Whisky & Culture

A Place where men will be men

Jefferson Chase on Richard Ford's bizarre hunting short story, Calling
By Jefferson Chase
I was stopped short by Richard Ford’s short-story collection A Multitude of Sins in a bookshop in Coastal Maine when, flipping through its pages, I found the name of my home town, Pemaquid. Intrigued, I read Ford’s description and had the uncanny experience of being in the same place twice at the same time.I’m not going to talk about that story, though, but instead another one of Ford’s tragic-comic tales of casual infidelity, simmering anger and
unacknowledged loss.Calling, which is set in New Orleans, is about the aftermath of divorce. The first-person narrator, Buck McKendall, looks back upon his life as a 15 year old from a good Southern family, gone utterly dysfunctional.His mother, soon to be dead, is living in sin with a Black jazz musician, while his father leads a new life in St. Louis with his homosexual lover.‘How I was abandoned by my gay dad’ is well above average as narrative premises go, and the situation takes a nice turn for the absurd when Buck’s father phones up to invite him to go – of all things – duck hunting. Excited, Buck rises at 4am on the appointed day and gets picked up by a taxi. When he arrives, he finds his father rather strangely attired.He pulled his topcoat apart, and I could see he was wearing a tuxedo with a pink shirt, a bright red bow tie and a pink carnation... This was not exactly duck hunting in the way I’d heard about from my school friends. My father had not even been to bed, and had been up drinking and having a good time. Probably he would’ve preferred staying wherever he’d been, with people who were his friends now.Along on the hunt is also a white-trash duck caller named Reynard Theriot Jr., with whom Buck’s father bickers in the amusingly nasty fashion of a drunken Southern Queen.Boys Life this is not. Ford wrings considerable horror and humour from his description of the adolescent ritual of learning to kill small animals.Inside the blind, which was only ten feet long and four feet wide and had spent shells and candy wrappers and cigarette butts on the planks, my father displayed the pint bottle of whiskey, which was three quarters empty... Reynard unsheathed the guns from their cases. Mine was the old A.H. Fox twenty-gauge double gun, that was heavy as lead and that I had seen in my grandmother’s house many times and had handled enough to know the particulars of without ever shooting it. My grandmother had called it her ‘ladies gun’.It’s easy to see why Ford is often compared to Raymond Carver. They’re both unabashedly masculine writers, and they share a down-to-earth style and a focus on the minor tragedies of domestic and familial relationships.But there are interesting differences as well. Ford is a much more tactile writer. What for Carver would be just a shotgun is for Ford an A.H. Fox twenty gauge, and it’s marvellous the way he employs such specific detail to jump into the life – past, present and future – of his protagonist.The things around us, if only we can see them, speak volumes about the question of who made us the way we are. As Buck McKendall says at the end of Calling: I think of life-mine-as being part of their aftermath, part of the residue of all they risked and squandered and ignored.This special gift is perhaps the product of biography. Born in Mississippi, the Pulitzer-Prize-winner Ford lives in Montana, about which he also writes frequently. His command of milieu isn’t tied to any one particular place.The stories in A Multitude of Sins criss-cross the United States, from the Deep South to the Great White North to the Midwest, ending up at the Grand Canyon. From Islay malts to Kentucky bourbons, there’s hardly higher praise for a whisky than to say it evokes the place where it was produced. The same applies to the writing of Richard Ford. When he takes you someplace as reader, you feel as though you’ve actually been there. And if you happen to come from one of those places, as was the case with me and Coastal Maine, you realise his eye is not only keen, but unsettlingly accurate.