I renew my faith in great writing by turning back to my usual suspects: Richard Ford, Don DeLillo, Tim O’Brien, Joyce Carol Oates, and David Long.
Like most superlatives, “great” is subjective. For me, it is ultimately about reciprocity. The writer gives and readers return the favor by bringing their collective experience and empathy to the page.
Some people resonate with the sparse clarity of Raymond Carver: Others to the more embroidered style of John Updike. Each resonates on different strings.
I also believe that it is impossibly difficult to have true reciprocity with such geniuses as Milton, Joyce, and T.S. Eliot — but some are fortunate and patient enough to have that experience.
Recently, I was happily reunited with Richard Ford and his story Reunion.
There are no literary theatrics or clever plot twists, just a simple story about a chance meeting of two characters on the main concourse of Grand Central Station just before the Christmas holiday.
For some readers, that may be as good a cure for insomnia as any. But this plot is internal – memories, infidelity and damaged lives are the coins of this realm.
“When I saw Mack Bolger he was standing beside the bottom of the marble steps that bring travelers and passersby to and from the balcony of the main concourse of Grand Central. It was before Christmas last year, when the weather stayed so warm and watery the spirit seemed to go out of the season.”
The artistry begins in the second sentence. “It was before Christmas last year…” This is a small window into the storyteller’s point of view. A year has passed and this singular event has lingered in his memory.
“…when the weather stayed so warm and watery the spirit seemed to go out of the season.” For me, this is how a good writer invokes his or her control over the language. It could have easily been a simple observation of “unseasonable” weather – but it is enhanced by the emotional sense of stripping the Yuletide of its usual good tidings.
A few paragraphs later, Ford writes about the relationship between the storyteller and the character he is observing.
“For a while, a year and half before, I had been involved with Mack Bolger’s wife, Beth Bolger. Oddly enough – only because all events that occur outside New York seem odd and fancifully unreal to New Yorkers – our affair had taken place in the city of St. Louis, that largely overlookable red-brick abstraction that is neither West nor Middlewest, neither South nor North; a city lost in the middle, as I think of it.”
If you’re from St. Louis or live in the “middle”, this description probably does not endear you to the anonymous storyteller. But Ford gives us a glimpse into this “imperfect” character.
In our natural propensity to select a protagonist or hero, we are unsure who is our David and who is our Goliath. It is still an open matter and this is when the art of reciprocity begins.
Three paragraphs later, we see motive in the storyteller’s actions.
“But when I saw Mack Bolger standing in the crowded festive holiday-bedecked concourse of Grand Central, looking rather vacant-headed but clearly himself, so far from the middle of the country, I was taken by a sudden and strange impulse – which was to walk straight across through the eddying sea of travelers and speak to him, just as one might speak to anyone you casually knew and had unexpectedly yet not unhappily encountered. And not to impart anything, or set in motion any particular action (to clarify history, for instance or make amends), but simply create an event where before there was none. And not just an unpleasant event, or a provocative anyone. Just a dimensionless, unreverberant moment, a contact, unimportant in every other respect. Life has few enough of these moments – the rest of it being so consumed by the predictable and the obligated.”
The head wind of this paragraph is one long and convoluted sentence. But if you speak the words as you read them, you sense the almost manic sense of need from the storyteller. In the second sentence, the storyteller goes to great lengths to defend his need to “interact” and create this odd and uncomfortable reunion.
Later in the story, we hear Mack Bolger speak to the storyteller.
“I moved out in September. I have a new job. Beth’s not here. She’s in Paris where she’s miserable –or rather I hope she is. We’re getting divorced. I’m waiting for my daughter to come down from boarding school. Is that all right? Does that seem all right to you? Does it satisfy your curiosity?”
Ford’s storyteller responds:
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.” Mack was not angry. He was instead, a thing that anger had no part in, or least had long been absent from, something akin to exhaustion, where the words you say are the only true words you can say. Myself, I did not think I’d ever felt that way. Always for me there had always been a choice.”
Still we have no David or Goliath. Nor does Ford need one. The storyteller is manipulative and needs to feel superior even in inferior moments. The character of Mack has had his midwestern foundation rocked by events beyond his control. Manipulation is an acquired trait and one that may or may not take shape or form in this man from the middle.
What resonates for me is that Ford doesn’t expect us to love or hate either man. Lives have been wrecked that may have been destroyed in other venues and by other means.
But the storyteller has not moved on in any substantial way. He has linked this encounter to something grander – a way to stir up eddies he has left in the wake of his choices.
Yes, we all move on — but with varying degrees of speed and understanding. I have moved on in ways small and magnificently large. Ford reunites me with those memories.
Thank you again Richard Ford.
If you would like to read the entire story the link is below.