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Wednesday, December 13, 2006


Wildlife by Richard Ford

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:

August 9, 2004

At 163 pages, "Wildlife" is more of a novella than anything else and about as dry as the scorched Montana landscape. The biggest problem is not so much the story, but the way the story is told. In some cases, the impersonal first-person narrator works, as in "The Great Gatsby", but in others like "Wildlife" or "A Prayer for Owen Meaney", the narrator is such a nonentity that they don't add anything to the story and act only as a buffer that prevents the audience from really getting to know the other, more important characters.

The story, if you don't know, is that when narrator Joe's father loses his job as a golf instructor, he goes into the forest to help fight a wildfire. While he's gone, Joe's mother has a fling with an older local businessman, Warren Miller, but whether this was already going on before Joe finds out is unclear. When Joe's father returns from the fire, his mother moves out for a while. And that's it.

In this case Joe (complete with dull name) has no friends, no ambitions, and few (if any) opinions to share. He's no one I could ever care about, because his only function seems to be as a recording device to report the activities of his parents to us readers. The parents, as though aware of this, speak in an unnatural way to always indicate to us what they are feeling or thinking. It's the problem I've had with all of Ford's books, including the Pulitzer-winning "Independence Day". Some writers are able to write convincing dialogue and others (like Ford) are not.

It's hard to say much about "Wildlife" because there's so little to it. There's not a lot of action, drama, or passion and the story itself isn't much that we haven't already seen before. Again, the story told through Joe the buffer keeps us from really learning anything about the characters and that prevents us from feeling sympathetic towards their plight. It's hard to feel sorry even for poor Joe, because he's so without distinguishing features to his personality.

I've said this before about similar cases of first-person stories using a bland narrator--which always prompts other people to reach for the "Not Helpful" button--and that is that the story would have been more interesting either in first-person focusing on one of the parents or in third-person and focusing on both, so that we weren't so buffered from everything. What makes Ford's Bascombe novels "The Sportswriter" and "Independence Day" so much better than his other novels is that we learn just about everything about Frank Bascombe and he is the center of all the action of the story, so that even if he is emotionally detached, it's easier to feel sympathetic towards him as a reader. This can't be said for this dry little book.

If I hadn't bought this book for about as little as you can realistically pay without stealing it and if it were longer, then I would give it 1-star for wasting my time and money. But I'll give it a bonus star for not wasting either one. Now go reach for the Not Helpful button, I command you!

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