Monday, June 08, 2015

A Piece of My Heart by Richard Ford

There's a kind of literary novel where antecedents don't follow proper names the way you expect. In a normal book, if the first sentence of a paragraph has a character speaking, and the next sentence begins "He," the reader knows its the same guy.

But Richard Ford doesn't play that game. His debut novel, A Piece of My Heart, is divided into alternating sections named after his two main characters, Robard Hewes and Sam Newel, and, by God!, if a sentence begins with "He," it purely and only means the viewpoint character for that section, antecedents be damned. This seems like a minor point, but it's so cross-grained to the way a reader usually interprets a story that it causes confusion in nearly every paragraph, not just until the reader gets used to it, but again and again until the novel is finally done.

(This rule does not apply within sentences though, since that would be madness. And that adds another level of decoding necessary for the reader. This particular reader is of the opinion that the effort was not worth the payoff, since he was not able to detect any payoff even with high-powered scientific instruments.)

Piece of My Heart is a novel of parts; Hewes and Newel's stories do intersect but they are essentially separate, and the pieces of this book were originally published as separate stories in various literary journals in the early 1970s before Ford's novel appeared in 1976. Hewes is a tough blue-collar guy in his early thirties who thinks with his pecker; he's traveling to rural Arkansas to see a female cousin for carnal purposes even though he hasn't seen her in fifteen years and only knew her biblically for a couple of days then (and she's been writing to him since then, trying to entice him, unsuccessful until suddenly successful). Newel is younger and doughier and ritzier: dawdling for no particular reason between law school at Columbia and taking the bar exam in Chicago. Newel has even less reason to be in rural Arkansas than Hewes; his on-and-off girlfriend's grandmother has a place there, and the girlfriend told him to go rusticate, since it would be good for his troubled mind.

So Ford has two insufficiently motivated protagonists here: I believe he's trying to show that they each have deep wellsprings for their behavior and are driven by things they don't understand, but they come across as men who suddenly go a great distance for something they don't want and aren't interested in. Newel is even worse than Hewes; he goes to a hunting and fishing camp but doesn't want to hunt or fish. Hewes, at least, is chasing tail, and Ford makes it clear he's done that his whole life. (Though, even there -- and at least one secondary character lampshades this specifically -- there are women in California, where Hewes was living, and they would have been much more convenient to him.)

This all is in a modern version of Southern Gothic style; before the first Hewes section, we get a brief Prologue in which W.W. Justice -- the minor-league baseball player married to Hewes's cousin -- is pursing Hewes for that cuckoldry and comes across a young man who says he just shot someone dead. So right up front, we know one of our protagonists will be killed; the only question is whether Ford will go it straight, and make it Hewes, or throw a curve-ball to kill Newel.

We see Hewes leave his wife and job in California after getting yet another letter from his cousin, but we don't know why this letter moved him. He comes to that hunting and fishing camp -- in suitably dramatic fashion, it's on an island in the middle of the Mississippi that doesn't appear on any maps, and would legally be in the state of Mississippi if anyone official knew about it -- to have a base nearby, so he can screw his cousin regularly, and takes a job with the suitably overbearing, grumpy, blustery old-man owner of that camp to guard the place from poachers. His cousin is demanding and mercurial, as the straying woman in a Southern novel must be, and we know this will eventually lead to Justice finding out -- well, we've already seen that he finds out.

Newel, on the other hand, is supposedly filled with ennui, but he just seems like a lump. Ford doesn't go in for interior monologues, and instead explains Newel's character and actions through italicized flashbacks to his childhood that never told this reader anything germane. He mopes in New York, thinks about moping in Chicago, goes to that island to mope some more, and then finally mopes off to Chicago like he was going to in the first place.

In the end, Justice finds out about the affair, as expected. He chases Hewes. Someone dies.

There's a reductive definition of the literary novel as a story about adultery. It may not be true in all cases, but it clearly applies here: A Piece of My Heart would have nothing if it weren't for Hewes's two thousand mile journey to screw his married cousin once again. Some readers may think it has nothing even with that adultery, and I have great sympathy for that opinion.

Ford has written many novels since this, winning top literary prizes and gathering massive acclaim. So I have to assume that he got much better than A Piece of My Heart as he got more experience behind him; eventually I hope to check for myself. But probably not for some time.

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