Richard Ford (who I always think is John Ford) writes stories in the third person which read like stories in the first person, and I wanted to find out how and why he did this. I read the first story in his book Women With Men (Little, Brown) in Australia in 1995, when it was published in the British journal Granta, and the story stopped me short in my journey, in a way: it seemed addressed to me personally in that moment.
The piece in Granta is called “The Womanizer,” which seemed entertaining enough as a title, and by the end of the story (in which the hero, Martin Austin, leaves his wife in Chicago, journeys to Paris—where he had previously met Josephine and not had an affair with her—and then loses Josephine’s son, whom he is babysitting, in some bushes in the Jardin du Luxembourg, where the child is molested, whereupon Josephine curses him) I was gasping for breath because it seemed Martin was inside me. When I went back to read it last month in the book—where it appears with two other, slightly less interesting stories, “Jealous” and “Occidentals”—I read carefully and only in disconnected, randomly selected blocks or pages, and the story had the same light-breathed effect: I felt I was living it, not reading it, and although I was reading at home, and more analytically, so I thought, I felt I was travelling yet again in an imagined presence that was distant.
I told myself that Ford (Richard, not John) achieves this discombobulating effect by telling us the story that Austin, the hero, hears and/or narrates continually to himself (we readers have to puzzle out which it is) in the disguise of the story of his life, and that this story has something to do with masculinity, as this location or language is imagined in relation to femininity, that other region or presumed state of being, or even possible substance. And after writing that sentence, I already feel the pull (or is it stir?) of Ford’s diction tugging at my syntax and also my lowered centre of gravity, and feel I need to grasp something to steady myself, to get a grip, so to speak, on my narrative.
Is this what men fear: losing hold of their story? I think women think this, and John or Richard Ford senses this thinking, and it is his ability to convey the grammatical dislocation and actual terror (and to imagine the eyes of the woman gliding along its textual outlines, and possibly soothing their turbulence) that gives this book—especially its first story—its ache and wallop and possible glory.