Thursday, December 25, 2008

Richard Ford's "Reunion"

It sounds tricky, of course, but one of the themes in my own work is "what happened to men after what happened to women." I attempted to talk about this in my interview with Nancy Zafris, archived on the Kenyon Review site -- didn't do a very good job of it. The idea is that prior to the women's liberation movement men and women were raised, literally, to relate to one another in certain ways. When the change came, in the 1970's so goes my version of the story, there was an earthquake in the culture as old v. new smashed and ground against one another and as women in the full flush of new possibilities and a scramble for opportunity flexed themselves against their generation of men who were startled and puzzled by how all this was to affect them. Not talking about the men who resisted these changes for women, trying to protect their realm or simply trying to keep things the same so they knew who they were. Talking about those many men who were very happy at these new changes, still are, but did not anticipate the full array of implications. The baby boomer generation that gave us the "summer of love" in '60's was suddenly the generation of divorce. There was a huge scramble. A lot of full grown adults, more than usual by far, were single, or were behaving that way. There was a shakeout going on. It was fairly big and not subtle.

Richard Ford's story "Reunion," from his great collection A Multitutde of Sins, captures a moment, a chance meeting, of two men as they crossed the big main floor of Grand Central Station. One of the men, recently divorced, was waiting for his daughter to arrive on the train. The other was a man who'd had an affair with the divorced man's wife before the divorce. There had been a bad scene in the past, in which the husband caught the two in a hotel and open-hand slapped the guy silly. So that was the history of the two, not having seen each other since, when a couple of years later they chance to cross paths down on the main floor of the giant train station. They exchange polite hellos, neither of them ready to fight some more, but the maneuvers, body language, alpha behaviors, fully deploy. The (ex) husband has a psychological leg up on the other, because the last they met he'd slapped him around. The other guy (Johnny, our bad boy point of view character) has an interest in scoring a couple of points to at least get back to even, even if it's subliminally just by dominating this ostensibly nonconfrontational moment and scene. The (ex) husband finally says for him to leave. He says, "I'm due to meet my daughter right now and for obvious reasons I don't want her to meet you." So Johnny starts to recede, and the (ex) husband says something to him as he departs. He says, "Just so you know, nothing happened here today. Nothing happened." This was his way of saying, "If you were here to even the score, you didn't get it done."

The story is over moments after that. Johnny does a small swirl of narration to try to moderate the appearances of his intent. That is the climax. I suppose there is nothing new about menfighting over a woman. But when you read the story you understand that one reason she and her two men were now alone in this world has to do with forces bigger than marriage and adultery and family and even ego and narcissism and character and good and bad. It's geothermal, somehow, continental plates shifting. The story shows a specific instance of how certain underpinnings, or what used to be underpinnings, are iffy now, culture cracked and consensus gone, at least in our urban society if not in Pinkneyville, Illinois yet, causing a misery of uncertainty and a lot of rough games between people who aren't "bad" but who end up being villains in someone else's story.

Hell, I don't know. There is so much more to this story than what I'm saying -- I'm just trying to make an ordinary point. I'll continue to try to express this in paraphrase, but the wonder of the short story as an art form, and the wonder of Richard Ford's story collection A Multitude of Sins and, for me, this one story, "Reunion," is the SHOWING instead of paraphrasing. As a writer, I think when i've read this one, how can I write something that makes a reader feel what this story made me feel? And whatever that is, how could I ever tell it, let alone show it.

1 comment:

  1. Aren't we, as a species, just fascinating? And you're right; how do we find the words to express even the smallest portion of how we feel?