Los Angeles Times
A Multitude of Sinsby Richard Ford
One of the most celebrated and unflinching chroniclers of modern life now explores, in this masterful collection of short stories, the grand theme of intimacy, love, and their failures.
With remarkable insight and candor, Richard Ford examines liaisons in and out and to the sides of marriage. An illicit visit to the Grand Canyon reveals a vastness even more… See more details below
One of the most celebrated and unflinching chroniclers of modern life now explores, in this masterful collection of short stories, the grand theme of intimacy, love, and their failures.
With remarkable insight and candor, Richard Ford examines liaisons in and out and to the sides of marriage. An illicit visit to the Grand Canyon reveals a vastness even more profound. A couple weekending in Maine try to recapture the ardor that has disappeared from their life together. And on a spring evening, a young wife tells her husband of her affair with the host of the dinner party they're about to join. The rigorous intensity Ford brings to these vivid, unforgettable dramas marks this as his most powerfully arresting book to date -- confirming the judgment of The New York Times Book Review that "nobody now writing looks more like an American classic."
Los Angeles Times
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 dramaticand weakeststory, "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 mapMaine and Mississippi, Phoenix and Montrealit'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.
“One of the most elegant American prose stylists of our time…. A Multitude of Sins is beyond satisfactory, edging close to perfection.” The Hamilton Spectator
“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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Read an Excerpt
This was at a time when my marriage was still happy.
We were living in a large city in the northeast. It was winter. February. The coldest month. I was, of course, still trying to write, and my wife was working as a translator for a small publishing company that specialized in Czech scientific papers. We had been married for ten years and were still enjoying that strange, exhilarating illusion that we had survived the worst of life's hardships.
The apartment we rented was in the old factory section on the south end of the city, the living space only a great, empty room with tall windows front and back, and almost no electric light. The natural light was all. A famous avant-garde theater director had lived in the room before and put on his jagged, nihilistic plays there, so that all the walls were painted black, and along one were still riser seats for his small disaffected audiences. Our bedmy wife's and minewas in one dark corner where we'd arranged some of the tall, black-canvas scenery drops for our privacy. Though, of course, there was no one for us to need privacy from.
Each night when my wife came back from her work, we would go out into the cold, shining streets and find a restaurant to have our meal in. Later we would stop for an hour in a bar and have coffee or a brandy, and talk intensely about the translations my wife was working on, though never (blessedly) about the work I was by then already failing at.
Our wish, needless to say, was to stay out of the apartment as long as we could. For not only was there almost no light inside, but each night at seven the building's owner would turn off the heat, so that by tenonour floor, the highestit was too cold to be anywhere but in bed piled over with blankets, barely able to move. My wife, at that time, was working long hours and was always fatigued, and although sometimes we would come home a little drunk and make love in the dark bed under blankets, mostly she would fall straight into bed exhausted and be snoring before I could climb in beside her.
And so it happened that on many nights that winter, in the cold, large, nearly empty room, I would be awake, often wide awake from the strong coffee we'd drunk. And often I would walk the floor from window to window, looking out into the night, down to the vacant street or up into the ghostly sky that burned with the shimmery luminance of the city's buildings, buildings I couldn't even see. Often I had a blanket or sometimes two around my shoulders, and I wore the coarse heavy socks I'd kept from when I was a boy.
It was on such a cold night thatthrough the windows at the back of the flat, windows giving first onto an alley below, then farther across a space where a wire factory had been demolished, providing a view of buildings on the street parallel to oursI saw, inside a long, yellow-lit apartment, the figure of a woman slowly undressing, from all appearances oblivious to the world outside the window glass.
Because of the distance, I could not see her well or at all clearly, could only see that she was small in stature and seemingly thin, with close-cropped dark haira petite woman in every sense. The yellow light in the room where she was seemed to blaze and made her skin bronze and shiny, and her movements, seen through the windows, appeared stylized and slightly unreal, like the movements of a silhouette or in an old motion picture.
