by Richard Ford
from the August 6 & 13, 2018 issue of The New Yorker
Richard Ford is working on a new novel and a new short story collection. “Displaced” comes from the latter, fortunately, so this is not an excerpt.
It’s been a very long time since I read anything by Richard Ford. The last story he published in The New Yorker was back in 2008, before I was posting on the stories here. I have no read any of the novels he’s published in the last decade. Really, this feels like a blast from the past for me, and not a particularly pleasurable one. There was a time Ford’s name would come up in conversations about The Great American Novelist, an heir to John Updike and Walker Percy, but that conversation feels very outdated, a relic. It doesn’t help that he has been idiotic to some who have publicly suggested his work isn’t that good — sending Alice Hoffman a copy of one of her books with bullet holes in it and then, not long ago, spitting on Colson Whitehead.
Is Ford’s day almost done? I’m so curious to see how folks respond to this story. Does it feel like a relic, or is it fresh and invigorating? Please share your thoughts below.
It’s a relic.
First things first, I liked that this is a short story that felt like a short story. I personally don’t mind excerpts in the New Yorker but I’ll give it to Ford for writing something that is easy to read and focused.
With that said the most I could say about “Displaced” is that it got me interested in seeing what his next “comic novel” set in Michigan is going to be like. I don’t mind the themes expressed in “Displaced” and wouldn’t mind something similar in a novel, but this story lacked movement and freedom to me. I felt like all I gathered in the end was a bunch of facts.
“Relic” captures my impression perfectly. It just felt like a workman-like effort that lacked any particularly original insights. Even the craftsmanship of the writing had some holes–e.g., the moments leading up to the kiss were a bit too obvious.
Overall, it was so studiously understated that you wonder what the point of writing it was.
Pretty masterful stuff from Ford here. He peaked, of course, with The Sportswriter and Independence Day (winning the Pulitzer AND the PEN-Faulker for the latter), but in recent years he’s been spinning his wheels a bit, with the later Bascombe novels leaving the impression of being a bit overwritten, one clause too many here and there, the writing striving too hard for the lapidary, but here he reminds us of just how talented a craftsman he is.
The Southern setting is perfectly evoked, and the adolescent observations are very well-rendered. It is one of the few New Yorker stories of recent vintage that really has me wanting to go back and reread it very soon. The characters are memorable and three-dimensional. The themes of othering, nonconformity, and the notion that identity is only forged by comparing ourselves to others are well-wrought. Even the gender aspects of the story are deftly conceived and executed. This story values subtlety yet manages to be dramatic because of the fragile state of the first-person protagonist Henry in the aftermath of the loss of his father. The story rejects sentimentality yet has emotional resonance, quite the achievement. At bottom, it’s a story where the protagonist’s father’s death hovers over the entire piece and makes this first and foremost a tale about undealt-with grief.
Not many weaknesses. Maybe too reminiscent a tone at times. The DIAL house felt a little Forrest Gumpy at times too (the bohemians and freaks all gathering under one roof, though that’s surely how it was in those days). But the overall notion of “We were transients” that comes out of the title (and, later, the conclusion) is well-handled.
Henry’s bonding with Niall, mixed with resentment, is the most enduring aspect of the story, as is a feeling of “trapped-ness.” Niall actually envies Henry’s innocence. And the Irish confessions at the end really work. The prose is tight and succinct throughout. How a writer ends his or her paragraphs usually shows a lot about their skill level. Consider: “He had a natural understanding of what stood right in front of him. It was a better way to approach the world than always having to be right and somebody else be wrong–which was how my mother saw life and wanted me to be the same.” Wonderful. As is: “If we ever went to the movies again, I thought I’d kiss him, since all in all it didn’t matter so much to me.”
The section about picking up blacks in one’s cab in Misssissippi (a literal crime then) is refreshingly devoid of that tone that infects so much contemporary fiction/TV/movies about the past (That “Oh, my god, we were so evil and racist back then” tone). And yes, this story is very much about fabricated narratives — from Bob hope movies at the drive-in to the conflation of horse operas, cartoons, and newsreels (history as just another ever-changing narrative/story). I was reminded of both Walker Percy and Paul Auster, which makes sense, as Ford was a southerner who moved to and wrote about the northeast.
