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Hightstown, Asbury Park, and Newark Airport are to be found but the borough of Princeton (where Ford once lived) has been replaced by a smaller, quainter, university-less village called Haddam.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 for houses but for lives they’ve already lost for good, and they would do better, he thinks, to forget where they’ve been and “shove off to whatever’s next.” He doesn’t perfectly embody his own maxim—he’s sold his old house and bought a new one, but he has by no means forgotten the child and the marriage he lost in Haddam. Yet he does understand that they’re lost, and he seems to have no intention of leaving town.
The people in A Multitude of Sins are on the move. Many travel often on business, like the well-educated, successful lawyers, writers, editors, artists, fund-raisers, engineers, accountants, lobbyists, and real estate agents that they are. They’re interested in their work and seem good at it; a thoughtful ex-policeman is the closest we get to an anomaly, and his wife is a lawyer. There seems to be some narrowing of range here, and some narrowing is also detectable in the book’s New Testament title. The First General Epistle of Peter admonishes us “above all things [to] have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” And verse three of the same chapter—“For the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles, when we have walked in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings, and abominable idolatries”—shows that the meaning of the words in the title is “a lot of somewhat different sins.” But Ford’s people are not much given to hard partying or idolatry; and “lasciviousness” and “lusts” lie closer to the mark.
Most of these stories focus on or at least allude to a single sin, adultery, present or past or both. Yet Ford’s faithless men and women, while enjoying their lapses well enough, don’t seem merely lascivious or lustful. (When Frank Bascombe casually remarks that he had affairs with eighteen women in the two years after his son died of Reye’s syndrome, we know that lust is not really his problem.) Though people don’t have much to say about “love” in A Multitude of Sins, these sinners take their feelings and their partners’ seriously, within reason. (As one of them says to another, “You’re kind of brave. You sort of have principles.”) Theirs are stories about the ends of affairs, and they often hope, if rather uneasily, that the other party derived something useful from their encounter, if only some painful new idea of themselves.
“Abyss,” previously unpublished, is not the volume’s best story, but it has the most striking ending. A man and a woman, a pair of concupiscent real estate agents from Connecticut, sneak off from a sales convention in Phoenix to see the Grand Canyon. Their passion is cooling down, and both have secretly put in calls to their spouses back home. They’re suitably if not very articulately impressed by the great spectacle—he says, “It’s sort of the opposite of real estate,” and she claims, “It’s full of healing energy.” She, a tough go-getter, crawls over the safety wall to pose for a picture—“I want just me and the canyon,” she unwisely remarks. But while he tries to compose the shot, she mutters “Oh my” and disappears from the viewfinder; he looks up to find her lying dead two hundred feet down. He convinces the police, with surprising ease, that his tale of disaster (his car has even been stolen from the parking lot) is true, but on the way back to Phoenix and public and private disgrace he finds that “he understood that in fact very little of what he knew mattered,” and that “life… seemed to be disappearing from around him” in a more fearsome way than he had ever imagined his own death would entail.
In an interview in 1994 Ford described his fiction as being about “how people put their lives in order after rather dramatic, sometimes violent, percussive events”:
We’re natively curious about events that change even small personal histories. So, insofar as a story of mine might be instructive, it’s that it is about what people do when bad things happen. For me, what’s mostly threatened in the stories I’ve written is the fabric of affection that holds people close enough together to survive.
If this close “fabric of affection” is not restored in some way, Ford said, “at least it can be glimpsed by the reader, if not always the characters”; and even if readers can understand no more than how it was lost, they may “in that understanding, achieve some kind of reconnection.” Such remarks evidently mean to answer the charge that Ford’s fiction is too coldblooded and morally unlocated, and they seem to me credible if qualifiers like “glimpsed” and “some kind of” are given full weight. And the idea of “reconnection” can lend a deeper sadness to a sad story like “Calling.” Here an adult narrator reflects upon his boyhood with truly dreadful parents who “risked and squandered and ignored” powers and possibilities that his own subsequent life has managed to achieve: “Such a sense of life’s connectedness can certainly occur…. But it is survivable. I am the proof, inasmuch as since that time, I have never imagined my life in any way other than as it is.”