I, though, alone in the frigid dark, wrapped in blankets that covered my head like a shawl, with my wife sleeping, oblivious, a few paces awayI was rapt by this sight. At first I moved close to the window glass, close enough to feel the cold on my cheeks. But then, sensing I might be noticed even at that distance, I slipped back into the room. Eventually I went to the corner and clicked off the small lamp my wife kept beside our bed, so that I was totally hidden in the dark. And after another few minutes I went to a drawer and found the pair of silver opera glasses which the theater director had left, and took them near the window and watched the woman across the space of darkness from my own space of darkness.
I don't know all that I thought. Undoubtedly I was aroused. Undoubtedly I was thrilled by the secrecy of watching out of the dark. Undoubtedly I loved the very illicitness of it, of my wife sleeping nearby and knowing nothing of what I was doing. It is also possible I even liked the cold as it surrounded me, as complete as the night itself, may even have felt that the sight of the womanwhom I took to be young and lacking caution or discretionheld me somehow, insulated me and made the world stop and be perfectly expressible as two poles connected by my line of vision. I am sure now that all of this had to do with my impending failures.
Nothing more happened. Though, in the nights to come I stayed awake to watch the woman, letting my wife go off to sleep in her fatigue. Each night, and for a week following, the woman would appear at her window and slowly disrobe in her room (a room I never tried to imagine, although on the wall behind her was what looked like a drawing of a springing deer). Once her clothes were shed away, exposing her bony shoulders and small breasts and thin legs and rib cage and modest, rounded stomach, the woman would for a while cast about the room in the bronze light, window to window, enacting what seemed to me a kind of languid, ritual dance or a pattern of possibly theatrical movements, rising and bowing and extending her arms, arching her neck, while making her hands perform graceful lilting gestures I didn't understand and did not try to, taken as I was by her nakedness and by the sight on occasion of the dark swatch of hair between her legs. It was all arousal and secrecy and illicitness and really nothing else.
This I did for a week, as I said, and then I stopped. Simply one night, draped again in blankets, I went to the window with my opera glasses, saw the lights on across the vacant space. For a while I saw no one. And then for no particular reason I turned and got into bed with my wife, warm and smelling of brandy and sweat and sleep under her blankets, and went to sleep myself, never thinking to look through the window again.
Though one afternoon a week after I had stopped watching through the window, I left my desk in a moment of frustration and pointless despair, and stalked out into the winter daylight and up along the row of fashionable businesses where the old buildings were being restyled as dress shops and successful artists' galleries. I walked right to the river, clogged then with great squares of gray ice. I walked on to the university section, nearly to where my wife was at that hour working. And then, as the light was failing, I started back toward my street, my face hard with cold, my shoulders stiff, my gloveless hands frozen and red. As I turned a corner to take a quicker route back to my block, I found that I was unexpectedly passing before the building into which I had for days been spying. Something about it made me know it, though I'd never been aware of walking past there before, or even seen it in daylight. And just at that moment, letting herself into the building's tall front door, was the woman I had watched for those several nights and taken pleasure and undoubtedly secret consolation from. I knew her face, naturallysmall and round and, as I saw, impassive. And to my surprise though not to my chagrin, she was old. Possibly she was seventy or even older. A Chinese, dressed in thin black trousers and a thin black coat, inside which she must've been as cold as I was. Indeed, she must've been freezing. She was carrying plastic bags of groceries slung to her arms and clutched in her hands. When I stopped and looked at her she turned and gazed down the steps at me with an expression I can only think now was indifference mingled with just the smallest recognition of threat. She was old, after all. I might suddenly have felt the urge to harm her, and easily could've. But of course that was not my thought. She turned back to the door and seemed to hurry her key into the lock. She looked my way once more, as I heard the bolt shoot profoundly back. I said nothing, did not even look at her again. I didn't want her to think my mind contained what it did and also what it did not. And 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.
Where he stopped for the red light on busy Sheridan Road, Wales watched a woman fall down in the snow. A sudden loss of footing on the slick, walked-over hummock the plows had left at the crosswalk. Must be old, Wales thought, though it was dark and he couldn't see her face, only her fallbackwards. She wore a long gray, man's coat and boots and a knitted cap pulled down. Or else, of course, she was drinking, he supposed, watching her through his salted windshield as he waited. She could be younger, too. Younger and drinking.