Hopefully Ford has re-found his touch. This augers well for him as he moves into the late part of his life. There might be something left in his quite large and gifted tank.
A relic, yes, but a beautiful relic at that.
The last sentence of this quote is bothering me –
“It had been owned once by a well-known judge, who’d had children and grandchildren—one of whom, it was said, still occupied the top floor and suffered shell shock in the war. I would sometimes look up at what I fantasized was his window and believe that I saw him, obscured behind a thin curtain. I never saw him outside, though I would not have recognized him if he’d walked up to me and said my name.”
It sometimes happens that the sense of something written just fails to materialize for me (usually because of some inflexible mental habit), even though it makes sense to others. I’m wondering if that’s the case here.
It’s the word “though” that makes me stumble. It just seems completely illogical as a connector of the parts of the sentence. I even took the trouble of listening to the author reading it, in the hope that something in his inflection or way of expression might clarify what he meant, but no such luck. It doesn’t make sense to me when I hear him saying the words, either. Odd.
How about this as a reading of that line, mehbe:
“I never saw him outside, though even if I had ever seen him outside I would not have recognized him if he’d walked up to me and said my name.”
I agree with you that it’s a badly written sentence, but I think this what be what he is trying to say.
This piece left me feeling ambivalent. On the whole, I find it well enough written. It succeeds in establishing a proper sense of place and time, both through the various details pertaining to Jackson in the 50s as well as the language used to craft the voice. That being said, the voice itself feels a bit dispassionate and remote, which, while not inherently problematic, seems to drain a sense of personality from the story rather than lend it the kind of sharp, laconic edge that other stories have very effectively captured. As for the themes at play here, they are all well and good; if I have any gripe, it’s that Ford doesn’t manage to say anything particularly new or illuminating about the topics handled–homosexuality, class struggles, transgressiveness, alienation, etc. While I didn’t dislike “Displaced”, I’m not certain I’ll come back to it again in the future.
What stood out to me the most while reading this story is how closely it mirrors two other pieces, one of which Ford has written and the other he hasn’t: “Communist” and “The State of Grace”, respectively. In “Communist”, the narrator is a distant, somewhat apathetic teenaged boy who lives with his struggling mother in postwar Montana in the wake of his beloved father’s death. The story, which is told in retrospect by an aged narrator, largely focuses on he and his mom’s interactions with a transient, transgressive man who enters their lives, and how the protagonist is influenced by this man (and his mother) as his own identity forms. Harold Brodkey’s “The State of Grace” is a short story told in retrospect by the narrator and set in postwar St. Louis. This piece follows the life of a hyper-intelligent, cynical, disaffected teen who is trying to establish a sense of identity while he lives with his struggling mother in the wake of his father’s death. Do either of these sound familiar? What’s more, Ford read “The State of Grace” for the New Yorker Fiction Podcast some years ago, so there’s no question that he is intimately familiar with that piece. While I have no problem at all with authors being influenced by the work of others (nor do I find it problematic for authors to return to theme that they’ve written about in the past), there were times when the plot details between “Displaced” and Brodkey’s felt too similar, almost as if Ford was (subconsciously or not) mimicking his predecessor’s story. Of course, I’m not accusing Ford of plagiarism or anything of the sort. All the same (and unfortunately for Ford), Brodkey’s version contains stronger writing and more powerful nuggets of insight, at least in my opinion.
David – thanks for the help.
I realized my main problem with it could easily be fixed with a semi-colon – “I never saw him outside, though; I would not have recognized him if he’d walked up to me and said my name.” Or a period would also work, creating two sentences that each made sense.
But I think what the author was trying to convey was that the person the narrator saw through the curtain was quite indistinct, so indistinct that the person wouldn’t be recognized on the street. But part of the problem there is that the narrator wouldn’t actually know if he had seen the guy outside or not. I’m not sure how ford managed to tangle the thought up the way he did – it is a bit peculiar, as if some revising had been started and left unfinished.
In ‘Displaced,” the protagonist is “remote” as Reader noted, or seems very detached from his “I” or “his myself” as though he had no identity apart from being his father’s son. So his only identity is lost when his father dies.
What seems sort of strange is how there doesn’t seem to ever have been much self there. And maybe when one is young that is truer than a Holden Caufield in “Catcher In The Rye” who never seemed to give a rat’s butt about what anyone else but himself thought or said.
