The Inner Life of Nobody Like Us : ROCK SPRINGS by Richard Ford (Atlantic Monthly Press: $17.95; 205 pp.)

"Edna and I had started down from Kalispell," the narrator in Richard Ford's title story begins, "heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn't turn me in to the police. . . . She already had her own troubles, losing her kids and keeping her ex-husband, Danny, from breaking in her house and stealing her things while she was at work, which was really why I had moved in in the first place, that and needing to give my little daughter, Cheryl, a better shake in things."

Another storyteller compresses his tale more tightly: "All of this that I am about to tell happened when I was only 15 years old, in 1959, the year my parents were divorced, the year when my father killed a man and went to prison for it, the year I left home and school, told a lie about my age to fool the Army, and then did not come back." And another man, bereft, speaking in a metaphorical saloon, at perhaps around 3 in the afternoon, with sleet or snow coming down outside, a man like most of these men here (out of work, waiting for their waitress girlfriends to get off work or go to work, waiting for their luck to turn, but not exactly holding their breath about it), begins like this: "This is not a happy story. I warn you." The "old glory" days somebody learned about in elementary school have certainly not panned out.

Perhaps because the current American dream has become so tight, so full of surface rectitude, so crammed with well-dressed officials "saying no" to this and that and putting money in the bank, American writers who care about such things have begun--in a wave of prose as lurid and brilliant as the obligatory red neon that delineates small-town liquor stores in the Kansas winter-wheat belt--to write about the poor, the wretched, the forlorn, the defiant; all those who have been dealt bad hands in a stacked poker game by this country, but who elect to play these hands with courage, even though they've been stamped at birth with the invisible tattoo, "Born to lose."

While Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris take as their material Native Americans penned up in the Dakotas, or Bret Lott tells us about asphalt-tiled ghost towns in New England, or John Irsfield opens tavern doors in Texas, Richard Ford shows us the whole ghost land , a Montana where there's no coal left in the coal mines, where Anaconda Copper and all that that meant isn't worth talking about, where the land is disked for winter wheat that never seems to get planted or harvested, where the real estate boom has gone bust, and where the only going business seems to be a pulp plant in Great Falls that silts the air with dust and pours something pretty dubious into the river. Everywhere the land is failing and everything else is failing with it: Weakened deer slip and drown in the river; hunters shoot at sitting ducks and geese (and sometimes sell them at discount prices); fish are snagged and laid out on dry ground like sad trophies, never eaten and sometimes thrown back--dead.

"Where are we now?" a sleepy waitress-wife asks her unemployed husband as they take a night train through the Great Northern Plains to Minot from Spokane. "Nowhere. I don't know," is his answer, and it's an honest one. How did these people--every one in these 10 stories--get to be where they are now, and how they are now? Is it because they are lazy or uneducated or hate work or are, maybe, just plain dumb? Absolutely not. The narrative power, the intelligence behind at least eight out of 10 of these stories is formidable. The men in these stories are smart, but they have been caught in the treacherous currents of American life. In their sink-or-swim situation, just keeping their heads above water is heroism of the highest order.

The world here, in sexual terms, is just as baffling as everything else. If, in Official America, husbands tend to turn in their wives for newer models, leaving shoals of bereaved older women, here, in the wasteland of Montana, it is the women who play fast and loose, who again and again just pack up and go away with younger men, leaving husbands and children behind. If they keep their sons with them, these sons become history as soon as the first likely boyfriend shows up, so that, again, in a sexual eddy of failure that echoes the ecological and economic catastrophes here, a young boy may be left by his mother when he is 15 or 16, as in "Great Falls" or "Children" or "Optimists," then make tentative bonding efforts with stepmothers or first wives or kindly one-night stands, but still, by the age of 39 or 43 yearn for all that he has been locked away from. In "Rock Springs," that luckless man who's trying to make it to Tampa-St. Pete goes into a cozy trailer to use the phone and can scarcely get up the strength to go outside again. In "Empire" an unemployed middle-aged man isn't allowed to go home to live with his mother, since she's got a boyfriend, an "old wildcatter," living with her already. Still, all through the story, the aging orphan knows exactly where he is in terms of his mother's house; he could walk there, he says, if he wanted to.

There is a strange two-way mirror in America, Richard Ford reminds us. On our side, we see only ourselves. Over on "their" side they wonder how they got there, and long for "just a normal life like other people had." In "Rock Springs," the storyteller asks, as he scopes out the car he plans to steal the next day, "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 anybody like you?" All of us can fall through that two-way mirror in one unfortunate instant--and find ourselves looking in from the outside.

These stories are exquisitely written, and it's no surprise that they've been published in "The New Yorker," "Esquire" and "Vanity Fair." But beyond Richard Ford's crazily precise imagination something else is probably at work here. Just because the success ethic is so strong in America, the mystique of failure can be unbearably seductive. Who of us, reading these stories, will watch our dad kill a man with one blow of his clenched fist, or almost drown at midnight in an icy river, or listen to 5,000 wild geese sing? Almost none of us. We're overbooked as it is.

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