Richard Ford’s hugely successful 1985 novel, The Sportswriter, was a sprawling work which left few doubting the author’s skill and intelligence. It also must have caused many to wonder about his ability to rein that talent into a manageable, cogent narrative form. With his new novel Ford should lay such doubts to rest. It is a concise and moving story that depicts a family breaking apart and coming back together in a troubling new configuration.
Wildlife is set in a dreary Montana town in 1960. It is narrated by a sixteen-year-old boy, Joe Brinson, who has recently moved to the Big Sky State with his golf-pro father and restless ex-teacher mother. Joe’s father, Jerry, is a melancholy man who feels that his life has been something of a failure. When he loses his job at a local country club on unfounded charges of theft, he decides to join up with the crew of fire fighters who are about to ship out to combat a blaze which rages in the nearby forests. Joe’s mother, Jeanette, is unhappy about this, although one realizes that her sense of disillusionment runs far deeper than Jerry’s impulsive desire to risk his life combating a forest fire. While he is gone, Jeanette takes the opportunity to consummate her budding romance with a wealthy older man, an act of adultery to which Joe bears witness. Jerry soon returns from the fire to discover his wife’s infidelity. With his son by his side he commits a petty yet potentially deadly act of revenge against his wife’s lover, a crime which is both pathetic and deeply cathartic, in that is allows the family to reunite, if only in an adulterated, fallen state.