It is almost as if he died when his father did and it’s as though his own spirit watches his body carry on like a stick afloat in the continuously continuing sea of life. Maybe that is the point of the story or part of it? He isn’t actually the easiest sort of character to identify with.
What was interesting was the oblique study of good contrasted with bad. When is something good and when or how does it tip over into being bad or just indifferent. Ford gives life a very bored, mundane quality as though nothing interesting will ever happen for this guy as he shuffles his way through life. There’s just this very tedious and then and then and then where nothing matters kind of thing going on. It is well expressed but a little-off putting.
I wanted a little more explanation of what this guy was displaced from because the father didn’t seem to have been singularly notable in any other way other than having taken better care of the family then if there hadn’t been a father.
Like Sean H., I found much to like in this story.
Before getting to the story itself, I want to address the “relic” criticism. I would rather say that it is a standard, conventional, “wellmade” story, in the manner of Peter Taylor or Alice Munro – a well-crafted tale. One might argue that this type of story has already been written for many decades so it is outmoded. I disagree. If one tried to write in the style of Hemingway, a distinct, idiosyncratic manner, that would be retrogressive. But a story in a neutral style is always welcome. I recently re-read “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, and found it strong and human. A human story, whether new or old, is good reading, in my view. Especially when the alternative seems to be the trendy nonsense that Zadie Smith is turning out lately – “The River” and “Now, More Than Ever”.
One of the strong points in this story is the contrast in character. The narrator, Harry, is neutral, perhaps neuter, unformed, unsure of himself, passive. Niall, in contrast is strong but restless, active. Harry is someone you can bank on, as his father would say. But he is boring. Niall is undependable, but striving. Safe vs. dangerous. Niall could lead you into trouble, Harry won’t lead you into anything.
Which boy is the story about? Both. It’s partly about the narrator, but he doesn’t have any strong feelings or strong desire. He doesn’t learn much, if anything. And he doesn’t change. Whereas Niall has strong feelings and has desire. Does he change? Perhaps he does learn something about himself. We don’t really know.
I think this is the weakest aspect of the story – there is no strong “outcome”. It appears that neither character learns anything obvious or changes clearly. Harry’s final rumination focuses around being someone you could “bank” on. Yet I hardly see this as profound. Perhaps the real meaning is that Harry ends up with this platitude of his father’s as his final thought. Quite bland.
About the title – Niall is displaced from his country; later he becomes displaced from the U.S. as well. And he is also displaced from society by his homosexuality, which would be accurate for those times. Finally, he is displaced from the Navy. A “blue ticket” is a form of discharge, neither honorable nor dishonorable. In this context, it suggests a homosexual discharge: “A blue ticket became the discharge of choice for commanders seeking to remove homosexual service members from the ranks.”
Most important, Niall is displaced from his true self by being homosexual – he can’t be that way openly. He is a cartoon Irishman. And he is exaggeratedly macho, about Anita Ekberg, for example. At one point, Harry says about Niall: “As is his actual self was now being disclosed.”
What of Harry? I think he is displaced from his own feelings:
“Try to find the word.”
“There probably wasn’t a word for how Niall felt.”
“I felt a long way from anywhere.”
Most telling – Harry has no reaction, either positive or negative, when Niall tries to kiss him. He’s just accepting, doesn’t react either way. There are many places where he says this. For instance: “I had no intention of doing it again. At the same time, it didn’t really matter that we’d done it. Or that he had.” Also: “For two boys to kiss, I thought, wasn’t the worst thing. . . I just hadn’t enjoyed it. He had kissed me, I hadn’t kissed him.”
Harry’s numbness and lack of connection with his feelings is demonstrated at the top of the middle column on p. 58. It starts with “And, of course,” and goes through the end of the next graf. Niall asks questions. He has answers. Harry doesn’t answer, he’s virtually dumb.
Harry’s wants are mostly fantasy, like envisioning himself and his mom and Niall as a synthetic family riding away on a train. Very vague and sexless. Harry, along with his mom, also dreams of an ideal American life:
“Every sort of pitfall and danger that could ruin us and ruin our chances for restoring life”
“An opportunity to model myself on someone with possibilities.”
Ford does a nice job of throwing in “Paris Holiday” as the movie at the drive-in, an obviously fake Bob Hope-Anita Ekberg fantasy romp. Harry’s mom makes me think of the dreamy mother in “Glass Menagerie”.
