Our Reading Lives features stories about how books and reading have shaped who we are and how we live. It is open not only to regular Book Riot contributors, but to guest posters from the publishing industry, authors, and….you. If you are interested in telling us about a book that has been influential in your life, please contact us: community (at) bookriot (dot) com.
This installment comes from David Abrams. David is a novelist, short story writer, reviewer, and book evangelist. His novel about the Iraq War, Fobbit , is forthcoming from Grove/Atlantic in 2012. He blogs about books at The Quivering Pen. Follow him on Twitter @davidabrams1963
Outside the public library, the wind was scouring the streets of Livingston. Again. It was nearly 8 p.m. and God’s furious wind machine had been at it since 6 a.m. that day.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. In Livingston, Montana, the wind never stops; it only pauses to take another deep breath before it blows metal trash cans a-clattering down the alley and snatches the toupee clean off the Rotary president’s head as he stands on the street corner talking to the PTA treasurer whose dress flies up and everyone learns the rumors about her thong underwear are, disappointingly, untrue. On really bad days, featherweight toddlers who haven’t been tied down by precautionary mothers are sucked skyward, never to be seen again.
So yes, Livingston really blows.
On this particular night in 1987, I was temporarily safe from the wind, but my hair was still bedraggled from the long walk between my house on D Street and the public library nine blocks away. I sought shelter in the middle of the adult fiction section. It was warm and breezeless in the library; but inside my head, a wind still howled.
I was 24, just out of college, married, the father of two children with a third on the way, and about $200 this side of being broke. Our budget was so lean, Jack Sprat looked like a glutton. To conserve gas, I walked to work, head down and collar up as the hard winds of south-central Montana scraped the streets. I was distracted, disconcerted and on my way to a depression that would grey my life for a number of years.
The ink was still fresh on my English degree from the University of Oregon and I was constantly going around fanning the flames of my ambition to be a Great Writer—a fantasy which, even at that time, I knew was hollow. Despite my higher education and la-ti-dah literary airs, I’d ended up at a minimum-wage job: the copy editor at the town’s newspaper. I worked 10-hour days five days a week, which left almost no time to write the Great American Novel. As you can guess, I thought about my novel a lot, but I had yet to write a single sentence.
On the night the wind blew me into the library, I was looking for consolation and inspiration. I came there not knowing what I’d walk out with, but I knew I wanted to read a great piece of literature–one that would make my heart pound, my palms sweat and the little hairs on the backs of my hands stand up. I wanted fiction that would take me away from my life.
Little did I know I was a character straight out of Richard Ford’s stories.
I roused myself from my gloom and looked up at the shelf just above my head. Rock Springs. The title on the spine glowed in the fluorescent light and I thought of burning bushes, parting clouds, choirs of trumpets. I reached up, took the book in my hands, and opened it to a random page.
I swear to all that is holy, these are the words my eyes fell on: “This is not a happy story. I warn you.” That’s how “Great Falls” opens.
The words were like an opera aria and this is what the diva was singing in my ear: “This writer knows you.” I had never heard of Richard Ford before that night, but somehow he had wormed his way into my life. The hairs on the backs of my hands stirred, the dusty ten-foot stacks leaned overhead like trees, and the front door of the library banged open as another person stumbled inside. I kept turning pages, skimming the opening paragraphs to the other stories in Rock Springs.
I was standing in the kitchen while Arlene was in the living room saying good-bye to her ex-husband, Bobby. I had already been out to the stores for groceries and come back and made coffee, and was drinking it and staring out the window while the two of them said whatever they had to say. It was a quarter to six in the morning.
This was not going to be a good day in Bobby’s life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail.
Narratively, these openings are rather flat, loaded with exposition, and documentary in nature. It’s as if each narrator was sitting across from you in a diner, elbows resting on the Formica-topped table, and unspooling the story of his life–stark, naked facts at first, but then gradually turning more complex and colorful as the teller becomes engaged in the telling. These were lives as grim and bleak as mine and it made me happier than you can imagine to find them here on the page. They were me, I was them.
Later, this would become one of my favorite opening paragraphs in Rock Springs:
All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only fifteen years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back. The year, in other words, when life changed for all of us and forever–ended, really, in a way none of us could ever have imagined in our most brilliant dreams of life.
These first lines in the stories of Rock Springs give just enough intriguing detail and turns of phrase that you read the second paragraph, and the third, the fourth, until you finally reach the end and then circle back around to that first paragraph to take a second look at how confidently Ford sets up an entire story’s worth of character and conflict in a remarkable economy of space. There are entire worlds in these few words.
They are enough to keep you standing deep in the stacks of a library for nearly an hour–until the muscles in your lower back start to throb, until the librarian announces the building will be closing in fifteen minutes and patrons should bring all materials to the check-out desk at once, until the winter night wind rises in pitch and intensity, warning you of the threadbare walk home. I knew there were bills waiting for me on the kitchen counter, diapers needing to be changed, and a wife wondering where’d I’d been all evening. But, for the moment, all those cares burned away like sun-warmed fog. I was in Rock Springs and I never wanted to leave.