Whiskey, Guns, and the Restless Spirit of Richard Ford
Richard Ford, with his dog Chloe, in Oxford, Mississippi
Credit: Randy Harris
The next morning, at nine o'clock sharp, Ford is making his way down the stairs at Square Books, Oxford's famed independent bookstore. He's a powerful presence – 6-foot-2 and distance-­runner rangy, with blue eyes and a lean, wolfish grin. His grandfather taught him to box when he was 16, and even at 68, he looks like he could throw a good punch – or take one. (He once wrote a great essay about what it's like getting punched in the face.) Ford calls fighting "invigorating" and says it helps that he's often been drunk, but adds that he hasn't been in a fistfight in a while. "It doesn't reflect very well on me," he says of his last go-round. "I got my ass kicked, and I deserved to get my ass kicked."

Ford is here this morning doing a favor for a friend. The owner of Square Books, Richard Howorth, is one of his closest pals, and he has asked Ford to talk to a women's book club visiting from San Francisco. For a writer who's been accused of misogyny, it was maybe not the ideal audience. "One of them went for my nuts right away," Ford says, grinning. "She wanted to know what I thought of Lolita. I told her, 'Well, I like any book in which an old man lusts after a 12-year-old girl.' " He smiles and makes a little exploding firecracker gesture with his hand. "And then – Roman candles."

Ford gets a kick out of confrontation. When a writer for the New York Times reviewed The Sportswriter unfavorably, Ford took one of her books out to his backyard and shot it with a .38. He then mailed it to her. A few years later, after another bad Times write-up, he ran into the reviewer at a party and spat in his face. "I do have a bit of a temper," he admits. "But I'm also usually right."

Today, however, will be a pleasant day, because today he's decided to take a drive to the Delta. "It's one of my fondest places on Earth," Ford says. "It's the part of the South that I ­really do treasure." When he was growing up nearby in Jackson, his father was a traveling salesman, and in the summers, he'd take Richard on road trips all over the South. "The Delta just became part of what I loved," he says. "It just has a deep visceral appeal to me. It really is imprinted."

We get into the car and start heading west, passing near Highway 61 and through the endless cotton fields of Coahoma County. Ford drives like a man who likes to drive – forearm draped over the steering wheel, cursing at dawdlers who slow him down. Besides the occasional grove of pecan trees, the countryside is green and flat, which is exactly what Ford loves about it. "There are people who like to look up at things and people who like to look across at things," he says. "I'm somebody who likes the democratization of landscape. I like the long distances you can see. I find it consoling."

Eventually we crest a hill and find ourselves on a levee overlooking the Mississippi. "There it is," he says. "The Father of Waters." You can hear the admiration in his voice.