"A Multitude of Sins" by Richard Ford

The author of "Independence Day" and "The Sportswriter" delves into the troubled soul of the maritally challenged, middle-aged male.

By Amy Reiter
Published February 21, 2002 3:30PM (EST)

Does anyone capture the troubled soul of the maritally challenged, middle-aged, upper-middle-class male as well as Richard Ford?

Yes, well, except for John Updike. For, like Updike's Rabbit, Frank Bascombe, the subject of Ford's popular novels "The Sportswriter" and "Independence Day," has come to represent a certain type. He invariably pops to mind when one meets a fellow in roughly his situation: no longer young, no longer married, no longer altogether connected with the world and somewhat mystified by this, though, touchingly, still in there trying.

Frank Bascombe also returns to mind often while reading Ford's new collection of short stories, "A Multitude of Sins," in which the author looks at adultery from any number of perspectives, though many of those appear to be mere millimeters apart. So preoccupied is the author with marital infidelity, in fact, that the book's title is something of a misnomer. It could more accurately have been called "One Sin: A Multitude of Sinners."

Distraction, disconnection and a regretful distance from wives, lovers, parents and children, the people to whom one most longs to be close, are the themes repeated in the frustrated fugues within Ford's troubled souls. He returns to the same intense, complex emotional chord so often, in fact, that it begins to resound in different ways. At first it is hesitant and lovely, then more direct, growing increasingly insistent, then downright irritating, then, if we can stand it, so familiar we can pick apart its elements as if they are thoughts and feelings of our own.

Whether Ford himself had this trajectory in mind is unclear. His repetition may simply indicate a woeful lack of range; he sounds his note and he sounds it often. In "Privacy," a man's one-sided relationship with a distant woman glimpsed through the window of his cold apartment sets his marriage on its inevitable path toward disappointment and disaffection. In "Quality Time," two lovers (one married) reach out to each other but, nevertheless, remain just ... tantalizingly ... beyond each other's reach.

In "Calling," a young man longs to make contact with his dandy, dissolute father, who has abandoned his family for a male lover. In "Puppy," a man tries to care for a lost dog, but ultimately finds himself as disconnected from it as he is from his own (adulterous) wife. In "Reunion," a man confronts the husband of a woman with whom he has had an affair. In both "Under the Radar" and "Charity," a spouse reacts to the sense of alienation brought on by -- you guessed it -- the confession of an affair.

Ford's variations on this theme are remarkably unvaried. He returns to favorite images and observations entirely too often: the animal needlessly, cruelly injured (sometimes killed, sometimes merely maimed, sometimes just missed) by a speeding car or a hunter's bullet, the cold familiarity of an unfamiliar hotel room. A few too many of his characters are lawyers -- some high-born and high-powered, some scrappy and selfless. And one finds oneself anticipating each character's reactions and inclination to express them in such startlingly similar terms.

Nevertheless, Ford is particularly skilled at expressing a certain sense of disembodiment. In "Charity," he puts it this way: "While Tom was talking ... she was actually experiencing a peculiar sense of weightlessness and near disembodiment, as though she could see herself listening to Tom from a comfortable but slightly dizzying position high up around the red, scrolly, Chinese-looking crown molding. The more Tom talked, the less present, the less substantial, the less anything she felt. If Tom could've gone on talking ... Nancy realized she might just have disappeared entirely."

It is just this sense of disembodiment that Ford evokes in his reader. One has the feeling that one is floating above his characters, watching them from a distance, able to predict their patterns, movements and impulses, appreciating their subtle differences in color and pace. His language laps at one's feet and lulls with its repetitive rhythm, every slight shift and change like subtle syncopation.

Our next pick: Five women, including the ghost of a teenage chambermaid, find freedom in the anonymity of a luxury hotel

Amy Reiter

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