"Edna and I had started down from Kalispell," the narrator in Richard Ford's title story begins, "heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn't turn me in to the police. . . . She already had her own troubles, losing her kids and keeping her ex-husband, Danny, from breaking in her house and stealing her things while she was at work, which was really why I had moved in in the first place, that and needing to give my little daughter, Cheryl, a better shake in things."
Another storyteller compresses his tale more tightly: "All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only 15 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." And another man, bereft, speaking in a metaphorical saloon, at perhaps around 3 in the afternoon, with sleet or snow coming down outside, a man like most of these men here (out of work, waiting for their waitress girlfriends to get off work or go to work, waiting for their luck to turn, but not exactly holding their breath about it), begins like this: "This is not a happy story. I warn you." The "old glory" days somebody learned about in elementary school have certainly not panned out.
Perhaps because the current American dream has become so tight, so full of surface rectitude, so crammed with well-dressed officials "saying no" to this and that and putting money in the bank, American writers who care about such things have begun--in a wave of prose as lurid and brilliant as the obligatory red neon that delineates small-town liquor stores in the Kansas winter-wheat belt--to write about the poor, the wretched, the forlorn, the defiant; all those who have been dealt bad hands in a stacked poker game by this country, but who elect to play these hands with courage, even though they've been stamped at birth with the invisible tattoo, "Born to lose."
While Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris take as their material Native Americans penned up in the Dakotas, or Bret Lott tells us about asphalt-tiled ghost towns in New England, or John Irsfield opens tavern doors in Texas, Richard Ford shows us the whole ghost land , a Montana where there's no coal left in the coal mines, where Anaconda Copper and all that that meant isn't worth talking about, where the land is disked for winter wheat that never seems to get planted or harvested, where the real estate boom has gone bust, and where the only going business seems to be a pulp plant in Great Falls that silts the air with dust and pours something pretty dubious into the river. Everywhere the land is failing and everything else is failing with it: Weakened deer slip and drown in the river; hunters shoot at sitting ducks and geese (and sometimes sell them at discount prices); fish are snagged and laid out on dry ground like sad trophies, never eaten and sometimes thrown back--dead.
"Where are we now?" a sleepy waitress-wife asks her unemployed husband as they take a night train through the Great Northern Plains to Minot from Spokane. "Nowhere. I don't know," is his answer, and it's an honest one. How did these people--every one in these 10 stories--get to be where they are now, and how they are now? Is it because they are lazy or uneducated or hate work or are, maybe, just plain dumb? Absolutely not. The narrative power, the intelligence behind at least eight out of 10 of these stories is formidable. The men in these stories are smart, but they have been caught in the treacherous currents of American life. In their sink-or-swim situation, just keeping their heads above water is heroism of the highest order.