In Between Them (Bloomsbury), a joint biography of his parents, Richard Ford says that his mother told him it is what we do in life, not what we think about it, that matters. Yet in this book and the Bascombe novels for which he is famous it is what Ford thinks and writes about a series of otherwise unremarkable events that makes his art. Much of his writing is disguised philosophy – a philosophy of the everyday. The commendable side of this is that he thinks, and proves, that everyday life is worth writing about. There is a kind of power, he writes, in ‘normal life’, evident in the fact that during hospitalisation or grief over a loved one we are keen to get back to it.
His novels aim for a measure of verisimilitude – a book such as Canada begins in first person narrative and reads like a biography – so this real-life biography seems a perfect step for Ford. Ford’s bringing to life of characters consists not in describing remarkable deeds, but in creating memorable characters and imagining what they might have been thinking.
Ford is both loving and detached about his parents in his observation that they lived for the moment and didn’t analyse. But he also sees insularity and a lack of imagination there and he constantly wonders how his arrival changed this. He describes an easy, peripatetic lifestyle, necessitated and facilitated by his father’s job as a travelling salesman (a perhaps iconic American life) that changed to a suburban settling-down once the realities of raising a baby on the road sunk in.
He perceptively and respectfully admits there is much about our parents’ lives that we know little about, and decides that is the lot of the child, who needs to acknowledge that their relationship with their parents is not the sum of their parents’ lives. Yet he also notes that our parents provide us with a link to a lost world, that generations are the links in a chain of history, that when we maintain our relationships with our parents, we necessarily connect ourselves to their parents, and so forth.