A Multitude of Sins, a new collection of short stories, is Richard Ford’s eighth book of fiction, and it prompts some reflections on his literary career. His first two novels were powerful and promising, no less so for the evident literary influences at work in them. Ford has never been reluctant to acknowledge debts to Faulkner, Robert Stone, Raymond Carver, Walker Percy, John Barth, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, John Cheever, and many others. A Piece of My Heart (1976), a tale of fatal desire and violence in rural Mississippi, is distinctly Faulknerian, not least in its moments of fine vernacular comedy. Ford, born (in 1944) and raised in Mississippi himself, sensibly chose not to become just another regional novelist, and he next wrote The Ultimate Good Luck (1981), a noir thriller about gringos caught up in Mexican drug trafficking, which owes something to the early Robert Stone.
In the later 1980s he began to publish the books that established him as a major writer of fiction. The Sportswriter (1986) and its sequel Independence Day (1995) created in Frank Bascombe, a sportswriter who becomes a suburban real estate agent, a richly imagined and appealing hero (the old word almost suits) of his time; a fine novel in a very different key, Wildlife (1990), explores both rigorously and sympathetically the mind of a sixteen-year-old Montana boy whose parents’ marriage is coming apart. Ford’s brilliant first collection of stories, Rock Springs (1987), is also set in the Northwest, while Women with Men (1997), a volume of three novellas, returns to the Rockies and also has a look at Americans (at a loss) in Paris.
Ford has a fine sense of place, be it southern, western, or foreign; in The Sportswriter and Independence Day he manages to turn New Jersey into a remarkable mix of observed reality and fantasy land in the space between Philadelphia and New York, wherein real locations like New Brunswick, Hightstown, Asbury Park, and Newark Airport are to be found but the borough of Princeton (where Ford once lived) has been replaced by a smaller, quainter, university-less village called Haddam. A Multitude of Sins has almost too much geography to offer; its stories happen in New York, Chicago, the French Quarter of New Orleans and the freshwater marshes outside, northern Michigan, suburban Connecticut, Montreal, coastal Maine, and northern Arizona.
“Place means nothing,” says Frank Bascombe, but by then the sportswriter has turned real estate salesman, and his primary meaning is a professional one. (A realtor in the new story “Abyss” says something similar about traffic control at the Grand Canyon: “People have to be moved or the system breaks down…. Real estate’s exactly the same thing…. It doesn’t matter where they finally are….”) Places where important things once happened to you retain no particular evidence of such happenings or of your having been there, and they’re unable to console you in the present, however urgent your need. Frank’s clients are hunting not just …