As I was re-reading the story, I realized how wellcrafted it is (in a reliquary kind of way). As I see it, the story has 10 sections:
Section 1, about narrator: From the beginning to “when it left me feeling abandoned”.
Section 2: about milieu: down to “We’d have known who we were and had become.”
Section 3 (short): about McDiarmids, including Niall: down to “as if they carried an illness.”
Section 4: about Niall and Harry: down to “who he was and where he’d been born.”
Section 5: about Niall as Harry’s friend: down to “the mismatched parts we were.”
Section 6 (long): about Niall starting to bring Harry into the wider world, beginning of true plot or conflict: down to “what the old lady had said to us had made him happy.”
Section 7 (very long): about Niall seducing Harry at the drive-in: down to “It had happened before.”
Section 8: Niall makes his move, Harry doesn’t respond: down to “I felt better for having gone to the drive-in with him, no matter what had happened there.”
Section 9: Niall has a confidential, honest conversation with Harry: down to “As if this was all that life had so far taught us.”
Section 10: coda, about Niall’s fate and Harry’s reflections: down to the end.
After I wrote this, I saw that there had been more comments. In particular, Reader felt that “the voice itself feels a bit dispassionate and remote” and that this fact “drains a sense of personality from the story.” I agree with that about Harry. However, I feel that Niall’s searching behavior instills some personality into the story. Reader also says that “Ford doesn’t manage to say anything particularly new or illuminating about the topics handled.” I think this fits with my thought that the weakest aspect of the story is that it doesn’t show any outcome or change.
William, I want to take up the question of hoe this story is a relic. I certainly do not take that description to merely be saying that it is of an older style of writing and using Zadie Smith as the only alternative is a fairly false dichotomy. I call the story a relic because if you had told me it was written 50 years ago instead of now, I would have understood why it is interesting and why it has something to say. But as a story appearing for the first time today it seems all so banal and familiar that I can’t see what Ford thought was worthwhile about it. You quoted Reader saying, “Ford doesn’t manage to say anything particularly new or illuminating about the topics handled–homosexuality, class struggles, transgressiveness, alienation, etc.” I would go further than that and say that the story reads like Ford thought he was saying something novel about those themes and ending up saying a lot less than what has already been said many times over. In that sense, the story seems dated – something I could appreciate more had it been written 50 years ago, but not impressive at all now.
One of the books I am reading now is William Trevor’s Last Stories. Trevor started writing more than 60 years ago. Several of his last stories are, or could easily be, set in the past. He writes about a number of small town people living simple lives. There is a bit of a timeless quality about these stories. But as I read them, I don’t think they are old fashioned or out of date or that they don’t have something to say today as new works. In his final years he was an older writer with a sensibility of a previous generation, but he was a master storyteller right up to the end. His last stories are not mere relics that make you think he might have been a good writer long ago. With this story, the best I can say is that Ford probably did write some good stories in the past. But if this is an indication of where he is now, he’s running on fumes.
I don’t want to push this issue further than it warrants. I like the story, and I find its traditional style copacetic. But I don’t find it a strong contender for the Best Stories of 2018 collection. It’s just a nice advance on the pablum that they have been feeding us.
Also, I am not strong on historical comparisons. I only referenced the Zadie Smith stories because they are all the NYer has published lately that is not totally bland. And they are epic fails.
I don’t know whether Ford thought he was making important statements. Only that I agree with Reader — and you — that he didn’t. My statement that the story’s main weakness is that it has no novel outcomes is pretty much equivalent to your saying that it says nothing new about the topics that it addresses. I just enjoyed the relating of the interchanges between Harry and Niall.
Ford didn’t tangle the thought. You did, I’m afraid. A semi-colon wouldn’t do, and a period especially wouldn’t do. Why? Because it’s not two thoughts; it’s one thought. There’s a common enough phrase: “I never saw X, though I wouldn’t have recognized X if I did,” which is basically exactly what this sentence says. “I never saw Mehbe in person, or I don’t believe I did, but I can’t be certain, because I don’t know what he looks like, and therefore I wouldn’t have recognized him if I had seen him.” Ford is relying on his readers having a fairly basic knowledge of idiomatic, conversational English in that sentence. Consider a gap in yours filled in, and give him a thanks.
