ROCK SPRINGS By Richard Ford Atlantic Monthly Press. 235 pp. $17.95
RICHARD FORD'S stories are as candid as daylight, as inevitable as noon. Experience was never more closely observed. Nor was language ever more comfortable than the first-person voice prevailing here. You believe every word.
That is so, you soon feel, because these stories are in fact largely true. Repetitions that at first seem careless, and then deliberate, later appear to be involuntary, the touchstones of a single life.
The setting is Montana, the culture one of near poverty and incipient violence. Men may work on the railroad, and women in bars, but unemployment is a natural condition. What occupies these Montanans, though never sufficiently for health's ease, are fishing, hunting, drinking and sex.
The main character, near 40, is a footloose and marginal man. He is attractive to women and men, and wise enough to understand much, but too bemused by life often to enter it with vigor. Some other, more vital character provides each story's energy; the role of the ostensible protagonist is to follow, to react and, at the end, to reflect.
One by one, these stories are fresh and free as new snow on the Clark Fork. Read together, they express fidelity -- even homage -- to the experience of a life. That kind of loyalty is not an unmixed virtue. The writer, too honest to deceive, too faithful to betray, loves life not wisely but too well.
Reluctance to alter how-it-was leads to a deficit of invention. Thus many of Ford's characters resemble those in other stories like cousins of an endogamous clan -- similar natures and habits, similar voices, similar relationships to other characters, even similar names. Ideas recur. Patterns repeat. All 10 stories emerge from one changeless sea of sadness, albeit with headlands of macabre hilarity -- a hanged pet monkey, or a paraplegic who, to impress girls, has a cab driven over his lifeless feet.
These problems arise not from the stories' own natures, but from their enforced society. A collection of art is not a work of art, as a zoo is not a beast, and almost any writer's stories, penned between hard covers, suffer a lack of air.
The first story, "Rock Springs," is the finest -- a heartbreaker. Its hero has problems more immediate, demanding from him a fuller response, than do Ford's other unhappy men. Earl, a petty criminal, is on the lam with daughter and dog and girlfriend who, at story's end, announces that she's leaving him. Earl is philosophically inclined, but morally superficial -- all he wants from life are "fewer troubles, fewer memories of trouble" -- and that hopeless hope gives the story its pathos.
"Going to the Dogs" is the most light-hearted of these stories, though its setting is typically grim. After his wife has sold their car and run off with a greyhound groom from the local dog track, the narrator is living alone on a farm, about to default on the rent and dreading the arrival of electric bills.
What arrives instead one morning, carrying guns, are hunters, "two fat women with a dead deer." Improbably, but not, as Ford spins the tale, implausibly, one lady hunter sleeps with the narrator while the other cleans his house -- and cleans out his wallet. These efficient women (their initial prey, a horned buck, lies outside, stiffening in the snow) are perfectly delightful characters, in whom Ford explicates the link between venison and venery.
OTHERS of the stories, too, mine interesting premises. "Sweethearts" tells how the narrator helps his lover's ex-husband surrender to enter prison. "Children" presents teen-aged boys given the job of keeping guard on a father's young and seductive mistress.
Every word is nicely chosen, each paragraph inviting -- and yet these stories often, where they ought to ring, thud. What fails to resonate is the impact on the viewpoint character: it's unclear why the story matters to him. This is expecially true of the childhood reminiscences. We don't know what they mean to the now-adult narrator, or why he is relating them.
Finally the reader may feel that these stories partake of both literature and liturgy -- that the impassivity and repetitiousness of their telling mark an act of worship, like reciting the stations of the cross. In Richard Ford's stories, as in those of many contemporaries, art seems grateful to surrender powers seized over centuries, turning aside from creation itself, and back to its primeval purposes of contemplation, devotion and awe.
Jonathan Penner's new novel, "Natural Order," is forthcoming. He is visiting writer at the University of Hawaii.