Known for his gritty and unvarnished portrayals of life in the American Midwest, author Richard Ford uses fiction to explore the ways that people react to loneliness, turmoil, and desperation as they struggle to move forward. These themes become most apparent in his short story Rock Springs, the titular piece from his first collection of short fiction. An example of Ford’s classic use of “dirty realism,” Rock Springs exemplifies the unidealized elements of life in America, many of which shine brighter due to specific elements of craft. Though the use of first-person point of view, unambiguous symbolism, and a distinct narrative style, Ford writes a story that draws on traditional structural techniques while also challenging many long-held conventions of fiction.
The story is narrated from the first-person perspective by Earl Middleton, the protagonist. Through Earl’s eyes, the audience also glimpses his traveling companions and family; his girlfriend Edna and her daughter Cheryl. Earl also has smaller encounters with other characters over the course of the story, such as the woman at the trailer park and her son, Terrel. All of the other characters, however, are defined by the ways that Earl sees them. It is clear that Earl loves his girlfriend and her daughter, and from the narration it is apparent that Earl believes they are best off with him, and that he is a good person to take care of them. Cheryl’s ideas are rarely expounded upon in the text, likely because she is young and would have no reason to question Earl as long as her mother sticks with him. However, Earl and Edna have many interesting conversations over the course of the story, some of which show Earl trying to convince her to take his side or stay with him despite their suspicious circumstances. Their conversations towards the beginning of the story are more loving as they remain optimistic about the trip to Rock Springs, but they eventually fight and, finally, separate from each other. While the emotion of the story rings true due to the extremely realistic dialogue, the first-person perspective forces the reader to question Earl’s narrative. He sees himself as a good person, but how good is he really? Because his perspective is limited by his own feelings, thoughts, and desires, there is no way for the reader to be sure that they are getting the whole truth of the matter. If there had been an omniscient third-person perspective used to narrate this story, the tone would have rung very differently.
Ford writes Earl’s past into the story; the reader knows that he is a con-man and a thief, and that he has committed serious crimes. The reader also knows that he is making his girlfriend and her daughter accomplices on this journey, which itself involves stealing a car and hiding from the police. Yet, the language of Earl is direct and honest. His suffering and struggle to understand himself is clear in the text. This leads the reader to sympathize with his character, and therefore believe that he is a reliable source of information and narration. By using first-person perspective, Ford challenges the reader to decide whether or not they trust Earl, and to contemplate what it means to juxtapose the way that a character speaks and the content of their narration with the actions and decisions that they make in the text. Which becomes more important to the truth of the character, what they say or what they do? And is it important to believe that the narrator is telling the truth, or can a story still be intriguing and exciting without a confirmation that the information is being presented with complete honesty? In this way, Ford has taken a particular spin on conventional fiction, the unreliable narrator, and spun it even further.
Rock Springs is not narrated by someone who is clearly a liar or a truth-teller, yet it retains that element of gritty, stark believability that characterized the dirty realism movement. While the point of view may lead readers to question, there are many symbols in the text which, generally, are simple and palatable. For example, when Earl and the gang reach Rock Springs, they see in the distance a great, glowing plant which they later learn is a gold mine. After telling this to Edna, Earl thinks to himself “I knew… [it] was a greater distance from us than it seemed, though it seemed huge and near, up against the cold sky. I thought there should’ve been a wall around it with guards instead of just the lights and no fence. It seemed as if anyone could go in and take what they wanted.” One could easily assume that the gold mine is a symbol representing the American dream. It is a gigantic, shimmering manifestation of labor and capital, and, as Earl says, it often seems closer than it is. The fact that the gold mine also rises out of the Western horizon indicates this symbolism, as one of the most intrinsic elements of the early American dream was Westward expansion, the idea that to cross the Western front was to establish yourself as a pioneer, a person who chooses their own destiny, who creates a life for themselves in the face of the great unknown. This is exactly the predicament that Earl has found himself in; he is running from the past, looking to become someone new and forge a future for himself and his family. Earl is reminiscent of the early pioneers of America, those who left it all behind in pursuit of that elusive dream.
