July 09, 1990 12:00 PM

For a novelist whose work is known as Montana Gothic and littered with guns, whiskey and pickup trucks, Richard Ford is a disarming character indeed. Rangy and ethereally handsome, the 46-year-old Ford is a man who likes good food and dubious jokes and who owns a tie emblazoned with the Mr. Peanut logo. He drinks not Jack Black, but a modest Moet, and although he has been wounded by a few literary snipers, he would rather be shot than write a bad review of someone else’s book.

Ford’s fourth novel, Wildlife, which reached stores last month, has already rekindled the debate about his work. Never a best-selling novelist (though, thanks to a loyal following, he moves enough paperback copies to make a living), he is nevertheless one who has gotten lots of attention since his 1986 book, The Sportswriter, was hailed by the late Walker Percy as “a stunning novel” and praised by the New York Review of Books as “a triumph.” But some critics claimed that its protagonist (a divorced journalist who takes up with a dim, big-breasted Jersey girl) was a neo-sexist lug. (“People still say, ‘I don’t think a guy like Frank could like a woman like Vicky,’ ” says Ford. “And I think, ‘Well, where have you been living?’ “) Converts were not swayed, however, and they snapped up Rock Springs, Ford’s 1987 story collection that limned the lives of the down and out and was pronounced “incandescent” by the New York Times.

Since then, Ford has turned out the screenplay for Bright Angel (shot last summer in Montana with Sam Shepard) and now Wildlife. The novel explores the life of a Montana teenager whose parents’ marriage is unraveling. Again opinion is divided. Some have praised the book as a subtly powerful evocation of family life; others have dismissed it as minimalism that falls short of the mark. Ford can live with the controversy, if the alternative is obscurity. “For me,” he says, “success just means finding a readership.”

Last December, Ford and his wife, Kristina (who has a Ph.D. in city planning), landed in New Orleans, where she became the project director for the Bureau of Governmental Research. Their 12th home in 22 years is a 19th-century town house on Bourbon Street that is all high ceilings and cool elegance. Yet Ford feels a bit confined here; both he and Kristina are addicted to hunting and fishing and endless horizons, and they like towns where you can recognize a neighbor by his truck. So at odd moments they pull out maps of Montana to look for obscure towns where one might scout for houses. Theirs is, by Ford’s own admission, a remarkably tranquil life—he adores his wife, doesn’t have a drinking problem and feels financially secure. “I’m not trying to live an interesting life,” he says. “I’m trying to write interesting books.”

While Ford’s friends, mentors and quail-hunting companions include E.L. Doctorow (his writing teacher at the University of California at Irvine) and the novelists Barry Hannah and Tom McGuane, it is Kristina, 44, whom he considers his most important critic. When he finished Wildlife, the two had just sold their house in Missoula and moved to New Orleans. Since their furniture was on the road, they sat every day in the empty study, where he read the manuscript aloud. “It isn’t so much that I offer suggestions as it is that I take it seriously and let him look at it again,” says Kristina. “Usually that comes at a point where he’s really tired, and yet he knows that to go through it again will make it better.”

Married four years after they met at Michigan State University in 1964, the Fords ruled out parenthood long ago. “Being an overachiever, I’m sure I would have been a dreadful parent,” he says. They share a passion for discovering new terrain and have lived in Chicago and New York City as well as in more exotic spots: Yahualica, Mexico, and Coahoma, Miss., among them. “I’ll try to exhaust my interest in a place, and then I’ll just move on,” says Ford. “I think the ways in which people accommodate themselves to a place is a lot of what stories of mine are about. Americans move all the time but they have this European notion that people should live in one place. It’s a big schismatic drama in American life.”

In many ways, transience is Ford’s strongest theme: The only child of Parker Ford, a traveling salesman, and Edna, a housewife, he spent his early years in Jackson, Miss.—a town where anyone born outside the state was regarded as an alien. When his father had a heart attack in 1952, his parents began to shuttle him between Jackson and Little Rock, where his grandparents owned a hotel. After a second heart attack in 1960, Parker—”a sweet, caring man,” Ford says—died in his arms. “It made life seem precious,” he says. “It made life seem worth doing, because it could be over someday.”

While he still remembers the reverent tone in his mother’s voice when she pointed out writer Eudora Welty to him in a Jackson tea room long ago, Ford felt the call to literature only after he had been rejected by the Arkansas State Police (they considered his college degree a drawback), was discharged from the Marines because he had hepatitis, and dropped out of law school. He was 23, and his only advantage, he says, was that he loved language: “I could easily have said, ‘I’m going to join the circus this morning. I’m going to be a doctor,’ ” he remembers. “But I liked words—I liked saying words.”

It is a choice he has never regretted. “The thing about being a writer,” he says, “is that you never have to ask, ‘Am I doing something that’s worthwhile?’ Because even if you fail at it, you know that it’s worth doing.”

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