David, William, etc.,
I don’t think the story is a relic. Sure, I see Ford using a style that I familiarly associate with his work–and content that very obviously spirals off of his last book, a memoir about his father’s death when he was young, and how he lived in his grandparents hotel in Mississippi–but into that familiarity I see him folding many of the themes dominating public discussion. It is interesting to consider this story alongside the recent New Yorker sensation “Cat Person,” for instance. Here we have many of the same themes: a romance, as it were, between a naive protagonist and an untrustworthy, mercurial, abusive friend, who puts the protagonist in an unwanted sexual situation. This story fleshes out many of the lacks in “Cat Person,” while also removing many of the elements that made it such a sensation, namely the young woman’s point-of-view and the frank description of bad sex. The characters here feel much more developed than in the aforementioned sensation, seeming to have histories, for instance, rather than feeling like ciphers, or pawns in the author’s compositional goals. It is a carefully developed study in how a young naive person can come to accept subjugation to a more dominant figure:
“Getting Niall sent off was the last thing I’d want to do. He was the only friend I had. If I lost him, I might as well give up on life. If we ever went to the movies again, I thought I’d kiss him, since all in all it didn’t matter so much to me.”
And by doing this, Ford has spoken, I think, to one of the more troubling aspects of the age, which is the tendency to think, as the narrator’s father does, in simplistic terms. In categories and easy definitions. There are good people and there are bad people. There are people you can bank on and people you can’t. People are not only one or the other–rather than both at different times–but you can also tell them apart. If you are the sort of person, for instance, who calls a woman a whore–a word, incidentally or not, that Ford has both of his male characters use–then you fall into a certain category, you are defined, and definable. To this way of thinking, so pervasive at present, the story says, in its final line, “if only life would turn out to be that simple.”
Thanks for your comment on whether the story is a relic, Henry. I’m afraid I have to take some points away for being condescending in your response to Mehbe, though! Don’t worry: you still come out ahead.
Ha, eh, fair enough, Trevor! Sorry, Mehbe. Could’ve done without the edge.
I would argue that the structure may be “traditional” but there’s a nebulousness and ambiguity here that seems more original. The main character is one of those people who sees both sides of a situation (set up in the opening paragraph) and is somewhat ambivalent and detached. I liked how this was not a typical coming-of-age story with a moral lesson or a coming-out narrative. Instead, he seems to have learned no lesson but he has had his horizons opened. I really liked his perplexed response to Bob Hope whose now-legendary mean-spiritedness as a person can’t help but inflect my response to him when I see one of his old movies. The fact that he sees Hope as ugly and as someone just standing talking mysteriously is almost either visionary or autistic.
Good observations. Especially about Harry not learning anything. I think I also made that point in my comments. It made me think of “Seinfeld”, which either Seinfeld or Larry David described as a show “where no one learns anything”. Yet it was enjoyable. Of course “Seinfeld” was funny. “Displaced” is enjoyable in a different way.
William, more than a description of the show, Larry David said a key idea to how they approached writing the show was the motto “no hugging, no learning”. It was around the time that Seinfeld started that even a show like The Simpsons was caving in to pressure to end episodes with someone having learned some lesson to justify the insanity that came in the previous 28 minutes. It was really awful and Larry David rightly wanted to have nothing to do with it.
Thanks for that amplification. It’s interesting to apply “no hugging” to “Displaced”. There was kissing, but it sure wasn’t warm and fuzzy.
This is a well-written piece, exploring the mentor-mentee archetype in the context of the 50s in Kansas at a delicate time of one’s life. It starts with the equilibrium already disturbed, the death of the father, and this dis-equilibrium further disturbed leading to the highlight of the boy to boy kiss. And close to the end, it is resolved with an absolution — with the difference between good and bad blending into the darkness.
Does the post say a thing about the story? Please hint.
Boy, Henrik, this the second fly-by comment you’ve posted in a week. Perhaps learn to comment something substantive yourself before you mock the creator of a blog that has been running for nearly 15 years? But learn to do it elsewhere. You are not welcome here.
Thanks everyone for all of your wonderful comments five years ago on this Richard Ford story….I am coming back here as this story is in Ford’s latest book…I feel very fortunate Trevor to be able to take advantage of this forum you created and maintain!