Learning from a writing master

Skewering the phoney and pretentious is one of the great pleasures of life. It doesn’t happen often enough. Thank goodness for the likes of Richard Ford, the American novelist, who sets much of his work in New Jersey, but writes about people who are recognisable anywhere.

I just read this passage from The Lay of the Land (the third in his Frank Bascombe trilogy. Rumour has it a fourth in the series is to be published this autumn), in which Frank is describing his daughter’s new boyfriend:

“Thom teaches equestrian therapy to Down’s syndrome kids at a ‘pretty famous holistic center’… He read Sanskrit, history of science and genocide studies, swam or rowed till books got in the way; born abroad of mixed parentage, he has a deep honeyed voice that seems made of expensive felt; he plays a medieval stringed instrument, of which there are only ten in existence; has mastered Go, was once married to a Chilean woman and has a teenage child in Montreal he’s deeply committed to but rarely sees. Worked in Ghana for the Friends Service, taught in experimental schools (not Montessori), built his own ketch and sailed it to Brittany, wears one-of-a-kind Persian sandals, a copper anklet, black silk singlets suggesting a full-body tan, sage-colored desert shorts revealing a shark-bite on his inner thigh from who-knows-what ocean, and always smells like a fine wood-working shop.”

Enough. Perhaps Ford is overdoing it a little, but I laughed aloud in recognition, although of course I have never met anyone like that. The point is that the observation is so acute, the accumulation of detail so telling, that you, the reader, feel that you know this man – and know him to be a snake.

If you want to write well, read Richard Ford and learn a trick of two from a master.