Recently I read the following article that recounts, in part, the time in 2003 when writer Richard Ford spat on African-American author Colson Whitehead, two years after the latter gave him a bad review. Nearly fifteen years later, Ford still feels it was justified, and the article speculates about his perceived racism, both in person and in his work. Essayist Rebecca Solnit does not equivocate: she is quoted as saying, “That’s not a battle; that’s just a white creep spitting on a black man like the white racists at the lunch counter sit-ins.”
As luck would have it, the same day after reading this, I was at the library watching my younger son take third place in the LEGO building contest. I glanced at the shelf next to me, and there was a row of Ford’s books. Destiny, serendipity, or coincidence?
Ford is often considered a “Southern writer” because he was born in Mississippi, but he seldom sets his work in the region. He’s also spoken of as part of the “dirty realism” movement like Raymond Carver, but unlike Carver, most of his characters (especially Frank Bascombe) are materially secure. So in a way, Ford is unclassifiable, which is something I appreciate.
In the mid-90s I read Independence Day, Ford’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. I can remember nothing about it now, really, except a vague sense of middle-aged malaise (perhaps it would speak more to me now). I don’t recall it being particularly racist; had I just missed, or forgotten, that aspect?
So I picked up Let Me Be Frank With You, his 2014 continuation of the character from Independence Day (and other works), Frank Bascombe.
Ford is such a master of language that, almost from the start, I was effortlessly pulled into Frank’s world and simply floated along, content to experience things because they were so well told. Joyce Johnson titled her biography of Jack Kerouac The Voice is All, and that’s what I felt about Ford as I read. Like much contemporary literature, his stories were about minor events, all in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. But his way of picking out the relevant details made the stakes of everything feel much larger.
Still, now hyperconscious of the accusations of racism, some things jumped out at me:
“Some Italian piece of shit.”
“A beardless Santa sits on a red plastic milk crate in front of the Launch Pad coffee hut (but he’s clearly a Mexican).”
“My orthopedist at Haddam Medical, Dr. Zippee (a Pakistani and a prime asshole).”
And more on Dr. Zippee:
“…travels back to the old country every winter to work in a Madrassa (whatever that is).”
“I tell him, to me, Pakistanis and Indians are the same people, like Israelis and Arabs, and northern and southern Irishmen. Religion’s just their excuse to main and incinerate each other—otherwise they’d die of boredom.”
And this is all in the first twenty pages.
Is it racist? If not, how else should we read the constant need to refer to members of another culture in apparently disparaging terms, and to stress Frank’s utter, deliberate ignorance of them?
But there’s a deeper question: is it the author’s voice, or the character’s?
If it’s the latter, then perhaps it’s like Archie Bunker was to my parents’ generation: an Everyman whose outdated views are challenged by a shifting world. Certainly Frank, in his continuing adventures through the minutiae of white upper-class American life, is meant to be an Everyman. How “every” that man is, is of course up to each reader to decide.
This is the author who spat in the face of an African-American reviewer, and seventeen years later still thinks it was the right thing to do, as he says in his current Esquire piece.
Of course, after Alice Hoffman also once gave him a bad review, he shot up a copy of one of her books and sent it to her. There’s a crucial difference, though. The shooting incident, while equally petty, could still be seen as a response to an equal: “You trashed my book, so I’ll trash yours!” I have to say, I think Rebecca Solnit has the right take on it: there’s no way for a white man to spit in a black man’s face and have it not be a racist act.
Should there be judgment? Consequences? Or, like Harlan Ellison’s epic years of appalling behavior, do we just overlook it because, you know, great writer?
What do you think?