February 21, 2002

Another Ford Masterpiece

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“A kiss,” Oscar Wilde wrote, “may ruin a human life.” If the mere locking of lips leads to utter downfall, then the characters in Richard Ford’s new collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, should get their exponentially more destructive comeuppances. And sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. These are not stories of Victorian Britain, but of the Now–when sexual liaisons mean everything and nothing, often simultaneously. As Madeline says in “Dominion,” “We’re the forces of evil they think so much about. The terrible adulterers. We worry them.”

Ford is probably best known for his two novels centering on Frank Bascombe, the protagonist of The Sportswriter (1986), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Independence Day (1995). Both of these books are lauded for their depiction of the intimacy and scope of middle-class suburban American existence in the vein of John Updike in his series of novels focusing on the life (and death) of “Rabbit” Harry Angstrom. Since Independence Day, Ford has scaled down, working within the confines of the dyad relationship in his shorter fiction, crafting the three novellas of his 1997 collection Women With Men (which also contains a story dealing with the motif of adultery), and now A Multitude of Sins.

In A Multitude of Sins, Ford’s characters lead dissolute lives: they cheat, lie, lust and betray. They argue and cause others pain. They reason with themselves speciously. They often are or are associated with lawyers. And in more than one story, they run over furry mammals with their cars. The reasons for their affairs are varied, and often not very good. But they have them anyway.

The collection “commences” (a word often employed by Ford) in comparatively minimal sin with “Privacy,” an aery short story told in retrospect. “Privacy” is told by an unnamed husband who describes an event from “a time when my marriage was still happy.” In careful, stylized prose, the man’s voyeuristic experience ultimately leads him to reevaluate his life and marriage.

These adulterers are often in transit: in cars, train stations, hotels, motels, airports. Sins happen all over Ford’s America, in New York, throughout New England, in New Orleans, in Chicago and St. Louis, in Arizona, even north of the border in Montreal. They are committed by people middle-class or wealthier, by white people with similar backgrounds, who often hold similar thoughts and tend to wax philosophical. In both “Under the Radar” and “Dominion” male characters reach nearly identical conclusions pertaining to the women they’re with: “he did realize that he really didn’t know his wife at all”; “he knew her, yet also he didn’t quite know her.” They are, apparently, united in their rationalizations prompted by infidelity.

The best of these stories is “Calling,” where a man, referred to as “Buck,” looks back to his youth in New Orleans in 1961. His father has moved out and taken a gay lover. His mother lets a black man move into the house and they spend all hours drinking, playing jazz recordings and making “unwelcome noise until late.” Buck, 16 at the time, ends up on a duck hunting expedition with his father and his father’s paramour where the events are funny and poignant and the dialog is biting. The story is pitch-perfect and the most memorable of the collection.

The rest of these stories present adultery-motivated imbroglios that succeed to varying degrees. “Puppy,” which begins with the finding of a rascally piebald pooch meanders into a story of the effect of a wife’s affair on her husband’s thoughts. In “Reunion,” a book editor runs into a Midwesterner named Mack Bolger in Grand Central Station, the husband of a woman, Beth Bolger, with whom he had been having an affair; it is not the friendliest of encounters. “Abyss,” the longest of these stories is a tale of two married (and cheating) real estate agents who meet at an awards ceremony in Western Connecticut; events turn the way of turmoil by the Grand Canyon–the chasm supplying physical doom and metaphorical weight.

As Buck’s dad tells him in “Calling,” “Always try to imagine how you’re going to feel after you fuck somebody before you fuck somebody. Comprendes? There’s the key to everything. History. Morality. Philosophy. You’ll save yourself a lot of misery.” Buck’s dad of course, doesn’t take his own advice. Like the rest of Richard Ford’s characters, he understands how to think rationally but ends up living life out on the front lines, acting on emotion, impulse, getting into messes–chalking up another notch under mankind’s banner marked: “Multitude of Sins.”

Archived article by L. Weiss