Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford. Harper, 173 pp.
Richard Ford’s new memoir, a short book made of two long essays, is a vocal performance. And he’s in good voice. Forget scenes: he’s telling. The New York Times Book Review said Ford’s prose style in his novel Canada (which I reviewed here) is “so accomplished it is tempting to read each sentence two or three times before being pulled to the next.” The same applies in Between Them: Remembering My Parents, though it’s Ford’s rhythms—how his sentences work together—rather than lone sentences that please you and lure you onward.
Here’s an early characterization of his father that slides into his mother:
His large malleable, fleshy face was given to smiling. His first face was always the smiling one. The long Irish lip. The transparent blue eyes—my eyes. My mother must’ve noticed this when she met him—wherever she did. In Hot Springs or Little Rock, sometime before 1928. Noticed this and liked what she saw. A man who liked to be happy. She had never been exactly happy—only inexactly, with the nuns who taught her at St. Anne’s in Fort Smith, where her mother had put her to keep her out of the way.
What various vocal rhythms here. Take just the first four sentences: a passive sentence—Daddy didn’t smile: his face itself was “given to” that act—followed by a great turn of phrase about that quality, his smiling nature; then a fragment; then another fragment—with a dash! More fragments follow. Their colloquial snap. Then, this passage about his father, in the essay about his father, pivots into his mother’s dire childhood. That’s a much longer sentence, with a kick at the end, though it relies on what’s come before. Relies on how Ford has set us up.
Ford seems ambivalent about the semicolon, using only a few in his new memoir, but plenty of dashes, short sentences, and sentence fragments. His style is undergirded by and reflects his forthrightly imaginative approach to his parents. Like they’re two of his fictional characters he’s made up. So he writes confidently, almost over-confidently. As in that great, cheeky (borderline smarmy) “only inexactly” line about his mother’s happiness. But we see in his judgments and generalizations the same confidence (and speculation and limits) we possess in musing upon our own ordinary yet mysterious parents.
He’s skating beautifully for us, in the southern Scots-Irish rhetorical tradition, on thin ice. Take his parents’ early days together. Sprung from loose-limbed, garrulous, backwoods clans—with stomping grounds and boon companions, and surely also with fresh collards and raw elbows—they drank companionably, and sometimes to excess, and in those sepia honeymoon years they “roistered.” His father settled into a bland career as a traveling starch salesman, and his mother accompanied his excursions across the South, until Richard came along.
You keep opening Between Them for their boy’s vocal performance. You can feel Ford’s implicit wink at us as he conjures his parents. His manifest love is how he escapes sentimentality in asking us to share simple affection for them. These ordinary forgettable people from Arkansas, who landed in Jackson, Mississippi, left no trace aside from their gifted only child. And as he talks them to life, rather than dramatizes their narrative arc—well, he does, inexactly—they melt away when you shut the book.
[Brian Doyle on his home turf at the University of Portland.]
Rhetorical & other reasons for Brian Doyle’s long sentences.
You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.
Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, of novels and narrative nonfiction, and a master of the short, tight essay made of long, loose sentences. His shortest essays verge on, or become, poetry. A devout Catholic, he saw life suffused by love. He took rapture in the ordinary, which he showed is extraordinary. He wrote the best essay about the 9/11 attacks, “Leap,” only 572 words. He died at the end of May of a brain tumor, aged 60. Early last week, I came across his essay “His Last Game,” reprinted by Notre Dame Magazine, and bookmarked it. Only 1,184 words, it’s about an outing with his older brother, who was dying of cancer, in 2012.
It feels almost wrong to analyze some of his essays rhetorically, since they’re about what’s sacred. But such study leads to imitation, and that’s what makes writers, even before they know they’re doing that lowly, necessary act, so that, when the greatest joy blesses them or the hardest fate befalls them, they can sing truthfully in their own voices. Craft is the necessary portal to make what’s called art from experience.
In the case of “His Last Game,” Doyle makes long, loose, plain, rambling sentences that put hard emphasis on conjunctions, which further imparts movement. He and his brother are in a single unfolding scene, driving around during an ordinary day. Which we see isn’t ordinary at all—the brother is sick. Very sick. Maybe he’s not going to make it. And Doyle’s looking at that, with his brother looking at it—their conversation and what they see is all about that, sometimes overtly but mostly between the lines. Enough for us to get and to feel all the implications.
Here’s the opening in paragraph in which Doyle plants his brother’s refrain: mock concern over remembering to pick up his medication, at this point pointless:
We were supposed to be driving to the pharmacy for his prescriptions, but he said just drive around for a while, my prescriptions aren’t going anywhere without me, so we just drove around. We drove around the edges of the college where he had worked and we saw a blue heron in a field of stubble, which is not something you see every day, and we stopped for a while to see if the heron was fishing for mice or snakes, on which we bet a dollar, me taking mice and him taking snakes, but the heron glared at us and refused to work under scrutiny, so we drove on. We drove through the arboretum checking on the groves of ash and oak and willow trees, which were still where they were last time we looked, and then we checked on the wood duck boxes in the pond, which still seemed sturdy and did not feature ravenous weasels that we noticed, and then we saw a kestrel hanging in the crisp air like a tiny helicopter, but as soon as we bet mouse or snake the kestrel vanished, probably for religious reasons, said my brother, probably a lot of kestrels are adamant that gambling is immoral, but we are just not as informed as we should be about kestrels.
[One of his many books.]
When an “unapologetic Catholic” blasted Portland, the magazine Doyle edited for Catholic Portland University, for covering the marriage of two men, Doyle replied that Catholics are “called to compassion, not to judgment.” Doyle’s spiritual outlook seemed inextricable from his stance as a writer—one who sees and weighs—and his response to life urged him to make his sentences in the first place. In other words, his inner vision determined what he looked at, and hence wrote about, and that ethos also fueled his need for expression. You can’t easily imitate such aware mental or emotional states, but you can aspire to them. You can earn them. And, as a bonus, that artist’s job is simply a human task.
Doyle also advised the University of Portland’s student journalists at The Beacon, their newspaper, and, upon his passing, its editor Rachel Rippetoe used a run-on sentence to make her own point about his animus toward periods—an existential and spiritual one: “Brian had a contentious relationship with punctuation. He had a special distaste for periods and the way they interrupt thoughts needlessly and arbitrarily, he said they give a sense of absolutism to an indefinite world.” Doyle told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2015, “I get teased a lot for my style. People are saying, ‘Wow, a sentence will start on Tuesday and it doesn’t end ’til Friday.’ But I want to write like people talk. I want to write like I’m speaking to you.”
And so he did.
I resisted reading “His Last Game” until this past Saturday, fearing it might be sentimental, that he couldn’t earn from us his desired response, that it couldn’t be that good, but it is.