The story’s point, I take it, is that survival seems a pretty limited virtue if it demands the destruction of imagination. By contrast, Joe Brinson, the young narrator of Wildlife, survives the estrangement of his parents without ceasing to wonder what they are feeling and what his own carefully guarded feelings (guarded even from himself) may signify about his future. (“You’ll forget most of it,” his father says, but Joe tells the story from a distant adulthood, and he obviously has never forgotten.) Even more to the point is Frank Bascombe, whose taste for “mystery,” as yet unrealized “possibility and purpose,” gets him through an unwanted divorce, the death of a son, and grave concerns about the stability and future prospects of another son, still in his teens.
“I can always imagine anything—“ Frank reflects in Independence Day, “a marriage, a conversation, a government—as being different from how it is, a trait that might make one a top-notch trial lawyer or novelist or realtor, but that also seems to produce a somewhat less than reliable and morally feasible human being.” Frank is a realtor who once published a book of short stories and wanted to go to law school, and he well understands the price of his imaginative powers even as he ruefully pays it. Though he “was afraid that if I didn’t use my life, even in a ridiculous way, I’d lose it,” he’s not a hero—his wife points out with some amusement that when they encountered a deranged gunman outside Madison Square Garden and Frank found them both a place to hide, he jumped behind her. But his sense that he now lives “simply to celebrate the hum of the human spirit” is still persuasive and in its modest way heroic after all.
Ford’s last three novels—which, with the stories in Rock Springs (1987), are surely his finest work to date—are all told in the first person. He’s a conscious and formally scrupulous craftsman, and his comments on narrative method in 1998 seem to me right, up to a point:
…I can’t account for it right now, but in stories like “Empire” [in Rock Springs], Occidentals and The Womanizer [both in Women with Men] (all written in the third person), I have a much harder time finding redemptive language for events and characters. Those stories all turn out to be…harsher stories. The moral quotient to those stories tends to be of a more negative kind. They tend to…indict their characters more than the first-person stories.
It might also be that first-person writing simply absorbs more of the writer into the character’s sense of things. Both Ford and Frank Bascombe were born in the South in the mid-1940s; both lost their fathers in their mid-teens; both went to college in Michigan; both did brief military service in the 1960s but were discharged on medical grounds; both briefly taught English at a college in northwest Massachusetts (as well as elsewhere, in Ford’s case); both dislike the legal profession (Ford tried a semester of law school and hated it, Bascombe couldn’t even get admitted); both became writers, though of different sorts. They differ in other, larger ways, of course, but Bascombe is such a convincing narrator because a lot of Ford is invested in him.
Certainly, the first-person stories in A Multitude of Sins—“Privacy,” “Calling,” “Reunion,” and “Puppy”—seem no less harsh or morally negative than the others, and they don’t necessarily find “redemptive language”—moments of understanding or reconnection—more readily or naturally. In “Privacy,” an accidental voyeur discovers that the “petite” figure he’s been repeatedly watching undress in a nearby apartment is, when he sees her on the street, in fact a very thin, seventyish Asian woman: “I walked on then, feeling oddly but in no way surprisingly betrayed, simply passed on down the street toward my room and my own doors, my life entering, as it was at that moment, its first, long cycle of necessity.” He has already said that his marriage was at that time about to break up, but “first, long cycle of necessity” still seems generalized and portentous. In 1998 Ford acknowledged that language is to him more interesting “in its poetic and non-cognitive qualities” than in anything it may or may not say, and that his being “more attached to the physical qualities of the words than to their referents” may owe something to his being dyslexic as well as to his having read Faulkner. Whatever the cause, the haziness of his characters’ final sense of things is sometimes nicely expressive of the mystery that other minds always pose, in books as in life; but at other times it suggests that an author is searching for “redemptive language” a little too insistently.
One of the best stories in the new volume, “Quality Time,” centers on a brief affair between James Wales, an unmarried freelance journalist, and a woman we know only as “Jena,” an amateur painter and wife of a wealthy lllinois real estate investor. After fourteen years in Europe, Wales is temporarily in Chicago to teach a university seminar on “The Literature of the Actual”; he and Jena meet when she comes to his lecture “A Case of Failed Actuality,” on the death of Princess Diana. Jena invites him for a drink at her hotel, and they then briskly go to bed. He is experienced in such liaisons; she has two children and an open marriage; neither is young. The affair continues for five nights, and the story opens as Wales, driving to meet her at the Drake, sees a woman killed by a van on an icy street.