This symbol can also be reflected in the way the American dream is packaged and marketed. It is built to look accessible, to be the thing that everybody wants and strives towards, but how possible, really, is it to achieve? As they gaze upon the mine, Earl remarks to Edna “”We’ve seen it,”… “That’s it right there. It may mean we’re getting closer. Some people never see it at all.”” Ford’s decision to include this symbolism is not to give readers something to puzzle over. It is to offer a direct connection between the plot and the theme, to show that real life is full of cliche, obvious symbols and signs. What the characters make of them is a reflection of how people usually react to symbols and metaphors occurring in their own lives: with a shrug, and a vague dismissal of the thing. The metaphor of the gold mine as the American dream is supposed to be obvious, because it is more important to observe the way that Earl reacts to it than the thing itself. In this way, Ford wastes no time trying to veil the true meaning from the reader, instead encouraging them to look at symbolism in a new light. Symbols can be about the same thing for the reader and the characters, despite the idea that traditional literary symbolism is usually unapparent to the characters within the literature. Only the readers are able to see the metaphors popping up in the life of the characters, and it is traditionally used to reveal more about those characters or about the overarching theme of the story.
In Rock Springs, however, Ford trusts that the readers do not want to waste time haggling over whether this or that means such and such. The gold mine is more than a gold mine, and everybody knows why. The narrative style and structure of Rock Springs also bring the author’s craft to light. As previously stated, Ford was known for his use of dirty realism and for the extremely grounded language in his fiction. However, Rock Springs also takes on a new kind of realism in the smallness of the story. From a traditional standpoint, a story should have a beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Rock Springs does have all of those elements, but they are not presented in the same way, structurally or stylistically. Namely, Ford uses the idea of a small occurrence, a tiny event or short conversation, to carry all the weight of a traditional rising action or climax.
In Rock Springs, the event that sets off the entire plot is the oil light turning on in Earl’s stolen car. While it is not necessarily the climax of the story considering how close it occurs to the beginning, it is such a small event that sets off everything that follows. And, considering, the following events are small as well. Earl and Edna hide the car, Earl talks to the woman at the trailer park, they rent a hotel, they break up. Those are the things that happen in the story, which is not the same thing as to say that nothing happens. A huge amount of things happen, but the things themselves are not huge. By writing in this style, Ford is exploring the idea that a story does not have to have sweeping arcs and outstanding events to be enthralling, and that sometimes the most small scale occurrences can carry the weight of the story on their backs. The other element of style that Ford really brings to life in Rock Springs is the ending. At the very end of the last paragraph of the story, Earl looks up at the back of the hotel and sees that somebody else is awake, that they might be watching him. He poses a series of questions as he stands in the parking lot; “What would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn? Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared? Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think he girlfriend was leaving him? Would you think he had a daughter? Would you think he was anybody like you?” While it might seem in the context of the story that Earl is addressing that mystery person in the lit room, it reads much more like Earl is addressing the reader. What would you think? What would you think about somebody like Earl? Would you sympathize with him? Would you be able to understand his struggle? Or would you shun him for the terrible things he’s done? This is the only place in the story where Ford seems to break the wall between character and reader, and pull the reader directly into the story, as if Earl has grabbed the reader by the collar and pulled them to his face. By saving this moment for the end, Ford assures that the impact of the questions hit the reader hard. If Earl had been posing these ideas throughout the story, it would have merely been an interesting side note for the reader, something to consider alongside the plot. But by having them come at the end, Ford leaves the reader with those questions ringing loudly in the mind. There is nothing else to read, no more Edna and Cheryl and stolen car and hotel in Rock Springs. There is just Earl, looking the reader in the face for the first time and asking them to tell him the truth. This is the note that Ford wants the reader to take away from the story, the message that imparts most heavily on the reader.
By choosing this style and structuring the story in this way, Ford is assured that the reader will not forget his essential questions. Rock Springs is littered with deliberate diversions from tradition. Ford’s approach to literature is to draw on those elements of craft that make for a successful and impactful story, but to use them in surprising new ways. His technique brings the reader close to things they might otherwise have shied from, and its confrontation is essential to the tone of the piece. For Ford, dirty realism is just that; dirty and realistic. As a reader, it may be uncomfortable to think about how you would judge Earl. It might be challenging to determine whether or not he is a man you would trust. It might seem daunting to build an entire American narrative on a series of small happenings. Yet, Rock Springs shows us that with the right adaptation of craft, all of those ideas spring into possibility.