Wales was driving to The Drake to spend the night with a woman named Jena, a married woman whose husband had done colossally well in real estate. Jena had taken a suite in The Drake for a weekto paint. She was forty. She had her husband's permission. Theyshe and Waleshad done this five nights in a row now. He wanted it to go on.
Wales had worked abroad for fourteen years, writing for various outletsin Barcelona, Stockholm, Berlin. Always in English. He'd lately realized he'd been away too long, had lost touch with things American. But a friend from years ago, a reporter he'd known in London, had called and said, come back, come home, come to Chicago, teach a seminar on exactly what it's like to be James Wales. Just two days a week, for a couple of months, then back to Berlin. "The Literature of the Actual," his friend who'd become a professor had said, and laughed. It was funny. Like Hegel was funny. None of the students took it too seriously.
The woman who'd fallenold, young, drunk, sober, he wasn't surehad gotten to her feet now, and for some reason had put one hand on top of her head, as if the wind was blowing. Traffic rushed in front of her up Sheridan Road, accumulating speed behind headlights. Tall sixties apartment blocksa long file of them, all with nice viewsseparated the street from the lake. It was early March. Wintry.
The stoplight stayed red for Wales's lane, though the oncoming cars began turning in front of him in quick procession onto Ardmore Street. But the woman who'd fallen and had her hand on her head took this moment to step out into the thoroughfare. And for some lucky reason the driver in the nearest lane, the lane by the curb, slowed and came to a stop for her. Though the woman never saw this, never sensed she had, by taking two, perhaps three unwise steps, put herself in danger. Who knows what's buzzing in that head, Wales thought, watching. A moment ago she was lying in the snow. A moment before that everything had been fine.
The cars opposite continued turning hurriedly onto Ardmore Street. And it was the cars in this lanethe middle turning lanewhose drivers did not see the woman as she stepped uncertainly, farther into the street. Though it seemed she did see them, because she extended the same hand that had been touching her head and held it palm outward, as if she expected the turning cars to stop as she stepped into their lane. And it was one of these cars, a dark van, resembling a small spaceship (and, Wales thought, moving too fast, much faster than reasonable under the conditions), one of these speeding cars that hit the woman flush-on, bore directly into her side like a boat ramming her, never thinking of brakes, and in so doing knocked her not up into the air or under the wheels or onto its non-existent hood, but sloughed her to the side and onto the roadchanged her in an instant from an old, young, possibly drunk, possibly sober woman in a gray man's coat, into a collection of assorted remnants on a frozen pavement.
Dead, Wales thoughtnot five feet from where he and his lane now began to pass smartly by, the light having gone green and horns having commenced behind. In his side mirror he saw the woman's motionless body in the road (he was already a half block beyond the scene). The street was congested both ways, more car horns were blaring. He saw that the van, its taillights brilliant red, had stopped, a figure was rushing back into the road, arms waving crazily. People were hurrying from the bus stop, from the apartment buildings. Traffic was coming to a halt on that side.
He'd thought to stop, but stopping wouldn't have helped, Wales thought, looking again into the mirror from a half block farther on. A collection of shadowy people stood out on the pavement, peering down. He couldn't see the woman. Though no one was kneeling to assist herwhich was a sure sign. His heart began rocketing. Cold sweat rose on his neck in the warm car. He was suddenly jittery. It's always bad to die when you don't want to. That had been the motto of a man named Peter Swayzee he'd known in Spaina photographer, a silly man who was dead now, shot to pieces covering a skirmish in East Africa, someplace where the journalists expected to be protected. He himself had never done thatcovered a war or a skirmish or a border flare-up or a firefight. He had no wish for that. It was reckless. He preferred the parts that weren't war. Culture. And he was now in Chicago.
Turning south onto the Outer Drive along the lake, Wales began to go over what seemed remarkable about the death he'd just witnessed. Some way he felt now seemed to need resolving, unburdening. It was always important to tabulate one's responses.
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