He makes no mention of this accident when he reaches Jena’s suite. They talk—she about her children and her husband, whom she likes, he about his aged parents in Rhode Island, then she about her scorn for her own parents, raised poor in southern Ohio and painfully ignorant about the world their daughter now inhabits.
After they make love and start out to dinner, she asks him, more or less idly, if he would kill her husband if she asked him; his answer is “No, I guess I wouldn’t.” Asked to tell her something that has happened to him, he describes not the death of the woman in the street but his fighting off a would-be mugger in a parking lot earlier that day. This story is partly fiction: something like this happened two months before, and the mugger did hit him as he describes, but he did not fight back.
As they part, she says she’ll be going home in the morning, and he says he’ll be leaving then too. They agree that their affair has given each of them something, and we see James Wales finally as
a man standing alone in a brown coat; [waiting] until whatever disordered feelings he had about their moment of departure could be fully experienced and then diminish and become less a barrier. They were not bad feelings, not an unfamiliar moment, not the opening onto desolation. They were simply the outcome. And in a short while…he would feel a small release, an unburdening, the sensation of events being completed, so that over time he would think less and less about it until it all seemed, upon reflection, to be almost perfect.
It’s not so much what people do or feel that interests Ford, as what their minds do afterward. The passage skips over whatever “disordered” feelings Wales first may have had, leaving them to be sorted out and reduced by time until they become less a “barrier” to something or other. It’s enough for him to know that they’re not “bad feelings,” ones that may puzzle or even desolate him. They’re “simply the outcome” that time and reflection will complete and shape into something “almost perfect.”
There is of course a long tradition of curative remembering in our literature. It goes back at least as far as Virgil, whose Aeneas encouraged his defeated, dejected Trojan comrades with “forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit” (“perhaps even this will some day give us pleasure to remember”); and it figures in another great moment much later, in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, when Anne Elliot points out to her husband-to-be, whom she had rejected eight years earlier, that “when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.” Ford’s version makes no mention of “pleasure,” and he stops short of what words like “understanding” or “knowledge” would introduce. Would James Wales’s feelings indeed be altered and reordered by time into something “almost perfect,” and what might that mean? Are we to read this as stating some comforting general truth about painful emotion? Is it a troubling comment on the relative shallowness of feeling in people like Wales and Jena? Or do such suggestions miss the point of the story, which may have mostly to do with the outcomes and completions that narrative itself adds to the disorder of experience, the “almost perfect” constructions of memory and of art itself, that are of such interest to writers?
Ford stops short of resolving such questions, as short stories are entitled to do. But his effects do sometimes require a little rigging. In “Quality Time” the association of Jena, whose clueless parents treat her “like royalty,” with the dead woman in the street and with Princess Di, whom Wales lectures about, seems rather tidy, and of course the princess’s name was “Wales,” too. In “Dominion,” a Montreal woman breaks up with her visiting American lover by having a young actor impersonate her irate husband, a device which impresses the lover no more than it does the reader. In “Abyss,” the fatal fall into the Grand Canyon ingeniously makes literal the theme of risk, but I’m afraid I admired Ford’s nerve more than his craftsmanship here. More generally, he may be looking a little too hard for “redemptive language” in minds he knows and respects less surely than he knows and respects Frank Bascombe or those Montana people whose relatively commonplace, imperfectly inarticulate selves he so marvelously brings to life in Rock Springs and Wildlife.
To his great credit, Ford has always been ready to move his fiction to new locations, and he has already noticed the recent change. In 2000 he remarked, “I think I’ve exhausted the seam in my writing that is roughly describable as those first-person Montana stories. And I hope I will exhaust the seam of the stories I’ve been writing in the last two or three years—these third-person, severe, dark stories.”
I hope so too, though the new stories are honorable work, and the best ones—“Calling,” “Reunion,” “Under the Radar,” and “Quality Time”—are very powerful indeed. But I kept wishing that Ford had found characters he and we could like a little better. Privileged, cosmopolitan people may not be his best subjects, unless someone like Frank Bascombe is on hand to view them and himself, with appropriate skepticism and deflating good humor. Ford said in 1998 that he was beginning to think about writing a third Bascombe novel; this is a very exciting prospect.
July 18, 2002
His comments on other writers are indexed in Conversations with Richard Ford, edited by Huey Guagliardo (University Press of Mississippi, 2001). His dated comments on his own work are taken from this very useful book, to which I owe much of my knowledge of Ford and his career. ↩