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Frailty, Thy Name Is Family : WILDLIFE <i> by Richard Ford (Atlantic Monthly Press: $18.95; 176 pp.)</i>

In “Wildlife,” an adolescent begins to grow up when his parents go into crisis. He is not ready to leave the nest but, ready or not, the nest threatens to leave him. It could be subtitled “The Year I Learned About Life.”

This is almost a genre in American fiction, and Richard Ford has written a controlled and sometimes moving example of it. Joe, the narrator, tells of his 16th year; when his father, a golf pro in a Montana oil town loses his job, suffers a temporary breakdown and recovers, and when his mother has a brief affair, leaves home and eventually returns.

Recovery, return; they are the same thing. After a certain time, the years decline, but in a spiral. Life is re-established but at a lower level of possibility.

Jerry, the father, is the artist as athlete, masterly but vulnerable. We think of Hemingway’s fishermen, hunters and bullfighters; free players entangled in a rigged world. Jerry has the art--a fluid, graceful golf swing--but not the cunning or the brute drive to be a champion. He gives lessons to ranchers, bankers and oilmen, plays foursomes with them and seems to share their male camaraderie. But the sharing is fictitious; he is an upper servant, and one day the club president fires him because a member has reported his wallet missing.

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Jerry falls apart. When the club calls to apologize for its mistake, he refuses to go back. He hangs around the house in a daze and then announces that he’s off to join a pick-up work crew to fight the monstrous fire that has burned for months in the mountains to the west. Its smoke and haze have been fouling the town like a blight on its prosperity, as much omen as threat.

To Jeanette, tried by their itinerant life--Jerry has held and left other golf jobs in other towns--her husband’s decision is an outrage. He knows nothing about fire-fighting, she protests; his hands are small and delicate; he will be killed. Deeper than that, his decision to give up what he is--to go fight fires with a gang of drifters, drunks and paroled felons--is a betrayal. Men abandon their families by abandoning themselves.

Joe feels doubly abandoned. His father has vanished into the smoke, with only a poorly connected phone call coming through now and then. His mother, sparky and still attractive, launches her own flight. She takes up with Warren Miller, owner of two grain elevators and one of the powerful men of the town.

Ford sets out the brief affair through Joe’s numb and partial vision. He and Jeanette go for an awkward dinner at Miller’s house; Joe retreats to Miller’s bedroom when he and Jeanette begin to dance. Jeanette seems offended by the man’s advances, and she and Joe leave. Later that night, he will see Miller walking naked out of her bedroom.

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Joe’s world seems to have vanished; with everyone leaving, he tries to leave as well. He doesn’t get past the edge of town when he realizes that his splintering family is all he’s got. The world is not really breaking up; it’s just that Joe hasn’t come to terms with its cracks and canyons. Jerry will come back and attempt a futile and humiliating bit of revenge against a thoroughly impervious Miller. Jeanette will be rebuffed by the same imperviousness, leave town for a while, and straggle back. None of the three has anywhere else to go.

Joe learns that his parents are frail and that he still needs them. He learns that frailty is not only individual but social; that even in a Western boom town where people come in a dream of equal opportunity, there are a few who build power for themselves and a great many who don’t, and that the latter are at the mercy of the former. A nuanced awareness of class in American life is one of Ford’s interesting strengths.

Miller, in fact, is the most original and suggestive figure in the book. He is large but pudgy and unimposing; his manner is gentle and unassertive. When Jeanette complains of Jerry’s hare-brained departure, he remarks: “Sometimes you have to do the wrong thing just to know you’re alive.” He is aiming to console Joe as much as Jeanette, and to instruct him as well. “Some trouble isn’t worth getting into,” he advises.

Underneath the mildness, though, there is power. Warren gets what he wants and--as with Jerry and Jeanette--disposes of what he doesn’t want. Wisdom, and even kindness and sensitivity, can co-exist with ruthless self-interest. “Things do happen around him,” Jeanette says. “He has that feel.”

Of all the lessons that Joe learns, the most important is about his position in the universe. It doesn’t turn about him. Jeanette tells him, after he has discovered her affair: “You don’t want to think when people do things you don’t like that they’re crazy. Because mostly they aren’t. It’s just that you’re not part of it. That’s all. And maybe you want to be.”

A novella about an adolescent learning a life-lesson is bound to be didactic. But in “Wildlife,” the didactic element overbalances the fiction. The writing is skillful. Jerry, in his hazy-minded breakout, and Jeannette, in her acid-tongued though equally wishful escape, are drawn clearly and individually. They are not, however, very interesting. Their fate--to be diddled by the powerful--is visibly upon them from the start.

Ford has given Joe a quietly uninflected style. It allows a subtle and precise narration. But it also means that he comes across as the recorder of his experience more than as its protagonist. And this makes the learning voice of the boy indistinguishable from the teaching voice of the author, which isn’t the same thing at all.


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