Writing fiction about adultery, as Lawrence Durrell went to extraordinary lengths to prove in The Alexandria Quartet, is more than anything else an exercise in point of view. Durrell himself chose to confuse the issue with a lot of mumbo jumbo about the space-time continuum, but apart from a few desperately earnest graduate students, nobody took that part of it very seriously. Love affairs from four points of view, four very different stories — that and the exotic setting were what made Durrell’s ”experiment” so arresting.
Viewed from that perspective, Richard Ford’s fourth novel, Wildlife, constitutes something of a tour de force. Set in Great Falls, Mont., in 1960 — a drought year, when forest fires left a stinging pall of smoke hanging over the town for weeks at a time — the novel portrays a marriage dissolving under the pressure of failed expectations. In summary, it’s a tale as simple and predictable as what country singers call a ”cheatin’ song”: man loses job, loses pride, damn near loses wife.
But Ford elevates his tale above the quotidian by telling the story entirely through the eyes of the couple’s 16-year-old son-enlisted as a half-willing con dant by both parents, and forced to witness their folly and their shame. Even the most banal domestic melodramas, readers come to understand, are experienced as devastating tragedies by children living them for the first time.
Unfortunately, however, as with much of Ford’s previous work — including his most recent, and highly praised, novel, The Sportswriter — it’s a whole lot easier for a critic to praise his virtuosity as a storyteller than to admit that for all its flawless execution, the book simply doesn’t add up. Readers hoping for a robust tale of passion in the Big Sky country will be badly disappointed. Indeed it almost seems that for Ford — born in Mississippi, raised in Little Rock, Ark. — the whole point of setting the novel in the Rocky Mountains is to juxtapose the vastness of the landscape against the claustrophobic inner world of his characters.
The flat and ironic tone of narrator Joe Brinson’s voice is partly responsible for making his story so oddly unsatisfying. An indeterminate number of years have passed since the dramatic events, yet Ford gives no idea what has happened to any of the characters during this period — particularly the narrator himself. Deprived of even a hint as to how time and experience may have altered Joe’s perspective on his parents’ passion, the reader has no way to guess what the story means to him or why he’s telling it, lending to the novel a tone of subdued resignation approaching catatonia.
Consider, for example, the narrator’s description of how he reacted when his mother hauled off and slapped him after he surprised her while she was slipping back inside after a late-night assignation in a parked car:
”Her bathrobe was open in front, and she was naked underneath. I could see her stomach and all of that. I had seen my mother naked before but this was different and I wished that she had her clothes on.”
Subtle? Understated? Perhaps. If Ford’s intention was to provide readers a first-person portrait of an emotionally damaged man hovering on the edge of clinical depression, he has succeeded admirably. But a few thousand words of his artfully attened prose will render most readers almost as inert as the narrator himself. As a writing-school exercise in point of view, Wildlife may well win critical acclaim. Ford’s novels normally do. In terms of simple narrative drive, however, this wise, humane, and disarmingly simple novel soon grows discouragingly dull.