It's nearing dinnertime, and Richard Ford is driving around Memphis looking for barbecue, with his wife, Kristina, a leggy, blond Ph.D., curled up in the backseat of his Volvo.
"Where the fuck is this place?" Richard Ford says. Long before he won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1995 novel Independence Day, Ford lived in Memphis, a skinny teenager working as a switchman in the Missouri Pacific rail yards. But that was 50 years ago, and the city looks a little different now. "I know it's got to be close. . . ."
Ford just drove in from Oxford, Mississippi, where he's teaching a writing class at Ole Miss – filling in for his friend, novelist Barry Hannah, who died in 2010. Ford grew up in the South and lived with Kristina in Mississippi in the 1980s, but there's much about the place that he abhors, from the conservative Christian politics (Newt Gingrich is "a toxic douchebag") to the football-obsessed good old boys. Throughout his career, he's gone to great pains to distance himself from the Southern literary tradition. He gets a headache just thinking about all those post-Faulknerians with their clichés that proliferate like so much Spanish moss.
But about that barbecue. "Do you want to look at the map?" asks Kristina from the backseat.
Ford shakes his head. "I know what my problem is. I haven't had enough to drink."
He pulls into a liquor store called the Brown Jug and emerges a few minutes later with a bottle of Wild Turkey and directions. Before you know it, we're in the Cozy Corner, a family-owned joint with Bible quotes on the walls and Aretha Franklin on the radio. Ford orders chicken, Kristina gets the ribs, and they both get plastic cups filled with ice, which Ford fills with Wild Turkey under the table. "It's the Southern way," he says, winking. And just like that, life is good.
For the past 20-odd years, Ford has been the standard-bearer for a certain kind of American literary masculinity. His most famous books, the so-called Bascombe trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land), follow a writer-turned-real-estate-agent in suburban New Jersey who illuminates pointed truths about middle-aged life while doing little more than cruising the turnpike. His newest novel, Canada, shows an artist in full command of his craft – sparsely elegant and bracingly direct, with a refreshing lack of irony or tricks. There's a reason his friend the late Raymond Carver once called him "sentence for sentence . . . the best writer at work in this country today."
But he's also a guy's guy who trout fishes, rides a Harley softtail, and knows how to handle a shotgun on a duck hunt. He can be ornery, short-tempered, acerbic, profane – but somehow he's always totally lovable. Back in the Volvo, he starts off down the road. After a while, Kristina pipes up from the backseat.
"Darling?" she asks. (You get the feeling a lot of conversations start this way.)
"What's our gas situation?"
"Hmm . . . let me ask the Swedes."
Ford punches some buttons on the Volvo's dashboard. "The Swedes say 30 miles."
Oxford is still about 60 miles away, with not much in between. "Hmm," Kristina says.
Ford drives on, doing 80 through the Mississippi darkness, south toward home. A few miles later, Kristina directs his attention to a gas station up ahead. Ford looks at the sign, glances down at the needle, and keeps on driving.