âso that my own acts of telling about them and their influence on me not distort who they were.â
First we are introduced to Parker, âa large man â soft, heavy-seeming, smiling widely as if he knew a funny joke,â who is working as a produce man at a grocery in Arkansas when he meets a âpretty, black-haired, small, curvy, humorous, sharp-witted, talkativeâ teenager named Edna. Their courtship would be brief; soon theyâd go on the road together, selling starch across the southeast, dreaming of starting a family.
Here, the story stalls. We follow along as the young lovers travel from state to state, but the narrative doesn’t really go anywhere. Digressions are made as scores of unanswered questions are posed: What did Fordâs parents talk about as newlyweds? What were their frustrations? Their unspoken wishes? Did they really want kids? The author does not speculate and we are left to fill in our own blanks.Â But perhaps that’s the point. Richard Ford is an extraordinary writer who, it becomes clear, has chosen to write about two rather ordinary people.
Eventually, after more than a decade of marriage, Baby Richard arrives, and much of the remainder of the book is drawn from his vague memories of childhood. Unfortunately, Ford can’t remember if his father had hobbies, if he was a man of faith, or if the old man had opinions about civil rights or any other current events.
âI don’t recall ever having an actualÂ discussionÂ with him,â Ford confesses.Â âWhen I think about my father through the haze of all these poorly recollected details,â he writes, âmy truest and most affectionate assessment of him was that he was not aÂ modernÂ father.â I was left scratching my head. Who was this old-fashioned man?
Fordâs goal here is noble. He wants us to appreciate that even mundane lives have consequence, but this approach makes for a somewhat middling narrative.Â There are, however, flashes of brilliance. The author’s yearning to hear his father’s voice one more time brought a tear to my eye, and his subtle observations are brimming with insight. As his parents approach middle age, Ford writes, âThey were in their forties â the clear-horizon years, when if you had a better idea you could try it.â Itâs easy to imagine the couple staring off into the distance, smiling.
âLife has only one certain closure,â Ford writes at the end of his stunning novelÂ The Sportswriter. But as his new book drew to a close, what stood out was uncertainty. Who were these enigmatic people? The story of Edna and Parker â the one that captures their hopes and dreams and fears â does not appear on the page. It remains between them.
Matt McCarthy is the author of The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly.