‘Communist’ by Richard Ford

This is about as perfect as the classic American short story gets. Les, now in his forties, is looking back on an incident which happened when he was sixteen in Montana in 1961. His mother’s boyfriend, a self-declared Communist called Glen, returns after an unexplained absence and offers to take them to shoot snow geese. They go and the geese make an unforgettable display. They kill six. The gamble seems to have paid off, until a moment of misunderstanding between Glen and Aileen, Les’s mother, undoes it all and Glen departs. “A light can go out in the heart”. Later, Les and his mother have an honest conversation on the porch, something they never manage again. An adolescent rite of passage, limited ideas of masculinity, sublime natural beauty, the sudden ugliness of violence, the inescapabilty of insecurity and fear, the tentativeness of maternal love. All are present and correct. But the astringent clarity of Ford’s language and his ability to drop in the unexpected line to reverse the emotional polarity save the story from descending into a checklist of ‘Dirty Realist’ clichés. There’s none of the garrulous intimacy that make Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels his finest achievement (I was at Harvill when we published the Pulitzer-winning Independence Day), but the sound of Les’s first goose hitting the ground with “an awful sound, the sound a human would make, a thick, soft, hump noise” still haunts me. 

First published in Antaeus, 1984 and in the collection Rock Springs, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987. Collected in The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone, Touchstone, 2007. You can read an extract online here

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