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Middling America

Richard Ford’s stark view of average lives


Very few contemporary writers handle the mundane details of middle-class American life with the finesse and mastery of Richard Ford. Independence Day, which won Ford the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, succeeded where few authors dare tread, eliciting an unusual empathy for the thankless efforts of a struggling real estate agent. Ford’s latest corpus of short stories, A Multitude of Sins, strikes a far different chord, or series of chords, than his previous works. It is, perhaps, the kind of book an author can publish only after he has made an undeniable name for himself—in short, when he can publish what he wants.

Ford is a consummate writer, and while these stories are all exemplary of his work, there are no heroes here and the stories themselves are not uplifting. A Multitude of Sins is a carefully crafted exhibition, nearly a middle-class American sideshow, dramatizing in sorrowful details and the banality of minor evils.

A Multitude of Sins is founded upon similar literary ground as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio. While Anderson’s masterpiece explored the conflict arising between common human desires and the strict moral codes of rural America, Ford’s concern is more with the underlying twisted psychology of our largely amoral contemporary world. Unlike Anderson’s stories, the characters in A Multitude of Sins do not all live in the same small rural town. They could, however, all plausibly be next-door neighbors in a large urban center.

The characters are lawyers and spouses of lawyers as well as journalists, dilettantes, corporate executives, accountants, editors, and advertising executives. They are of the modest jet set, the kind of people who travel business class or attain “elite” status in collecting frequent flier miles.

Eight of the 10 stories in the book present adultery as driving themes. The affairs themselves are ordinary, the kinds of infidelities you might hear about at a cocktail party. Perhaps surprisingly, the common center of gravity in the stories is not the sexual antics of the characters, but their tangential behaviors. Ford approaches the subject of adultery from indirect and oblique angles.

In “Reunion,” the male protagonist describes being caught in an affair with a woman in St. Louis. The narrator tells the story in asides during a chance reunion with the cuckolded husband in the concourse of Grand Central Station. Ford handles the narrative shifts from the monologue, relating a history of events, to the portrayal of the fast-paced chance encounter, with dexterity. The resulting story reveals adultery as merely the context in which injured pride is the pivotal force.

Ultimately, these stories seem to have very little to do with sexuality. More often than not sex is portrayed as a mode of interaction with which humans delude themselves that they are doing right, when they are truly avoiding reality and causing pain. Ford shows no inclination to sensationalize the moral depravity about which he writes. In fact, there is only one sex scene in the entire collection, and it is one of frustrated sex in a situation where sex might be restorative.

In the story “Charity,” Ford illustrates the depth of alienation experienced by a traumatized former police officer, wounded in the line of duty, who cannot comprehend that his wife still desires and loves him.

Ford’s stories are generally characterized by a challenging complexity, and in this case, the challenge can be daunting. All but one of the stories is written in first person. The monologues, spoken by the protagonists, reveal the contextual, psychological and philosophical underpinnings that give the stories extraordinary depth. It is not so much the meticulous details as the hopelessness, hypocrisy, callousness and hatefulness in the experiences the characters relate that require an arduous patience and effort to get through.

The characters are often provocative and detestable, and their circumstances are often excruciatingly painful. Ford’s characters can attain such a state of pathetic realism that reading their stories feels like a toxic experience.

In “Quality Time,” Ford highlights the horrific shallowness of a journalist who believes in the primacy of surface details over the emotional undercurrents that deeply influence his relationships. The romance he shares with his lover is chillingly superficial. In “Calling,” a father abandons his wife and son to run off with another man. In the aftermath, he is so self-absorbed in prideful anger over his loss of social standing he is unable to show his son any love at all. “Puppy” illustrates how callous indifference in the busy lives of ordinary people leads to the pathetic death of an abandoned puppy.

In an article by Michael Kaplan in Book magazine, Ford says these stories can be viewed as cautionary tales. “They tell you how things can go wrong,” he says. Unfortunately, these relentless stories offer little by way of redemption.

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