On Richard Ford’s “Nothing to Declare” Short Story

Last year I came across a book of Richard Ford’s short stories, Rock Springs. From the first sentences of the first story, I knew I had discovered my kind of writer.

Many critics like to box writers in, place them in neat comparments, and Ford is placed by many critics in the school of Dirty Realism. The critics view Ford’s worldview as similar to that of Raymond Carver, Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Tobias Wolff, and Cormac McCarthy. I am quite familiar with all of those authors, and I do recognize some of Carver’s understatement, some of Larry Brown’s focused emotional unravelings and longings of his protagonists, some of Harry Crews’ elements of fleeing one’s childhood environs but never succeeding, and perhaps some of Wolff’s tendencies to reflect upon contemporary American moral decline, but I see little of McCarthy in Ford. McCarthy is an idea and word-saturated writer. Ford is a wordsmith, too, that is evident, but he’s a minimalist unlike McCarthy. McCarthy is, in my view, America’s most important literary writer of the last fifty years, but McCarthy is no minimalist. Reading Suttree is as demanding as reading Ulysses. Both are far removed from minimalism.

Ford’s skill is best revealed in his character studies. Like in many of Hemingway’s best short stories, Ford’s characters are emotional tempests inside. Their paucity of spoken words camouflages inner turmoil.

In “Nothing to Declare,” the first short story in the Sorry for Your Trouble collection of short stories, the two main characters are a man and woman who have had an affair when young, traveled to Iceland from America together, learned about sex and adulthood via one another, tested ideas with one another, and tried to find the way forward for their lives.

But they separate, return to America, go their separate ways, marry other people, and find themselves both–years later in life–in a kind of world weariness and existential malaise. They are bored with life, with their respective spouses, with their careers, etc.

By chance their paths cross again–years later–in New Orleans at a bar. They notice one another and the old attractions remain. They walk together; the man records mental notes of the woman’s beauty. He kisses her. But it goes no farther than that. Again they separate and we readers are given the impression they’ll not reunite anymore.

The title of this story says it all: nothing to declare seems to be a resignation to which their former great expectations have come. Now it seems that what lies ahead is a sort of acceptance, a kind of sad acknowledgement that they’re both still longing but mostly just deeply dissatisfied.

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