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Unlike John Updike, from whom sex elicits elegant descriptions, Ford mainly concentrates on sexual aftermath: Two stories treat the last hours of extramarital affairs, and others deal with immediate or long-term consequences of infidelity. In the most dramatic—and weakest—story, "Under the Radar," a man strikes his wife for betraying him, and she runs him over with their car. In "Reunion," a man in Grand Central Station sees a husband he once cuckolded and walks over to say hello, for no reason that he can fathom. Ford's characters don't get away with their "sins," but punishment is usually befuddlement, men wondering what happened, women trying to imagine what will happen.
In the prototypical Ford story, a male protagonist recalls his past by recounting a lot of dialogue, pausing to flash back and meditating throughout. "Quality Time" remembers the last meeting of a journalist and his married lover in Chicago. An American lawyer in "Dominion" recalls the end of his affair with a Canadian business associate who gets an actor to pose as her aggrieved husband. Another lawyer, in "Calling," looks back to a childhood duck-hunting expedition with his father, who left his mother for a man.
The shortest of these three stories is twenty-three pages, all of which are devoted to one evening. In each fiction, length is used to create what a character calls "ground clutter," complicated situations that resist a rueful male narrator's understanding and reward a reader who values "the ambiguous in life."
Ford's lawyers, writers and artists are intelligent folks who frequently don't know their partners or themselves because they displace couple trouble onto some other subject, such as a stray dog in "Puppy." Although articulate, they complain about lacking language. When relationships end, they have what one character calls "serious but meaningless conversations." Like Raymond Carver, Ford's former mentor and friend, Ford requires readers to fill in the blanks that his characters can't.
Two stories with female protagonists are livelier, more hopeful than the men's retrospectives. "Crèche" tells the story of Faith, who takes her extended family on a Christmas ski trip, resists a seduction by her brother-in-law and still vows to make Christmas morning happy for her whole screwy family. In "Charity," a wife about to lose her husband of two decades goes on a Maine vacation and begins to understand why she might want to let him go or move from Maryland to Maine with him. As lengthy as the male-dominated stories, these two have more emotional range, more stylistic vitality and some Lorrie Moore wit.
The best stories in A Multitude of Sins are long, with the meandering pace and character density of Ford's novels. The weaker stories are the shorter ones and, like journalism, easily measured and quickly forgotten. "Abyss," the novella that ends the collection, combines the strengths of length and a woman's point of view. Most of the sixty pages deal with its married lovers' two-day trip to the Grand Canyon. As Ford switches back and forth between the dull man's thoughts and the woman's more passionate desires, we see the adulterers become disgusted with each other, and we shift our sympathies from one to the other and back. The novella's (and collection's) ending implies, even if it doesn't mean to, that sin is punished, either with a literal fall or with a guilt that can't be evaded.
Ford's stories are often a pleasure when found in our better magazines, but read one after the other, the stories in A Multitude of Sins have an assembly-line quality. It's not just the common subject of adultery. Unlike, say, Joyce Carol Oates or David Foster Wallace, Ford never breaks the mold of third-person limited omniscience or first-person moderate unreliability. Many of his characters are lawyers, and Ford rarely transcends their pedestrian rigor with a colloquialism or inventive metaphor.
In "Privacy," the first story of the collection, a married writer looks out his apartment window and watches a woman disrobe night after night. Like the voyeuristic writer, this collection returns again and again to private lives, secret actions, erotic intimacies. Ford's white professionals don't lose their jobs or find a beggar on their steps. They don't think about the ozone layer or the black folks down the street.
A dose of the public in this multitude of privacies might have brought the collection closer to Ford's Pulitzer Prize-winning and Americana-saturated novel, Independence Day. His stories are very good at a slowly unfolding, Walker Percy-inflected male malaise. Although the fictions in this book jump around the map—Maine and Mississippi, Phoenix and Montreal—it's always Richard Ford who shows up and inhabits and pervades the various settings. While this authorial consistency is no sin, self-insistence is also not aesthetic generosity.
“Ford is a great surveyor of human nature … And in A Multitude of Sins he is at the top of his form.” -- The Globe and Mail
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Posted October 16, 2007
Richard Ford's collection of short stories offer brief but substantial insight into the author's poetic take on modern realism, with a subject matter shamelessly indicative of his brood. Ford avoids affecting a heavy handed moral approach concerning any of his characters and shuns any attempt to deconstruct or excuse their behaviors. His prose is one of a distant conscience, perhaps an inherited voice from the very characters he has given birth to. The characters of Alan Ball's 'Six Feet Under' and 'American Beauty' would be well advised to intimate themselves with Ford's body of work.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 3, 2007
I'm not a huge fan of short stories, because I like greater character development. Some of the stories in this collection were somewhat hard to follow, and left you wondering what really happened. Perhaps that's indicative of great writing! I did appreciate the subtle points that the author was trying to get across.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 27, 2002
Posted August 9, 2013
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