“My mother once had a boyfriend named Glen Baxter. This was in 1961.” These opening lines of Richard Ford’s short story, “Communist,” immediately provide the grounding facts of time and character relationships, in addition to the first person point-of-view narration. Ford develops the first person narration along a two-fold structure; rather than just telling the story from a narrative moment using simple past tense, he weaves in the voice of the older, reflective narrator looking back on the events and commenting with the first person voice of the narrator as a young boy, experiencing the scenic moments as they unfold. Ford’s choice of using this technique, through diction, tense shifts, and careful structuring of the places where the reflective voice dominates, then steps back, and vice versa, creates a dramatic effect in how the all-knowing reflective narrator reveals information at a precise moment.

The reminiscent narrator most strongly appears in the beginning with the set-up of the story through diction. In the second paragraph, Ford uses the word “then” in the first line: “We were living then off the proceeds of my father’s life insurance policies, with my mother doing some part-time waitressing work up in Great Falls and going to the bars in the evenings, which I know is where she met Glen Baxter.” He repeats use of “then” again in the concluding sentence of the paragraph: “She was young, and I knew that even then.” This technique “anchors” the reflective narration as he renders the back story information about his mother’s work, habits, and his attitudes at the time.

The third paragraph continues the repetitive use of “then,” but the unfolding reflective narrative voice here grows more complex and authoritative as in places, Ford juxtaposes “then” with the word “now.” The paragraph starts out describing the character of Glen Baxter in simple past tense, until midway through, Ford reasserts the presence of the reflective voice in this line: “I think now he must’ve been in the CIA and been disillusioned by something he saw or found out about and had been thrown out, but that kind of thing did not matter to us.” This juxtaposition creates a dramatic effect because the reader realizes at once that the knowledge this older, more informed narrator possesses “now” must be a) somewhat important, or else he wouldn’t be sharing it in his storytelling, and b) unknown to the narrator in the scenically rendered “then” of the story which is about to unfold, thus adding to the mystery and intrigue of how the events will play out.

Moving out of the back story and into scene, Ford shifts from the reminiscent narrative voice into the simple past and the narrative perspective of the narrator as a teenage boy, observing details as they unfold: “She was very pretty, though when she was mad her features were sharpened and less pretty by a long way.” Here Ford maintains a more subtle tone of reminiscence—this is how the mother always used to look when angry, not for just this moment, layering in the built-up effect of a lengthy past. So as to keep the momentum of the dramatic tension set up earlier with the two-fold interweaving of the narrative voice, the reminiscent narrator returns in the final line of the scene: “But the door slammed behind her and he looked at me then with a look I think now was helplessness, though I could not see a way to change anything.”

Ford continues to juxtapose use of “then” and “now” to maintain this effect through the rest of the story, not only in back story but in scene, shifting narrative voice from one sentence to the next as in the following paragraph:

“By now the whole raft was in the air, all of it moving in a slow swirl above me and the lake and everywhere, finding the wind and heading out south in long wavering lines that caught the last sun and turned to silver as they gained a distance. It was a thing to see, I will tell you now. Five thousand white geese all in the air around you, making a noise like you have never heard before. And I thought to myself then: This is something I will never see again. I will never forget this. And I was right.”

“Now” is used twice in the above paragraph, however each “now” refers to different moments of time, the “now” of the past and the “now” of the narrative moment. These two distinct moments across place and time are brought together in the story’s telling, and the tight interweaving of the two narrative voices carry emotional weight.

The final segment of “Communist” opens with a return to the clearly defined diction of the reminiscent narrator: “A light can go out in the heart. All of this went on years ago, but I still can feel now how sad and remote the world was to me. Glen Baxter, I think now, was not a bad man, only a man scared of something he’d never seen before….” Before returning to show the final scene at the close of the day’s events, the reminiscent narrator flashes forward to reveal how things turned out. Why does Ford do this?

Part of his decision may have been because of the effect he wanted for the concluding note of “Communist,” at the end of the final scene. This scene, sandwiched between heavily revealing reminiscent narration and the last line of the story, is slightly disconnected from the previous scenes illustrating the day’s events with Glen Baxter. The final scene becomes, then, a scene just between the boy and his mother, as they leave off talking about Glen, and the mother and the son speak intimately. The reminiscent voice carries its emotional weight up until the very end, as the voice which began the story returns, again with the pattern of juxtaposition of “then” and “now”: “And how old was I then? Sixteen. Sixteen is young, but it can also be a grown man. I am forty-one years old now, and I think about that time without regret, though my mother and I never talked in that way again, and I have not heard her voice now in a long, long time.” Through this interweaving effect of the juxtaposition of diction and the book-ended structural placement of the reminiscent narrative voice, the dramatic tension of “Communist” stays sharp and focused. Ford’s technique allows the story to deliver a more complex emotional payoff than had he chosen to tell it directly from the past and its limited perspective of youth, rather than from the more knowledgeable, reflective, mature present.

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